Land of entrapment

A conversation with Charles Bowden — sometimes-controversial chronicler of late-empire shortsightedness and distemper — is a stone-cold reminder that the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are the great deprogrammer. They will strip first your comfortable white-people assumptions about the difference between cops and criminals, armies and gangs. And then, if you’re really paying attention — observing and listening instead of projecting your fears, prejudices, or unjustifiable optimism — you will begin to perceive a new paradigm, in which the institutions you thought you knew (your military, your corporations) merge, factionalize, and warp in the fevered pressure of one of the world’s largest, best-armed, least-regulated human marketplaces.

The author of the groundbreaking drug-war chronicle Down by the River has a new book out, created in partnership with photographer Julián Cardona and published by University of Texas Press, that documents the complex human and financial relationships at the heart of what we call the immigration issue, without resorting to simplistic explanations or moralizing. It’s lyrical as much as reportorial, and although its attempts to weave Mexico’s history of failed popular revolutions into a contemporary narrative are only sporadically successful, the whole makes a powerful argument that we can’t begin to address our mutual future until we fully embrace the contradictory, complex Siamese twin attached to our Southern hip. Bowden (an aural ringer for cinematic Westerner Sam Elliott) spoke with the Current last week by telephone.

For you, what defines society — the elements that make up a society that seems sort of comfortable, that you’d want to be in?

Law and government that responds to the citizens and the society and protects human rights and property ... and life. The antithesis of, say, Ciudad Juarez, which as we speak, I think we’re just about to 1,150 dead this year.

That’s right.

They’ve killed, so far, eight today, but I haven’t checked the audio for a while. Yesterday afternoon they put six guys up against the wall of a gymnasium, and just machine-gunned ’em, probably.

Do you think that there’s an even larger number that’s unaccounted for?

Yes. Let me put it this way: Every time the army announces yet a new innovation, then the numbers drop in half the following month, but the killing, I think, remains constant, they just hide the bodies. If you want to know what I think. Like the army arrived in late March, when there there were 117 murders, and then in April there were 52. Then in May it went back to 120, then in June 140. And then by August, I don’t know, it was 246. The army announced a new initiative, then in September it’s 115, 120. And now we’re past that for the first two weeks in October.

You know here, police will make the excuse that some people because they’re involved in the crime at some level they’re not as deserving of protection or intervention as “innocent” citizens.

The general running this said everyone dead is one less criminal; he said that publicly. There’s a magic in Mexico: If you get murdered, you’re dirty. That way you explain why the other person’s dead. And so, in a sense, it’s like imagine The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the movie; you don’t know who’s dirty. But when you pick up the paper every morning and see who’s dead, you say, ah, Jose, I thought he was a nice guy; turns out he was sucio.

Innocent until proven dead?

Well, that’s the way it works psychologically. I `covered` sex crimes for three years for a paper, and when I did sex crimes, every woman I knew — you know I’d have a story on some rape or something — if we had coffee, would ask me details. and it slowly dawned on me what was happening: They were proving it couldn’t happen to them. Those were the details they wanted to know: Ah, she was in a bar. That kind of thing. What I’m telling you, this is a very human reaction, to prove it can’t be you.

That’s part of what you’re seeing in Mexico. but the fact is it’s gotten too big to sustain that. There’s a new stress in Juarez, because the killings are just everywhere; everyone. I know people there, and I’ve been talking to them for months, and they’re getting less vigorous, these explanations. Well, you know some of this; in Mexico, everything is explained. Before you can finish your beer, the other person has a paper napkin out, drawing arrows and boxes — they do. If you have two beers, the entire napkin goes black with this diagram, because there has to be a meaning to this. Frankly, I think it’s the result of a society without quality information. If you don’t have information you can trust, you live in a culture of rumor. If you read about the former Soviet Union, that’s how it operated. Everything was chisme, rumor, because there was no source of real information. The Soviet newspapers everybody knew lied, the television lied, the radio lied, they kept rewriting your encyclopedia and history books, erasing people from photographs and that. In some ways, Mexico’s like that. It’s hard to find out exactly what’s happening. Juarez, if you want to go there, the reporters are increasingly reluctant to cover the murders, because they’re getting real death threats.

And real death, too, in some cases.

Well, that’s true. The information on these killings, if you go back to the clips, had higher quality in January than it has now. In January, until well into the spring, the reporters were leaving the Diario office, getting in their cars and going to the murder scene — because I’d run into them there. Now they don’t do that; they just take the police report. I know, even though I can’t prove it, but I know that the military has come twice to the newspaper and told them, You know, we read your paper and we think you’re actually working for the cartel. Well, in Mexico that means we’ll kill you if you don’t stop this. And so, yeah, the press there is in recession as far as information.

