IN THE WINTER OF 2009 I took a job as a “fixer” — this is a nice way to say errand girl — for an American writer on assignment in Mexico City. The writer didn’t speak Spanish or know his way around the capital, and I was supposed to be his translator, secretary, and research assistant all rolled into one. The most important part of the job, though, was to scout interview subjects. Ideally these would be kingpins on the DEA’s Most Wanted list; failing that, insiders with something brilliant to say on the Mexican drug war. I had no idea who these wizards might be, or how to find them. But I started asking around, and this was how I first heard the name of Sergio González Rodríguez.
Reporters, even the most established, can be crazily guarded. Here was a guy who’d already published four books, including an influential one on border violence, received both literary prizes and death threats for his work, and who wrote a column for the national daily Reforma. Why would he want to share this turf with a couple of outsiders? But González Rodríguez agreed to meet us and (winkingly, I thought) chose the patio of the Four Seasons hotel, with its menu of fancy cocktails and uniformed wait staff, as the place. You couldn’t miss the contrast between the setting and the subject matter when González Rodríguez called over the waiter for another round of drinks and then, smiling, pulled out a black-and-white picture to pass around the table. It was going to be the cover of his forthcoming book, El hombre sin cabeza (The Headless Man). It showed a man’s bloody severed head being served on a white plate.
González Rodríguez got his start as an arts writer, but his best-known book, Huesos en el Desierto (Bones in the Desert), is a reported account of the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s and early 2000s, and is considered a seminal investigation into the national tragedy. Roberto Bolaño reportedly consulted González Rodríguez when he was writing 2666, his famous novel staged in a fictionalized version of the city, and even admired him enough to give him a cameo. And, notably, both men employ the same antiseptic style to catalogue deaths. The result reads like a police blotter and jars more than any stylistic flourish could.
Here is González Rodríguez in Huesos en el Desierto:
22/06/02, unidentified, resident of Fraccionamiento Paso de los Virreyes, shot in the head. 09/06/02, Carmen Ivón Ontivero Rodríguez, 13 years old, half-buried, hit in the head with a hammer and apparently raped, backyard of a building a few blocks from her house, police arrested two suspects, José González, approximately 16 years old, and Mario Martínez Martínez, 20. Lucila Dávalos Silva, 30 years old, waitress at Bar Ritz, 1.60 meters tall, medium build, light brown skin, wearing a beige bra that was pulled up, sneakers and white socks, with a pair of jeans and a blue-gray floral blouse beside her, Plaza Cervantina, intersection of Ramon Corona and Calléjon de La Mancha, center district, died over four or five hours, autopsy revealed resulted from spinal shock or separated vertebrae.
And Bolaño in 2666:
On January 15 the next dead woman turned up. Her name was Claudia Pérez Millán. The body was found on Calle Sahuaritos. The deceased was dressed in a black sweater and had two cheap rings on each hand, plus an engagement ring. She wasn’t wearing a skirt or panties, although she did have on red imitation-leather flats. She had been raped and strangled and wrapped in a white blanket, as if the killer had suddenly decided, or been obligated by circumstance, to leave it behind a dumpster on Calle Sahuaritos. …
In February María de la Luz Romero died. She was fourteen, and five foot three, with long hair down to her waist, although she planned to cut it someday soon, as she had revealed to one of her sisters. …
In March no dead women turned up in the city, but in April two appeared just a few days apart, as did the first complaints about the police, who were incapable not only of stopping the wave (or incessant drip) of sex crimes but also of apprehending the killers and restoring peace and quiet to a hardworking city.
Four hundred and twenty seven girls and women were killed in Ciudad Juárez between 1993 and 2007. The period spans the first reports of “femicides” and the first waves of drug-related “hyper-violence.” Today Ciudad Juárez is Mexico’s deadliest city. In 2008, 2,300 homicides and accidental deaths were recorded among a population of 1.3 million. After that, presumably, even the most unusual killings would simply be absorbed into the crushing statistics. By 2009, so many bodies were piling into the morgue the city was planning a new one double the size. The death toll has stayed high, too. The number of homicides this year has already passed 350.
But in The Femicide Machine, González Rodríguez’s new book, he tells us that the runaway violence isn’t necessarily new, or surprising. Ciudad Juárez is a city with a past: as an American “backyard,” a “dump-desert city,” a “metaphor for private territoriality and subsidiary domain.” This is the subject — how submission (to the U.S.) and danger (acutely in relation to the U.S.) — that he attempts to unpack. The book is a thin volume — more of an essay — and works best in tandem with Huesos en el Desierto, providing a kind of theoretical supplement to that book’s heavier journalistic lifting. Still, for those of us who might not understand the precursors to the mayhem currently plundering Mexico (or who don’t read Spanish; Huesos en el Desierto unfortunately still hasn’t been translated), this is a helpful guide, a CliffsNotes for the drug war. Despite the book’s title, González Rodríguez barely dwells on the actual femicides this time. He is much more interested in driving us to see the early murders of women in Ciudad Juárez and the gangland murders of today not as separate tragedies but stops on a continuum.
Once known as Paseo al Norte, Ciudad Juárez shares the border with El Paso, Texas. The cities are divided by a river and a fence, and if people once saw them as a fluid, connected space, these days Ciudad Juárez and El Paso are linked more by what they don’t have in common: namely, crime.
