Where God and the Devil Wheel Like Vultures: Report from El Paso

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There’s a story here, but it exists in illogical fragments, chaotic subtexts, and poverty economics cured in the meth-soaked algebra of need, greed and corruption. And eventually it all plays out in song. Folk songs, cowboy ballads and Narco-corridos. What you can’t see with your eyes you can feel in your heart. Hand me down my old guitar.

“Down below El Paso lies Juarez,
Mexico is different, like the travel poster says….”
-Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, “Mexican Divorce”

I. Touch Of Evil

That was the summer of “birds falling out of trees,” as the Apaches might say. Looming weirdness. I’m in a beat-up Juarez taxi cab, inching slowly away from the Plaza Monumental bullring. A masked character in the truck across from us begins firing an automatic weapon over the top of the cab. Across the street at the Geronimo bar, three bodies fall into the gutter. My cab driver pulls his head down and shrieks: Cristo! Cristo! against the racket of trumpets and accordions from a narco-corrido song on the radio. Cristo, Jesu Cristo! Ayuda me! The cab lurches forward with each string of Jesus curses. I’m riding inside a pinball machine set up next to a shooting gallery. Bodies are falling outside. Bodies are falling in the drug song on the radio. My shirt sleeve is stuck on the handle of the door and I can’t seem to twist and duck my head down below the dashboard. This is not the way I want to die. I try to grab hold of the wheel but the driver pulls himself together, makes the sign of the cross, then turns down back streets and alleys that lead to the border bridge. The rat-a-tat-tat of a weapon fades into the distance. The cabbie wheels to a stop and lights a cigarette. Sangre de Cristo. Fifty pesos, por favor.

It’s another Sunday evening in Ciudad Juarez.

Back then, twelve years ago, it cost fifteen cents to enter Mexico. Fifteen cents to wheel through the turnstile and cross the river bridge into the carnal trap. The Lawless Roads. I used to think of Orson Welles’ noir classic: “Touch of Evil,” when I walked down the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. That sinister feeling which draws the gringo-rube into web of rat-ass bars and neon caves; the nerve tingling possibility of cheap drink, violence, and sex; sex steeped in sham clichés about dark-eyed senoritas and donkey shows. It’s that heady, raw – anything goes, all is permitted, death is to be scorned- routine which informed and carved out the rank borderline personalities of John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and hundreds of Mexican drug lords. Western myth now grim reality. You craved the real west, didn’t you?

The late British writer, Graham Greene, knew the border terrain. He crossed over at Laredo in 1939, noting: “The border means more than a custom’s house, a passport office, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different. Life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport is stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money changers.”

Speechless among the money changers. I like that. I can’t imagine what Hunter Thompson would have come up with if he’d written a version of Fear and Loathing about the current state of affairs in Juarez. Cristo, Cristo, Cristo. Thompson once said that if you want to know where the edge is, you’ve got to go over it. Juarez is big time over the edge.

The next Sunday, following my shooting gallery ride, I decide I’ll visit Juarez again. Pushing my luck. I was in between relationships that season, and in a reckless mood. Perhaps I bought all that laughing at death routine in the lyrics of tequila drenched Charro songs. I crossed over the Santa Fe bridge and caught a bus toward the bull plaza, then wandered into the Geronimo bar, drained a Tecate, and left. I walked back toward the bridge. I was a quarter mile away when shots rang down the crowded avenue near the Geronimo. Two more bodies fell into the gutter. Cristo!

It was 1997. These were incipient skirmishes in a violent plague they now call a full-on “drug war.” The twelve year war is currently overheating; the Mexican army patrols the river with jeeps pulling canon-sized machine guns, and the body counts are higher than Baghdad. The old border town ain’t the same. The bull ring has been torn down to make a Wal-Mart; the tourist market is empty, and the Mariachi’s have all gone south. Whorehouse madams are cooking up batches of crystal meth aimed for farm kids in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. Everything’s gone straight to hell, since Sinatra played Juarez.