... Now to be fair, in a city like Juarez, everybody knows somebody in the life. There’s at least 100,000 people that are employed in what we call drugs. And so it’s everywhere. They did a study —that guy Victor Clark Alfaro at `San Diego State University` — he did a study last spring where he found 20,000 retail outlets in Tijuana for drugs. Now, it’s higher in Juarez. One of the dirty little secrets that nobody will report is that the consumption of what we call drugs — marijuana, cocaine, etc. — has exploded in Mexico. There’s a huge domestic market now.

You talk about the truck drivers in the book in particular who have to use it to get through their shifts.

Oh, yeah, they’re all on cocaine — or polvo mágico, magic powder. Yeah, they were forthright; it’s the only way they could function. Now, you could say they’re drug addicts, but, you know, it’s like saying high-end people in our country are addicted to antidepressants because they’re all on them. We’re a walking pharmacy when you get at a certain level of our society. Only they go to their doctor — that’s their drug dealer — for mood-altering drugs. And they’re taking them for the same reason a poor person in a barrio is either getting drunk or taking drugs: to make themselves feel better. I used to have this argument with the DEA. Listen, the reason people take drugs is because it makes them feel good, better than what society’s provided them. And you can’t talk about a “war on drugs” unless you understand why people use them.

There is also a desire in the immigration debate to separate immigration from the drug issue, but ...

That’s bullshit ... you got a one-word answer. Now, once upon a time, they were separate, but it’s very simple why they’re not now: Wetbacks got too valuable. Human cargo got to be worth a lot of money: tens of millions. The second reason is, to move people, you’re going to move them down the same routes you use to move kilos. I mean, if you’re running caravans of cocaine or something through the desert, you’re not going to let people draw attention to your route that you don’t control. So this is just logic. So, there is no separation now. I was talking to a drug dealer who also moves people — he’s in the book — he told me, look, an illegal Mexican’s just a kilo that can walk. Cause the funny thing about the people-smuggling, as opposed to drug-smuggling — if I move a load, let’s say I’m moving 600 pounds of cocaine, 300 kilos, and the Feds catch me? They keep it. Every time. But if I’m moving 30 Mexicans and they catch them, they move them right back to where they started and give them back to me. And if you go back there to where they dump them, the coyotes are standing there with cell phones, collecting their pollos for the next shot. Well, isn’t that a great business, where they return your merchandise?

I think part of the reason people make that argument is to fight the militarization of the border. You know, let’s stop treating it like it’s a war; let’s treat it like it’s a human and economic issue.

Look, it’s obviously an economic issue. I’ve yet to find one Mexican in my life that has gone through the wire and gone to Chicago for the beaches; they’re only moving for the money, and they’re only moving because Mexico is increasingly an economic crater. Let me put it this way: No Mexican has come north that qualifies as a threat under Homeland Security. I told someone in a speech at a college here yesterday, I said, look, you can be against illegal immigration or you can be for it, but what you have to understand is none of these people are coming up here to blow up your building; they’re coming up here to clean it. The other thing is, if you want to be rational, if you’re running a business worth $50 billion a year — which is a conservative estimate of how much hard currency Mexico earns by selling drugs to the United States — would you let somebody do a little gig moving some towelheads who want to blow up the World Trade Center through your territory, and threaten your $50-billion business? The Mexican border is not where terrorists are going to come through, nor have they. They’ve landed at our airports. Why would they walk through 60 miles of burning desert?

There’s an exchange you have in the book for a radio show when you’re sitting down on the border ... `the reporter` says what do we do about this problem, and you say, I’m sorry, what’s the problem?

Yeah, I say, What’s the problem? This is a process. The border patrol has been able to expand to 20,000 people by next year; it’s an industry. Boeing and these outfits are gonna make 5, 10, 20 billion — nobody knows — fortifying the border. The coyotes three years ago our State Department said were making $10 million a year, and you know it’s higher than that. Mexico is getting rid of people it can’t employ who are sending home $20-odd billion a year. So what are you saying is the problem? What you’re looking at is a border industry called “illegal immigration,” and everybody’s making money off of it. The only people who really suffer are the people going through this middle passage: the illegal Mexicans who are powerless, uneducated, who are coming north to survive and feed their families. They have a rough ride. •

Words by Charles Bowden
Photographs by Julián Cardona
University of Texas Press
$50, 285 pages, hardcover