El Paso, a community of less than 1 million, consistently ranks for the lowest metropolitan homicide scores in the United States. In 2011, it logged 16 murders; in 2010, only five. Ciudad Juárez, meanwhile, is called the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere. Claims like that may be tough to verify, but there was a time last year, according to González Rodríguez, when two of every 10 drug-related murders in Mexico took place in that city. (To date, at least 45,000 people have been killed in the entire country.) The polarity of the mirror towns — their “asymmetrical relation” — is an important theme of the book, and he paints the imbalance less as a function of the current bloodshed than the genesis of it.
“Since colonial times,” he writes, “Ciudad Juárez has housed a territory of indigenous people in the process of extinction; of immigration, transience, contraband, and, often, acute violence.” More recently, an American official in Mexico in 1921, quoted in Huesos en el Desierto, grumbled about the “murders and robberies,” “sexual depravity,” and “drugs sold and consumed in heroic doses,” calling the city “a Mecca of criminals and degenerates from both sides of the border.” The quote rings sadly true today. But historically, at least, the degenerates flowed mainly in one direction: south.
Like many border towns, Ciudad Juárez thrived during Prohibition by serving liquor to American border hoppers. The wayward commerce grew into a tradition that continued into the mid-century — and on. In the 1940s, American G.I.s stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, starting going to Mexico for the cheap whores and pills and booze. But:
The 1950s were the golden age of Ciudad Juárez’s nightlife fame. The city became a fleeting space where the US tourist could dream of having a Mexican prostitute and, by symbolic displacement, all of Mexico for a moment. An extension of the Santa Fe international bridge, to El Paso, Texas, Avenida Juarez became a brittle, colorful stage: a film location that tried to mask the barbarity of the border while remaining true to the city’s tradition of delivering low-cost sexual services and entertainment.
Then, in the 1970s, a new servile industry blossomed: large-assembly plants, or maquiladoras, went up in many border towns. Mexico became the world’s top assembler, and Ciudad Juárez, nestled at the frontier’s mid-way point, became an epicenter and symbol of the boom. (Not incidentally, this is the same prime geography now inciting the drug gangs to mutual slaughter.) Over the next three decades maquiladoras “stretched out and absorbed the entire city.” Today, Ciudad Juárez has 10 major industrial developments, and hundreds of factories. NAFTA, brokered in 1994, had cemented the model, along with its basic inequalities. The vast majority of Mexican exports — more than 80 percent — are destined for American consumers, after being constructed and assembled by laborers who can hardly afford them themselves.
Between 1970 and 2000, the population of Ciudad Juárez tripled. At the last census, in 2010, 1.3 million people lived there. (There are reports that citizens lately have started to flee.) A “floating” force of workers washed in from poor towns in states like Sinaloa, Durango, Coahuila, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes. Rootless and often alone, the newcomers ordered themselves around their jobs in the industrial parks in “haphazard” and “precarious” arrangements. Industrial parks, too, became their own kind of microsystems, and the deeply impoverished urban outskirts dwarfed the city center. Cruise the margins of Ciudad Juárez today and you see junk shops and shanties that seem to go on forever: a landscape as bleak as can be. Forty percent of Ciudad Juárez residents live in extreme poverty, González Rodríguez reminds us, and many without basic services. Some drifted to the border to cross into the United States but never made it, or they left home to find work in the factories. Many were young women. Unwittingly, they provided a continuous supply of what the forensic expert Robert K. Ressler, cited by González Rodriguez, has ruthlessly termed “low-risk victims.”
According to Molly Molloy, the New Mexico State University librarian who tallies Mexican deaths, women represent only nine percent of the total recorded homicides in Ciudad Juárez averaged over the past 18 years. For a city known for ritually slain women, that might seem low. The numbers belie the sexual nature of some of the crimes, as well as the often extremely young age of the victims. (Never mind the ones who simply disappeared.) But these statistics are also curiously instructive. When it comes to murder in Mexico, the only truly useful number is how many go unsolved. The femicides, for example, have often been characterized as unexplained phenomena on a massive scale — hundreds of women raped and discarded in the desert — when their lack of investigation is the real puzzle. “There is no mystery about these murders beyond the failure of Mexican authorities to undertake an in-depth investigation,” González Rodríguez writes. Of course this isn’t only true of Ciudad Juárez. Nearly 100 percent of crimes in Mexico go unpunished. This is “the deep drama of the country — the reign of impunity and the failure of justice.”
A few weeks after my fixing job in Mexico City, I went to Ciudad Juárez for a police ride-along with a group of Mexican journalists. We climbed into a couple of blue pick-ups and drove around the city for the day. Nothing much was going on. Calderón had recently sent in thousands of troops and the city was temporarily calm. Then our caravan came to a sudden stop. A woman had been hit by a car and was lying precariously in the road, convulsing, with blood pooling beside her head. She looked maybe 18. Help was on the way, we were told, and so the caravan drove on. But about a mile down the road we came across an even more incredible scene: the hit-and-run driver pushed up against a chain-link fence by the policemen who had chased him down. A crowd had gathered, and everyone seemed surprised — buoyant — that the cops had actually caught the bad guy. More surprised, even, than by the woman broken in the street.