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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

If you were to walk down the street this morning, in El Paso, Texas, and gaze out across the Rio Grande towards Mexico, you'd be looking at one of the most violent cities in the world. Ciudad Juarez has been in the headlines recently, after three people associated with the U.S. consulate there were gunned down and killed.

But the reality is, most days in Ciudad Juarez don't make the front page. They've become, as journalist Charles Bowden puts it, part of the ordinary noise of life. Bowden's written a new book about Juarez. It's titled "Murder City." And, Charles Bowden, for those of us who haven't been there, I mean, I understand there's obviously drug money, there's all that the drug money would pay for, but there's also still ordinary people who do go to work. There's still a lot of factories operating there. What does it actually look like?

Mr. CHARLES BOWDEN (Journalist, Author, "Murder City"): It looks like a flat tapestry of one-story buildings. Visually, it can be an illusion at first. 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 that have 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, then there's the killings.

KELLY: Obviously, one of the big players in those killings is the drug cartels and you write very vividly about them and also about why a young person growing up in Juarez today might choose that path instead of staying straight. There's a passage I'd love for you to read to us starting on page 123.

Mr. BOWDEN: Okay. Here, I'll give it a shot.

(Reading) A big SUV rolls down the calle. You hop in. The windows are darkly tinted and the machine prowls the city like a shark with its fanged-mouth agape. And, oh, it's so sweet when you squeeze the trigger and feel the bursts run free and wild into the night air. See the body crumple and fall like a rag doll. Roll on into the black velvet after midnight and there'll be a party -fine girls and white powder. And people fear you and the body falls, blood spraying, and you feel like God even though you secretly stopped believing in God some time ago. And they tell you that you'll die, that you way of living is no future and you see the tired men and women walking the dirt lanes after a shift in the factory, plastic bags of food dangling from their hands.

And you caress your gun stuffed in your waistband, and life is so good and the killing is fun, and everyone knows who has the guts to take the ride.

KELLY: It's extraordinary writing. It's also an extraordinary description of a society that has pretty much completely disintegrated.

Mr. BOWDEN: They did a study recently, in the state of Chihuahua, and Juarez is the largest city in that state. They found, among young males, 40 percent, had the ambition to become a contract killer a sicario.

KELLY: Forty percent?

Mr. BOWDEN: That's correct. Now, to put that in some perspective, you have to realize that if you're a young male in Juarez, 50 percent of your peer group will neither be in school, nor have a job. The drug industry is a future. The problem is you won't live long. But you can't live very long in the nigh sense(ph) if you work in those factories 'cause the wages are essentially slave wages.

KELLY: And the interesting thing is, Juarez was not always this way. You write in your book about how there were the good old days when there was murder and violence in Juarez, but things made sense. What was happening then? What changed?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, what changed was that, among other things, that in December of 2006 a new president of Mexico took over, Felipe Calderon, and unleashed the Mexican army in what he announced as an effort to attack the drug industry. Since that moment, 19,000 Mexicans have been slaughtered. The other thing that happened was that Juarez rolled along for years, merrily, building factories that paid wages you literally can't live on.

And I think eventually, among other things, the chickens come home to roost. And this drug war, which is the frosting on the cake - maybe it's what they call a tipping point. All I know is, in 2007, there were 307 murders in Juarez; in 2008, there were 1,600; in 2009, there were 2,600; and this year the murder rate's higher than 2009.

KELLY: Juarez, we mentioned, is right across the border from the U.S. The U.S., obviously, has a big stake in trying to stop the spiral of violence in Juarez. Last week, we saw this very senior U.S. delegation - the secretary of state, secretary of defense, etc. - go down and send the message the U.S. is serious; we want to help Mexico solve this. Do you see any potential there? Can the U.S. have much impact on the situation in Juarez?

Mr. BOWDEN: Yes. They can make it worse, and they're doing everything they know how to make it worse. We have an alleged war that's going on - 36 months now, the violence has spread all over the country, and the U.S. delegation said they will persist in the policies that produced this result and give the Mexicans even more guns to work with.

KELLY: So, what should the U.S. do?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, to start - well, I'll tell you what they should do. They should reexamine the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has destroyed peasant agriculture in Mexico and bankrupt its small industry in Mexico. They should reexamine the war on drugs in the United States, which has produced a market for Mexican criminals that earn some $30 to 50 billion a year, second only to petroleum in Mexico's lucrative exports.

KELLY: Charles Bowden, I have a practical question for you.

Mr. BOWDEN: Sure.

KELLY: You describe in the book, Mexican journalists and how incredibly difficult and terrifying it must be to report there. Why do you keep going back? What's the allure of the story, there, for you?

Mr. BOWDEN: I don't really know allures(ph). What I think is there have to be witnesses. What I think is a record has to be made. So, frankly, I don't want to cover this. I'd much rather go smell the coffee somewhere or go catch a trout. But I want - I think, I mean, 5,000 people have been butchered in this city in three years. Somebody has to write this down. Somewhere there has to be a record.

KELLY: Charles Bowden, thanks very much.

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, thank you. It's been fun.

KELLY: That's Charles Bowden. His new book is out this week. It's called "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields."

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Mexican authorities say new information has surfaced in connection with the deaths of three people linked to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez. Based on a gang member's confession, the intended target was the husband of a consular employee. He was a detention officer with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

Also this week, the El Paso Times reported these stories from Juarez: five men were shot to death at an auto garage near the city's airport. Twenty-nine bullet casings were found at the scene. And in a town in the valley of Juarez, a 21-year-old man was found in his bed shot by gunmen armed with AK-47s.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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