The Chihuahua Monster

The Chihuahua MonsterCharles Bowden is the Lannan Literary Award-winning journalist and author  who is probably the best chronicler of the America-Mexican border history working today.  His Murder City is a harrowing account of the Juarez murders as well as the narco-wars and impact of NAFTA that currently plagues the U.S. and Mexico.  His writing is letter-perfect in that he knows that these events are inextricably bound together by a perfect storm of drugs, poverty, corruption and cultural intransigence.

Murder City underlines the hopelessness and despair of the fallout of a new world being forged by murder and drugs. Bowden knows that in the face of military and police collusion with the drug trade, the only facts are that there are no facts:

You live.
You die.
You vanish from the public records.
And you become the talk of the phantom called La Gente.

La Gente refers to the chatter on everyone’s mind and lips–the thing in the air in Juarez–the names of the murdered, the lack of names of the murdered. . .the fatalistic acquiescence to the drug wars and the murdered women as a thing of the fates.  The way it is now.  Bowden writes of the murdered women and of the murdered men who also are victims to an alarming murder-rate since 1994.

His book opened my eyes to the depth of corruption in Mexico among the federal police, the army, the state police.  To say that it is systemic is to grossly understate its condition.

It is black smoke in a madhouse.  One cannot tell the good from the bad because at this point there is no such thing as right or wrong–only consequences.  It is all wau wrong, with only slightly lessening shades of dark gray.

Bowden himself, admits there are really no reliable facts, but he takes a ballpark swing and does an astonishing job of illuminating our complex blood ties and blood feuds with Mexico.

His writing is sharp and wounding and devoid of cheap sentiment.  In the face of great pain, corruption and evil, he doesn’t pretend living through it and writing about it are the same thing.  He is a canny, world-weary observer that takes individual accounts and presents them in a way that preserves a larger and more nuanced portrait of two cultures rapidly untethering from any semblance of sanity; America and Mexico, with the border being the dark side of the mirror.  I intend on reading the other books by Bowden as well–Some of the Dead are Still Breathing and Down by the River.  His writing is unpolished. ..the violence in it is as ugly as it is in life; nothing glamorized or idealized about it.  His observations are the raw ether of the real thing.

Each day 200,000 people go to work in the maquilas; most of them barely clearing 60 bucks a week.  The cost of living in Mexico is no longer dirt-cheap — it is about 85 percent of what it is here in the States.  And there is an inexhaustible  supply of  people in need of work.   The American companies, like General Electric, Levi and others got to ship jobs out of the U.S. with the tacit approval of the government in its embrace of NAFTA and guaranteed poverty for two classes of workers in two different countries–American workers who lost the jobs and Mexicans; primarily women, who had no choice but to accept the starvation wages or eat dirt.  Couple this with the immense profit of the drug trade and then ask yourself; which industry would you rather work in?

In Mexican culture, “The Day of the Dead”  is the equivalent of “All Souls Day,” a day of celebration where the dead rejoin the living to have a few drinks and laugh at their graves.  There is also the shape-shifting of man and animal, the magical realism and folk-tale redolent of a half-world between what is real and what is not.  This new Mexico is actually the new real world and its inhabitants are not the product of some magical tale, but an earthly nightmare authored by the greed of two cultures.

The more I read about the murders of the women, the deeper and darker the story becomes.  It is about the degradation of two cultures, the murder of innocents, the moral blindness of both countries and the degrading realization  that there is great profit in all of this pain.

Published in: on March 25, 2011 at 4:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Juarez Beast

In a conversation with Miguel Aragon; a young artist I know who grew up in Juarez, he told me that after the North American Free Trade Agreement, and actually long before it, American companies like GE, Levi and others scoured Mexico for cheap labor, posting notices all over the country and Central America, promising jobs–jobs in the Maquiladora-style factories.  Miguel’s own aunt has worked in the factories for no more than 30 dollars a week in Mexico for two decades.
NAFTA allowed American companies to break American labor unions and outsource their manufacturing to Mexico where labor was abundant and they could  pay poverty wages.  American politicians got behind this and the only voice out there against it was H. Ross Perot and everyone thought he was crazy.

Most of the work was for seamstresses and circuit-board assembly which meant that most, if not all, of the work was better suited to women employees who would also be more docile about being fucked around.  In the meantime, whole families moved up to the state of Chihuahua to pursue employment.  These policies left a great many men unemployed and some found a new life with the narco-mobs and the gangs.  Others drank more and nursed their anger while their wives worked at the maquiladora jobs.

Around 1993, these women started turning up dead–murdered–around human rights groups think as many as 4,000 women have been raped, murdered and discarded in the state of Chihuahua, mostly around Ciudad Juarez.

Miguel says women got hired because they had smaller fingers and could do close, fine assembly and sewing.  He also says his own culture is a big part of the problem.  He said the macho males couldn’t bear not being the breadwinner and a growing sense of independence among the women provoked violence in the men.  He told me, sadly, “It is us–we’ve done this to our own.”

Police have made relatively few arrests in these murders and former President Vincente Fox attempted to dispatch this crisis with the quote “It has been blown out of proportion –the news keeps rehashing the same three or four hundred murders.”  Really?  Even if the number were that lower number and not the 4000 women’s groups in Mexico are saying it is, it is an astonishing homicide rate for a town the size of Juarez, and that all of the victims are working women is appalling and beyond the pale.

