Reading Charles Bowden in Júarez

Charles Bowden, a prolific writer and critical observer of the U.S.-Mexico border, died at home in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Saturday. I was introduced to Bowden’s work on my first night in Ciudad Júarez, when I visited in January 2011. The passage below, an excerpt from Amor and Exile, attempts to capture the experience of reading Bowden in Júarez.

An earlier version of the story on Bowden’s death in The Arizona Republic closed with a fitting tribute, a line Bowden once dedicated to another writing hero, Edward Abbeey: “R.I.P., but I doubt it.”


Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Amor and Exile: The Waiver Scene

Betty Campbell has a mischievous, sardonic grin for a 77-year-old nun. My first night in Ciudad Juárez, she offered me her cluttered bedroom, insisting that she preferred sleeping on a mat on the living room floor so she could hear sounds from the street—the sounds of gun shots, peeling tires, and screams, maybe not every night, but frequently enough.

I threw my bag down in the quiet, cold back bedroom at Casa Tabor, Sister Betty’s house in one of Juárez’s northwestern colonias—the unpoliced and forgotten dirt and cobble street neighborhoods that house tens of thousands of underpaid factory workers and urban poor and now drug dealers and gangsters as well. It’s a neighborhood of concrete block houses of mixed quality—some with iron gates and red roof tiles, others run down and abandoned with tin roofs, boarded up windows and holes in the walls. The modest Casa Tabor stood out with its neat yard and pink hued adobe façade.

Charles Bowden
Charles Bowden (1945-2014) / Jack Dykinga via Simon & Schuster

Later that first evening, with a warm smile and slightly manic glint in her eye, Betty handed me the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine folded back to Charles Bowden’s “The Sicario,” an intense interview with a Juárez hit man that Bowden later turned into a book. At first I thought that Betty was trying to haze me into the fraternity of fear that has gripped this town since about 2008, when murders began to skyrocket. But the gleam in her eyes also served to inoculate me from that fear with her absolute faith in the resiliency and creativity of poor people in Latin America.

I wrote “sicario” in my little notebook, knowing it would come in handy over the next couple of days. Mexican sicarios have gotten the upper hand on reporters in recent years, enforcing a regime of censorship through fear at Mexico’s still spunky and highly competitive newspapers. Ten journalists were killed in Mexico in 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked Mexico among the top ten deadliest countries for reporters every year between 2004 and 2011.

At least 29 people were murdered in Juárez during my five days there in January 2011. That statistic comes from the “Frontera List,” an archive that New Mexico State University librarian Molly Molloy maintains, dutifully recording Mexican media crime reports and relevant commentary on the drug wars, mainly from Juárez. I read Molloy’s dispatches every day for a few months, but then had to stop reading every single report because they were becoming too easy to dismiss, as in: There were only three murders in Juárez today.

For the Harper’s story, Bowden, an American writer who has followed drugs and crime along the border for decades, tracked down a former Mexican police officer who had worked for years as a hit man for narcos, kidnapping and executing and burying people across the country. The man was in the U.S., hiding from the drug cartels. Bowden sat with him at an anonymous motel, recording his life story in gruesome detail: the stranglings—his expertise—the chemicals he used to literally disappear bodies, the anonymous holes in the ground where mass graves still lie, undiscovered by authorities. The cocaine and whiskey and paranoia and the eventual salvation that came with being hunted himself.

Betty warned me before I read the piece that it’s a searing account, essentially damning to the Mexican authorities in passages like this one:

They hardly ever do police work; they are working full-time for narcos. This is his real home for almost twenty years, a second Mexico that does not exist officially and that coexists seamlessly with the government. In his many transports of human beings for bondage, torture, and death, he is never interfered with by the authorities. He is part of the government, the state policeman with eight men under his command. But his key employer is the organization, which he assumes is the Juárez cartel, but he never asks since questions can be fatal.

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