Latin America

Journalist Chronicles 'Killing Fields' Of Juarez

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Journalist Charles Bowden i

Journalist Charles Bowden chronicles the carnage in Mexico's murder capital, Ciudad Juarez. Courtesy of Jack W. Dykinga hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Jack W. Dykinga
Journalist Charles Bowden

Journalist Charles Bowden chronicles the carnage in Mexico's murder capital, Ciudad Juarez.

Courtesy of Jack W. Dykinga

Journalist Charles Bowden, who details a city in collapse in his new book about Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, says that at first glimpse the border town looks like a flat tapestry of one-story buildings.

"It can be an illusion at first," he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "You'll see an Applebee's; you'll see a Radisson, a Denny's. You'll think everything's all right.

"What you don't see until you look closely is 100,000 people who've lost their factory jobs; 40 percent of the businesses have folded in the last year; 25 percent of the houses have been abandoned. And, of course, there's the killings," he says.

The killings are the focus of Bowden's new book, Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. Most recently, the city was in the news after three people associated with the U.S. consulate were gunned down and killed.

But the reality is that on most days killings in Juarez don't make the front page. They've become, as Bowden has called it, "part of the ordinary noise of life."

Bowden says a recent study in Chihuahua state, in which Juarez is the largest city, found that 40 percent of young males harbored the ambition to become contract killers. He says half of any young man's peer group will be neither in school nor employed.

The drug industry makes $30 billion to $50 billion a year and is second only to petroleum among Mexico's lucrative exports.

"The drug industry is the future," he says. "The problem is you won't live long, but you can't live very long ... if you work in those factories because the wages are essentially slave wages."

Bowden says that this wasn't always the case. In the book, he writes: "There was a time when death made sense in Juarez. Those were the good old days." Bowden lays the blame at the hands of, among other things, the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. policies and the election in 2006 of Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Bowden says thousands of Mexicans have been affected since Calderon's election and his decision to attack the drug industry. In 2007, he says, there were 307 homicides in Juarez; in 2008, 1,600; 2,600 in 2009. The homicide rate so far this year exceeds last year's, Bowden says.

Still, he says, there are other contributing factors.

"Juarez rolled along for years merrily building factories that paid wages you can't literally live on," Bowden says. "And I think eventually, among other things, the chickens come home to roost, and this drug war was just the frosting on the cake."

Bowden says that despite the seemingly endless violence, he keeps returning to Juarez because there needs to be witnesses to how the city has broken down.

"What I think is that a record has to be made," he says. "So frankly, I don't want to cover this. I'd much rather go smell the coffee somewhere, go catch a trout.

"Five thousand people have been butchered in this city in three years. Somebody has to write this down. Somewhere there has to be a record."



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