True Grit

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields BY Charles Bowden. Nation Books. . .

The cover of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

IN THINKING ABOUT a book to recommend now, I shy away from anything programmatic, because endless punditry is part of what brought us here. But one template for understanding our current situation is Charles Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields (2010). Writing in December of 2009, a year when the number of murders in the city exceeded 2,400, Bowden offers a poetic, brutal description of the centerless violence that has gripped Juárez since December 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón declared a "war on drugs," to be led by the Mexican army.

At one level, Bowden doesn't try to understand what goes on inside the toxic terrarium of Juárez, where no rules apply and fear and violence are the only constants. But he's very clear about the larger political and economic forces that have wrought this situation. Rejecting the police-procedural narrative that would place the blame on any one social condition or group—the drug cartels, local corruption—he insists that the causes are structural. For the bloodshed to stop, Bowden writes, drugs would have to be legalized, nafta would have to be revised to provide Mexican workers with a living wage and trade-union protection, and the US government would need to cut off special funding for the Mexican army, "the largest criminal group in Mexico and a growing player in the drug industry." His analysis shows the value of looking at the macro situation and not being distracted by smaller controversies or debates. And it points to the hollowness of policies and slogans (such as "Stronger Together") that prescribe solutions for a "we" that globalized capitalism ensures cannot exist.

Bowden, who died at age sixty-nine in 2014, grew up in Tucson and spent most of his life reporting from cities along the Mexican border. Famously "colorful" and tough, he practiced a rigorous, principled form of gonzo journalism, stripped of that genre's narcissism. In 2010, he said he hated the term journalist, calling it a "gutless lying word for candy asses. I'm a reporter. . . . I go out and report. I state the truth and give evidence." Bowden's work was always on the side of truth. As he said in 2010, "There are only two kinds of writing, true and false. If writing is true, it endures, even if it's badly written." This is worth remembering.

Chris Kraus is a novelist, critic, and editor. Her biography of Kathy Acker, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: A 20th-Century Fable, will be published this year by Semiotext(e).