The name “Baltimore” can be traced to an Irish phrase meaning “Town of the Big House.” “Juárez,” when traced back to the Visigoths who overtook Spain in the 5th Century AD, means, roughly, “Army of the South.” The cities that bear these names are both beautiful, and they both have a deep, fascinating history. But in recent years, they have also both been plagued by violent crime on a nightmarish level. This violent crime has, in turn, inspired two of our young century’s most brutal and gripping pieces of crime fiction, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and David Simon’s HBO series The Wire. For all of their similar themes, though, a close look reveals that these tales of two cities are tales of the horror and bloodshed that reflect one city’s economic plunge and – more terrifying – the other’s economic triumph.
The Wire and 2666 are both profound in scope, stretching the limits of interconnectivity — murky relationships, unclear roles, and a general sense that everything that transpires is infinitely linked to everything that comes before and after, remind us that crime is by no means a simple, linear series of events. They both create worlds that the viewer or reader can’t immediately shake upon finishing. Most notably, they both chronicle murders on a scale often hard to imagine, particularly in 2666. Bolaño, in his fictionalized version of Juárez, Santa Teresa, recounts a great deal of the nearly one thousand women murdered or missing in that city since 1993 and exposes the general brutality that has surrounded Mexican drug cartel activity up to this day. The Wire‘s Baltimore, faithful to the real city, is a battleground where drug players kill each other over corners, occasionally with the same kind of barbarism that makes Santa Teresa so terrifying. But the worlds created in these two works are parallel at best, and they are certainly not one in the same. They are both terrifying and dense, full of things that make us question humanity’s capacity for good, but the narrative structures — and the luridness of the violence— reflect a key difference in these two cities: their proximity to a very important national border.
“He had to endure a conversation in praise of the latest signs of Santa Teresa’s unstoppable progress.” (127)
“That’s why everyone is leaving the city.” (Season 3, Episode 4)
The Mexico-U.S. border is 1,969 miles long and sees more human traffic than any other international border in the world. For years Mexicans have scrambled across this invisible line at the risk of their lives and freedom, searching for whatever it was the other side meant to them. In the U.S., we’ve seen this migration through the lens of our national mythology, as an escape from poverty to a land where upward mobility is both a right and an expectation. From the pages of 2666 and current trends, though, we see that this idea of modern Mexican escape is flawed. The real immigration story of the past thirty years in Mexico is internal, that of workers coming to Ciudad Juárez from other areas of the county. Knowing what we know about the city and region, escape to the U.S. looks less like huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and more like a desperate flight from mortal danger.
Last year Foreign Direct Investment deemed Ciudad Juárez a “City of the Future.” The city’s average annual growth rate from 1990 to 2000 — the same decade the city’s violent epidemic took root — was an impressive 5.3 percent. It would seem that despite the brutal killings on display in 2666, Juárez has found a way to become a city on the rise. This is not exactly right. It is not despite these crimes that the city grows-in Juárez, the increase in crime goes hand in hand with the city’s development. Bolaño’s Santa Teresa is a city in which manufacturing has reached new heights — we are told of nearly a dozen different maquiladoras within the city — and it is the women who travel each day to work at these factories who are murdered. On the surface, these crimes seem to be good old inexplicable human evil, but in Bolano’s book we get a glimpse of a more terrible notion: these aren’t just individual victims of individual crimes. These women are cogs in an industrial machine. Their rulers – the legitimate businesspeople or the drug dealers – can and do use the women’s blood to fuel this machine. In Juárez, business and crime are often inextricably tangled, and this human fuel has elevated industry and its industrialists to heights beyond what many of its north-of-the-border neighbors can imagine.
Baltimore, on the other hand, is a city in which people “used to make shit.” Now, it’s a city in precipitous decline, a reflection of America’s diminished role in the global rearrangement. Chronicled so beautifully in The Wire, this descent is strangely less limiting than the rise of Juárez. In the second season of The Wire, we see Bodie tuning into “A Prairie Home Companion,” subconsciously being exposed to a better life. There is no place for that kind of nostalgia in Bolaño’s Mexico; the time is theirs to charge forward, without looking back, consequences be damned.
To put it simply, Juárez is an example of Mexico’s rise to a place from where Baltimore and many other formerly great American cities have fallen. The normal citizens who move up within this new North American power spectrum are in as great of a danger as those who fall to the bottom.