Both Presidents Fox (and Calderon, his successor) acknowledge the Army cannot even police Mexico, with the narco-mobs and proliferation of gangs (WAY up since NAFTA) like the Aztecas, La Linnea, and Los Rebeldes.  What they’re NOT saying, and what many fear saying, is that a great much of this slaughter is domestic violence unchecked.  Men murdering their wives, girlfriends, lovers.  There have been many attempts at misdirection.  First, authorities tried to paint the victims as bar girls and prostitutes.  Then the gangs were convenient scape-goats and some of them were even guilty, which made selling this easier.  Then the omnipotent serial killer theory got passed around with the help of a bus driver who drove the route many of the victims took home.  These were all compelling scenarios…real-life boogey-men…because the truth of it is SO much more despairing and inhuman–men murdering their women in domestic quarrels, and getting away with it.  For Mexican leaders it is apparently too awful to even admit.

What I wonder in all of the speculation, is what did American companies do in order to safeguard their female employees?  Did they do anything at all?  I’ve read lots and lots of accounts and have not seen any evidence of American maquiladora-style factories doing anything to protect the young women they lured from all over Latin America to work for stoop wages.  As Americans, we bear some ownership in this furious  spate of “femicides.”  This is what happens when we allow our businesses to make people tenants in their own countries; when a population of humans can starve to death while standing outside a grocery store.  We become the beating heart of the Beast.

Published in: on March 19, 2011 at 4:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Red Bird (For the Daughters of Juarez)

The Red BirdThe term maquila, or Maquiladora, comes from a time when Mexico was a colony of Spain.  It referred to the price the Spanish paid the native Mexicans for processing grain.  Over the years, the term has come to describe the American industries that outsource piece work–mostly for the manufacture of clothing–for cheaper labor in Mexican border towns like ciudad Juarez.  Blue jeans, cheap jackets, dresses and other cut-rate garments are pieced together cheaply and quickly by the Maquildora culture.

This of one of the dubious fruits of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  American companies no longer had to pay union labor, or even a minimum wage by outsourcing these jobs, and at the same time making impoverished Mexicans tenants in their own country.

NAFTA had its many critics in the U.S. in the early 90′s before it was signed into law.  On the face of things it seemed to be good news for Mexico .  Jobs!  Never mind that it was little more than indoor stoop labor and virtually guarunteed the worker more of the same poverty.  For Mexico, economically, NAFTA was like switching seats on the Titanic.  Still, young women came in droves from Central America and South Mexico to get jobs as seamstresses.

It was shortly after the implementation of NAFTA that the murders of women around Juarez began.  I don’t mean to infer that one thing has anything to do with the other; it is just an odd circumstance of fate, economics and misjudged opportunity.

Since 1993, some 500 young women have been murdered in and around Juarez.  This is the number the Mexican government will admit to.  Others, including many human rights groups, say that this number is low–by thousands.

The intrepid reporter, Teresa Rodriguez, who made the documentary, The Daughters of Juarez, has covered the murders for 15 years.  And it isn’t as if there has not been a public outcry for  a resolution in these crimes.  Gregory Nava, the film director, and star Jennifer Lopez made a film in 2008 called, Bordertown which, considering Lopez’ considerable star power came and went without much notice.  In fact, I’m not sure it ever got a theatrical release.  I caught it on cable and found it a compelling enough to warrant real outrage.

So where is the outrage?

If 500 to 4000 young American women were slaughtered in our country, I garaun-fucking-tee there would be enormous outrage.  Hell, how long did we hear about Natalee Holloway when she went missing and was presumed dead in Aruba?  And this was one young American woman.

The cynic in me thinks that this is the case because it’s happening to poor people.  Young women with virtually no political power in their own country.  President Vincente Fox was particularly impotent in dealing with this massacre.  A great many of these crimes were attributed to the Narco-Mafias so prevalent in Mexico.  The cops live in fear of them, because they’re out-manned and out-gunned.
Still, why not turn the army loose on these fuckers…on the drug-mafias, the animal street-gangs like Los Rebeldes– when a group of criminals slaughters hundreds  of your citizens…women, who cannot defend themselves?  Well, then you hunt the fuckers down like mad dogs and shoot them in the streets.

And this is coming from a guy who is a rock-ribbed opponent of the death penalty.

The murders of these women is an act of war.  that it is a war within the borders of Mexico matters not a bit.  Send your army out and shoot the fuckers in the street.

Here’s hoping that Mexico’s new President, Felipe Calderon, has more guts than the pussy he replaced.

I know a young man from Juarez.  I met him at the University of Texas.  Miguel Aragon is a marvelous young print-maker working on his graduate degree.  Some of his images are of mangled carrion birds like crows and blackbirds.  He told me once that Juarez was like the wild west.  Before NAFTA it was more a way-station for pot mules and college kids partying from El Paso.  It is a border-town.  Once the Maquiladora culture became more firmly rooted, it became more violent, unpredictable and subsequently more poor.

This is not the Mexico I know anymore; the place I would go because the literature, painting, and ferocious landscape spoke to me.  As I re-read Bolaño’s 2666, a different country emerges; one with all of the bone-deep hatreds our own Republic was born of…one of theft, murder and the silent hopelessness of the ghosts of young women walking the dessert.

Published in: on March 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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