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 that the cartels be relabeled as the "Sinaloa-Phoenix-Denver" cartel, the "Juárez-El Paso-Chicago" cartel, and the "Gulf-Houston-Atlanta" cartel to better reflect their binational nature. This war-about-nothing is spreading, and the United States is supplying the armor. More than 6,700 arms dealers can be found within half a day's drive of the border, and a good percentage of AK-47s, automatic machine guns, and grenades are being trafficked south.
Vulliamy also addresses the ugly irony that while U.S. consumers are "voguishly obsessed" with fair trade coffee and other products, this higher consciousness does not translate to drugs: "Few ever stop to ask how many lives just went up a supermodel's nose." Or got smoked in a bowl. Or rolled in a joint.
Having thoroughly unnerved the reader, Vulliamy sets off for a joyride across Amexica. He ranges from Tijuana near California and Sonora near Arizona, to Ciudad Juárez, the epicenter of the narco war, and finally to eerie towns in Coahuila and Tamaulipas near Texas. Vulliamy quickly establishes himself as a fearless reporter with a stomach of steel. For instance, after bribing some Federales near Tijuana, he gains access to the abandoned compound of Santiago Meza López, a.k.a "el Pozolero" (the Stew Maker). In 2009, el Pozolero confessed to having dissolved some 300 corpses in vats of acid on behalf of his narco boss. Despite "the inimitable, sickly sweet, putrid smell of death and decomposition, of human remains," Vulliamy somehow brings himself to peer inside the barrels. In one, he finds a lower jaw, lined with teeth; in another, "raw flesh and jellylike human tissue." At the compound he also finds empty Tecate beer cans, "a thriving marijuana plant," and a Christmas tree festooned with ribbon and tinsel.
In Juárez, Vulliamy takes us to the scene of another gory crime: Anexo de Vida, a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. He enters rooms "that were death chambers overnight," their walls "pitted with bullet holes," and narrowly avoids "a pool of blood so thick that it is still sticky underfoot, its darker coating over the still congealing red glistening in the shaft of sunlight that penetrates the doorway." Walking all over the evidence, Vulliamy ponders who might have shot up a house full of addicts. Narcos are almost too obvious a suspect. Instead, he favors "the heresy" put forth by some Mexican journalist friends: the Mexican army. By April 2009, Calderón had dispatched more than 13,000 soldiers to Juárez. Perhaps troops were engaging in limpieza social, a "social cleansing of society's unwanted outcasts." Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, legal director of the Chihuahua chapter of the National Human Rights Commission, rationalizes that no narco cartel would waste its money hiring assassins to bump off junkies. Moreover, the bodies at Anexo de Vida (and a smattering of other rehab clinics) had been "killed by experts in killing ... in a hail of bullets, sprayed all over the place, mechanically but without regard to the amount of ammunition spent, as is characteristic of military commandos or death squads," he tells Vulliamy.
Indeed, in modern Mexico, cops can be criminals; soldiers can be slayers. Vulliamy retells the popular joke that if someone you love gets kidnapped or killed, call 066 (Mexico's 911) to talk to the culprit. This is what you fast grow to admire about the Mexicans Vulliamy meets: their humor and their frankness. Although it is clearly not in their best interest to chat with journalists, they do so anyway, sick of being silent. An especially memorable informant is Marcos Burruel, the director of a Sonoran shelter for migrants preparing to illegally cross the border. Burruel warns his guests about the grave dangers they will face, showing them graphic photographs of bodies desiccating in the desert — much to the ire of local coyotes (smugglers), who barrage him with death threats. "So why do I do this job?" he asks. "I must be crazy, I know. It's not because I think it matters, because it doesn't. Actually, what I try to do is pointless... It's because I believe in God... But I'm only human, and of course I'm afraid. I'm also, by the way, a postman, and must do my rounds now."
While Burriel is captivating, the reader's heart will go out to the heroic women Vulliamy interviews, especially those fighting the feminicidio in Juárez. Since the early 1990s, hundreds of young women have gone missing while traveling to and from their jobs at American-owned maquiladoras, or sweatshops-only to be found days or weeks later, dead in ditches. "If you want to beat, rape, or kill a woman, there is no better place than Juárez," Esther Chávez Cano, founder of the city's sole center for victims of sexual abuse, tells Vulliamy. "There are thousands to choose from, plenty of opportunities, and you can get away with it."
Unfortunately, Vulliamy seldom takes the time to draw truly compelling portraits of such extraordinary people. All too often, his "characters" appear out of nowhere, deliver devastating monologues, and vanish. In some sections, Amexica reads more like a hastily transcribed notebook than a thoughtfully crafted narrative. Despite his investigative approach, Vulliamy never seems to solve anything either, bailing out of situations before pertinent details can emerge. Instead of grand revelations, Amexica offers racy conspiracy theories, and few ideas you can't find anywhere else.
But just because Amexica won't be joining the ranks of canonized border literature such as Luis Alberto Urrea's Devil's Highway and Charles Bowden's Juárez doesn't mean you shouldn't read it. On the contrary, this might be one of the most important books you read this year. Once you've glimpsed decapitated corpses swinging from Bridges of Dreams, you realize your own complicity in this war-about-nothing — especially if you, say, smoke a little weed now and then. You cannot read Vuillamy's book in "unsurprised silence" and then go about your day, however hard you try.