“They were convinced the city was growing by the second. On the far edge of Santa Teresa, they saw flocks of black vultures…Where there were vultures, they noted, there were no other birds.” (129)
“They don’t fly away because their wings are clipped.” (Season 2, Episode 8 )
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’s 2001 “Economic Update on El Paso del Norte,” thirty-two percent of Ciudad Juárez’s population originates from outside the state of Chihuahua. This large portion of the populace has mostly engaged in geographic opportunism: despite the problems that plague Juárez, the strength in manufacturing has lured nearby migrants in by the thousands. Juárez has become the model home of the new Mexican Dream.
2666 is full of these characters – the dancer from Mexico City, the maquiladora workers from Oaxaca – and more often than not, if we hear about them, they are women who have been brutally murdered. They came to a city that is as close to America as possible, in terms of geography and opportunity, but decided not to risk the crossing. Juárez is an equal risk, though, and its almost supernatural appeal is one of the gloomiest mysteries in Bolaño’s work. In 2666, not only do we see the power-hungry allow atrocities to happen right under their noses, but we see the powerless throw themselves in harm’s way. All hunger to be where the future is approaching most rapidly.
Then there are those characters in 2666 who seem not to be interested in an improved financial situation, but who, thanks to the tedium of their daily lives or the need to find answers to a personal riddle, are attracted to Juárez. From the journalist Oscar Fate to the four scholars of the writer Benno von Archimboldi, outsider after outsider is drawn into this universe. They pursue obsessions, but they’re secretly energized by the city’s noirish danger. All of Juárez’s whirlwind terror and excitement – for them – has an appeal more sinister and irresistible than mere money.
In the Baltimore of The Wire, lifelong residents make up both the police squads and the gangs. They cite their high school or neighborhood as a source of pride. Outsiders are almost nowhere to be seen-the “Balmor” accents are omnipresent. Some of these native Baltimorians get out and move onto places where decline hasn’t hit as hard, but the majority stay put in a city that at times resembles an urban war zone. Some of “their wings are clipped” — by financial limits or by situational factors — but other residents, namely the detectives followed so closely for five seasons, are driven by an obsession far different from Juárez’s horror-show status game. Theirs is a grief at having seen the top and now watching it recede in the distance.
“Pyramids, all stained red with the blood of daily sacrifices.” (697)
“It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you.” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Baltimore and Juárez are Catholic cities. Completed in 1806, the Baltimore Basilica is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the United States, but it’s a much later addition to the North American Catholic legacy than Juárez’s seventeenth century Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de El Paso del Norte y do los Mansos. But 2666 and The Wire are not, by any means, works in which urban landscapes have a similar relationship to God.
2666‘s Santa Teresa is a city reaching financial heights new to Mexico. In the city’s secret VIP rooms, in its renewed public spaces and, most of all, in its efficient maquiladoras, Bolaño’s city shows the sense of superiority that comes with its new money. It is on the rise, and the only code-not asking questions of those above you and exacting revenge upon those who have done you wrong-preserves the new power structure. The code laid out by Bunk and Omar in the 11th episode of The Wire is softer. Its central tenet – which “every man must have” – forbids killing regular old tax-paying citizens, killing state witnesses, and, especially, killing anyone on a Sunday. In a city where murder is a common answer and the government cannot be trusted, the idea of a moral code is surprising. This code, however, is rooted in the divine relationship. It shows the fear and humility of those who have known weakness and defeat.
Interestingly, it was 16th Century Spanish mystic Santa Teresa de Ávila – seemingly an influence on Bolaño’s Florita Almada character – who is responsible for some of the most honest and introspective writings on pious subjugation and its relation to evil. As she came to terms with the idea of original sin and found herself incapable of dealing with her own transgressions, she decided that the only way to battle our human urges is to submit completely to God. She began a life-time of self-mutilation, a practice that lives today in the self-cutting of Opus Dei.
In her autobiography, Teresa wrote:
I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form . . . He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire. . . In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire for the great love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it.
No wonder Bolaño named his city Santa Teresa.
Bolaño describes murder as “ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, and ill-defined.” And the murders he describes with such detail are all of these things. In The Wire, the drug-related deaths we see do not appear quite so hard to fathom; we are often aware of the grievances from which they stem, we know who the killers are, and we generally have an idea of some sort of motive. This difference, though, does not make the deaths any more explicable. These murders, bursts of noise in a city that is growing eerily quiet, are just as tough to plumb as Bolaño’s. Their desperation never quite adds up to those of us who do not feel it. In Baltimore, men and women struggle to hang onto the lives their parents and grandparents fought for. In Juárez, men and women struggle to benefit from the economic success story. In both works, there is a lingering sense of immortality just out of reach: for Juárez, slightly ahead, for Baltimore, slipping slowly from its grasp. This creates a space for violence to enter, but the problem is the violence never truly leaves. As Bolaño says, “Nothing is ever behind us.”