Inside the World’s Deadliest City

Drug-related violence has torn apart Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez

Drive across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, and you’ll enter the most dangerous city in the world: Ciudad Juárez, where more than 6,000 people have been murdered since 2008, including more than 1,700 this year. Once a fast-growing lab for free-trade initiatives, Juárez now produces drugs and dead bodies, as thousands of Mexican soldiers and increasingly brazen gang members roam the city of just over 1 million.

As the killings become more grisly and frequent, questioning their cause has become almost suicidal. At least 30 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since 2006, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That makes Charles Bowden’s new book Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (Nation Books, $28)—whose most chilling subject is an experienced sicario, or hitman—all the more remarkable, and important. For while authorities on both sides of the border explain the violence engulfing Juárez with familiar “war on drugs” rhetoric, Bowden argues it is the predictable result of the North American Free Trade Agreement’s failure, endemic poverty and America’s appetite for drugs.

“I kept trying to never go back,” says the 65-year-old Tucson, Ariz., resident. “And then I would realize that I couldn’t walk away.”

Beyond the violence, what surprised you most about Juárez during your time there?

That it keeps functioning. This is a city that’s had 25 percent of housing abandoned. Had at least 40 percent of its businesses slam their doors shut. That has lost at least 100,000 jobs. That has had an explosion of violence, and there are still about 1 million people that get out of bed every morning and try to go about a normal life. There is a part of me that thinks I’m seeing a new kind of human community come into being that I don’t want to face and that I don’t have a name for. A city where murder, violence, kidnapping, torture, robbery and extortion are the economy. This is a new kind of city.

You write that free-trade schemes “have failed and in Juárez are producing poor people and dead people faster than any other product.” What is NAFTA’s relationship to Juárez’s descent into violence?

In the late ’60s the Border Industrialization Program, the prototype of what became NAFTA, was established in Juárez. At the beginning, wages were higher than the people of Juárez had experienced, but after 40 years, they have steadily declined. Factories employ children. NAFTA produced enormous squatter barrios of people who are employed by American factories and couldn’t make a living wage. NAFTA destroyed light and middle industry in Mexico, and it destroyed peasant agriculture.

And people then turn to the city’s illegal economy?

It’s not quite that simple. The drug economy in Mexico exists because of U.S. policy—the prohibition of drugs here. It has grown and now injects $30 billion to $50 billion of hard currency into the Mexican economy through criminal organizations. But what has happened in Juárez is the growth of domestic drug consumption. Various clinicians there estimate this city of a little more than a million now has 150,000 to 200,000 addicts.

Until the fall of 1997, it was difficult to buy any drug in Juárez, except possibly marijuana. Today, there are 500 to 900 street gangs in Juárez. These gangs are now killing each other over who controls the street corners to sell to this mass population that’s now using drugs.

Would legalizing drugs on either side of the border do any good?

Yes, I’m in favor of legalizing all drugs, for the following reasons: One, I don’t believe the state has the right to tell any human being what they can ingest. Two, the war on drugs in the United States is more 40 than years old and has created the largest per capita prison population in the world, a huge police state to search for drugs, and its achievement has been that every illegal drug is now cheaper and more available and of higher quality than when the war on drugs began.

Is the war on drugs salvageable?

Look at the current war in Mexico: We are now looking at 28,000 Mexicans executed since President Felipe Calderón declared war on traffickers in December 2006. There is not a single report by any federal agency of any place in the United States where this war has created a drug shortage, disruption in drug distribution or an increase in price. So if this is about fighting drug organizations, 28,000 Mexicans are dead for nothing.

There are three things that have to be faced: One, the war is lost. Two, the only solution is legalization. Three, you have to legalize all drugs, because if you merely legalize marijuana, the same criminal organizations will still fatten off the other drugs.

A July report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says there’s no way for the State Department to measure the effectiveness of the Merida Initiative, which gives more than $1 billion to the Mexican government.

Oh yes, there is. I’ll give you some statistics. These are not honest statistics, since they come from the Mexican government, but whatever the errors in these numbers, they are still startling.

In 2009, more than 8,000 Mexicans were executed in this Mexican government initiative against the drug industry. The tool for attacking the drug industry was the Mexican army—the largest criminal gang in Mexico, with about 200,000 members. In 2009, the Mexican army suffered 35 dead. If you believe that’s a war on drugs, you’re on drugs. This is a war for drugs. The Mexican government couldn’t possibly wipe out the drug industry because the country would go bankrupt.

How is it possible that El Paso, Texas, is one of the safest cities in America, with falling crime rates, while Juárez lies across the Rio Grande?

Well, it’s a question that’s ignored, because one of the constant themes is that violence is spilling across the border. That’s a lie. It seems that if you put people in a city where the police are not totally corrupted, where they’re secure in their property, where they can get a job that pays a decent wage, they don’t kill each other

What will Juárez be like in 25 years?

I don’t know, but it can’t go on this way. Obviously you can’t have people abandoning their houses and have your basic “product” be murder. There is no future in this, but I can’t see anything that’s causing it to end.

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