IT STARTS WITH A HEADLESS BODY dangling from an underpass called Bridge of Dreams. A bed sheet unfurls beside it, sending a message from one drug cartel to another. Hours before firemen come to cut down the corpse, venerated British journalist Ed Vulliamy arrives on the scene. He takes everything in, noting how the straps beneath its armpits "creak"; how its feet "flap in the wind." Yet he is equally transfixed by the crowd that has gathered in "unsurprised silence." They gawk "at this hideous, buckled thing, perhaps fearing, if they leave, they might take with them the curse of that which was done."
Readers of Vulliamy's Amexica: War Along the Borderline quickly find themselves in a similar quandary. Page after page depicts horrifying violence rendered in grisly, though compelling, detail. As Vulliamy (disturbingly) notes, "the feral physical cruelty of the slaughter accentuates the borderland's sensuality and libido."
The spotlighted border is, of course, the 2,100 miles shared between the United States and Mexico, a region he calls Amexica (which is pronounced "ah-MESH-ica," and no, he's not being cute: the word has ancient Aztec origins). By the time his book went to press, more than 23,000 Mexicans had fallen prey to narco violence in four years, mostly along the border. "Amexica is a battlefield, but a battlefield wrapped in everyday life," Vulliamy writes. "And for all its inquietude, the border is every bit as charismatic, complex, and irresistible as it is fearful and terrifying."
After his macabre preamble, Vulliamy gives a basic primer on the history of Mexican drug cartels. There's the so-called "Mexican Godfather," Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who founded the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1970s and swiftly became the world's biggest narco trafficker. There's Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán, kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel who escaped maximum security prison in a laundry cart in 2001, inspiring scores of narcocorridos, or drug ballads. There's Los Zetas, who boast a highly trained paramilitary army of 4,000, and have created such a climate of fear that many Mexicans won't even utter their name.
Ever since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and launched his military offensive against the cartels, Vulliamy says, drug trafficking has corporatized. Cartels now "outsource" their dirty work, franchising city streets and hiring freelance assassins. Vulliamy calls this "the first real 21st century war, because it is about, in the end, nothing ... The narco war is fought for the accoutrement ... of postmodern social kudos ... the ability to show off the right labels, brands, and products." He quotes border scholar Cecilia Ballí: "It's a social performance, a show of power, a very masculine form of power. They are saying, 'We are somebodies,' in a country where that was not supposed to be possible for men of their class."
Despite the Obama Administration's recent admission of the United States' "coresponsibility" for Mexico's drug war, it has yet to effectively combat it. In 2007, the federal government set aside $833 million to build a "virtual fence" between the nations, but it's hard to imagine a wall that could halt a trade raking in $323 billion a year. Vulliamy quotes sociologist Howard Campbell's suggestion ...