Yesterday was the birthday of Cesar Chavez, the heroic leader of the Mexican migrant workers throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Mr. Chavez would have been 84 years old; he passed away in 1993.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, through non-violence, Cesar Chavez fought for immigrants, working people, and the dignity of those who do the jobs we Americans think we are too good for. I read the notice of his birthday with the ironic thought that I am glad that he is not alive to see what has happened to towns like Juarez and Tijuana and to some extent, Mexico itself. That through the bloody vagaries of the drug wars and the human trafficking, Mr. Chavez’s country has devolved to an almost primal state of insanity and murder.
Of course, Mexico had help getting here. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to lift impoverished Mexicans out of their desperate state, brought only more poverty by paying stoop-labor and starvation wages in the maquila-style factories scarcely paying more than 40 dollars a week for 50 hours of work. The maquilas hire women almost exclusively for the seamstress piece-work and circuitry jobs, because their smaller hands and fingers are better suited to the fine, close work.
It also helps that they are more docile than the men–easier to exploit and jerk around.
A great many Mexicans believe the mass murders of women in and around Juarez has its genesis in the bosom of the Capitalist system of the Maquladoras. Hire the women and they become the family breadwinner, while the men are left to the streets and the narco-cartels like La Linnea, the Aztecas and Los Rebeldes.
When the wives get home and assert some new-found independence, the men kill them. Alcohol and methamphetamine-fueled rages are often cited as the cause. Some of the younger women go the party-girl route and are murdered by the cartels if they hear too much or say too much or are perceived as indiscreet–any goddamned reason, really. Women are expendable in Juarez. You can kill them all day and not get arrested. . .men too.
In Charles Bowden’s great, if grim, story of Juarez, Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, the author carefully presents several stories of individual Mexican citizens and their fates until a portrait from whole human cloth emerges of a city in the grips of a genocidal insanity. What is remarkable about this account is how Bowden was able to complete a whole portrait of Juarez with so few facts available. It is just good feet on the ground journalism; talking to one person at a time, until he has the story. It is also worth mentioning that many, many journalists have been murdered in Juarez. In fact, Bowden dedicated this book to one of them:
For Armando Rodriguez, who was gunned down on November 13th, 2008, after filing 907 stories on the murders of that calendar year.
Bowden reports that people used to keep “lists” of the dead and then the list-keepers became targets themselves; the killers knowing that the most dangerous thing to these predators were facts. Bowden’s careful crafting of these stories help us understand the city of Juarez’s descent into madness.
One of his subjects is a hitman, now eroded by drugs and alcohol and perhaps his own conscience. In his desperation, he tells Bowden, “You don’t know me. No one can forgive me for what I have done.”
Mr. Bowden also tells us the story of “Miss Sinaloa,” a party girl from the west coast of Mexico (Sinaloa) who, in becoming involved with drug dealers, is used, drugged and raped into a state of madness, finding sanctuary (such as it is) at a makeshift asylum in the desert run by a worldly convict known as the “Pastor” who has taken it upon himself to care for all of the broken psyches of Juarez.
He also details stories of murdered police officers–many in bed with the dealers–and tells stories of police that refuse to leave the station for fear of drive-bys, and with good reason; over 40 officers were murdered in one calendar year.
After reading Bowden’s account, one wonders why the government has not appealed to the U.N., for troops. Their own army is clearly out-gunned and probably out-manned. Mexicans I know say it is out of fear for their sovereignty. Asking an occupying force, especially a foreign one, to enforce order is never an ideal choice. But clearly President Calderon no longer has control of his country, nor can he protect its citizens. It is the wild west.
I had planned a trip to Juarez. Two men I know in Texas, who were former employees of Blackwater–a security firm who famously deployed soldiers-for hire in Iraq–turned down top-dollar to accompany me for two afternoons. One of them telling me he’d “rather be in downtown Baghdad, than fucking Juarez.” A high school friend, Kevin Crowder, whose company outfits security devices for high-risk places in the world told me he would feel safer in Qatar; that Juarez was probably the most dangerous place on earth. To quote Charles Bowden’s book, “They kill people on the way to the mall.”
We have a murky relationship with Mexico, each country a dark mirror of the other, each country in possession of what the other wants. . .each country, sadly, the worst thing possible for the other.