A week ago the headlines of the Spanish language paper read: Daylight shootouts, Burned Bodies, and Dead Children. Yesterday the offering was: A Thunder of 43 Corpses in the Morgue in 72 Hours. Meanwhile the English speaking paper, on the El Paso side of the river, featured a headline about someone resigning from our local school board. A little denial goes a long way here on the sunny side. It’s tradition. Graham Greene, again, in 1939: “…no day passed (in Mexico) without somebody’s being assassinated somewhere; at the end of the paper there was a page for tourists. That page never included the shootings, and the tourists, as far as I could see, never read the Spanish pages. They lived in a different world….with Life and Time…they were impervious to Mexico.”

In El Paso, the refutation melts into absurdity. This morning’s El Paso paper announced that the “John Wesley Hardin Secret Society” would meet at 6 pm in the Concordia cemetery. There would be “old west re-enactors and six gun shootouts” commemorating the night Hardin met his demise on the streets of old El Paso. Hardin was an outlaw who claimed he’d killed 42 people before he went to prison in 1878. When he was released, brandishing a law degree, Hardin moved to El Paso and went back to his old ways. One night Sheriff John Selman shot him in the back of the head, then drug the body out into the El Paso street so the locals could gawk at another dead lawyer with a big mouth.

Five years ago the City Council was entertaining the idea of a giant Old West theme park in downtown El Paso. Something to lure the tourists from Germany and Japan. Shooting re-enactments and dance hall girls; three shows a day. But what the hell we need that for? We have Juarez a quarter mile away and it costs a few pennies to cross over. Or tourists could set up chairs on top the Holiday Inn Express and bring their binoculars.

This morning, after the John Wesley Hardin story, I turned that page in section B where there was a short item about two El Pasoans slain yesterday in a Juarez bar shooting. Back page stuff. Hidden near the end of the story was the astounding body count: nearly 2900 people, including more than 160 this month alone, have been killed in Juarez since a war between drug traffickers erupted January 2008. John Wesley Hardin wouldn’t stand a chance.

2900 bodies in 20 months. Welcome to the frontier, where “God and the Devil wheel like vultures, and a loose fences separates the good man from the bad.” (Nicholas Shakespeare on Graham Greene.) We are walking the streets between doubt and clarity; savage reality and indifference. Shooting re-enactments and World War Three. This is El Paso-Juarez, an extreme western edge of Texas that no Texan east of Sierra Blanca would lay claim to. The wild, non-fictional Mexican West. Hollywood and a million dime novels never quite got it right. Sam Peckinpah wasn’t even close. El Paso-Juarez is the American frontier in every sense: the land or territory which forms the furthest extent of a country’s settled or inhabited regions. The outer limit. (Webster’s Unabridged.)

And now, September 4, 2009, as I was trying to put this essay to rest, the biggest shoot-out in the history of Juarez took place in a Juarez drug clinic. 17 people slaughtered. The carnage hit the front page of the New York Times and, even weirder, the front page of the El Paso Times: Juarez in Shock: Attack Considered City’s Worst Multiple Shooting. The New York Times coverage sounded as if it were lifted from a James Elroy novel: a thick layer of blood covered the concrete floor…a chained dog had been shot…the smell of death hung in the air.” God and the Devil, wheeling like vultures.

And finally, it’s September 11, 2009, and while the world is remembering 9/11 and the twin towers going down, there’s a little item on page 9A of the El Paso Times: “It is not uncommon for U.S. citizens to be part of Mexican drug cartels because cartels have placed cells in more than 200 cities across the United States. According to the Department of Justice, Mexican cartels…pose the greatest organized-crime threat to the United States and it’s people.”

Incomprehensible? You have to understand the full contextual layout: cultural, geographic, historic. Then dim the lights and listen to the music: either Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” or Marty Robbin’s “El Paso,” or one of a thousand narco-corrido songs where the bad guy is the good guy, and behind every lyrical gravestone is buried a lost verse to “The Streets of Laredo.” This is gunfighter country.

II. The Place of Dead Roads / Mean as Hell

“The fact is, Old Boy, the land is so poor
I don’t think you could use it as a hell anymore
But to sweeten the deal and get it off my hands
I’ll water this place with the Rio Grande….”
-God Talking to the Devil, Johnny Cash, “Mean as Hell”

When Horace Greely said “Go West Young Man,” he could not have been aiming the kid in the direction of El Paso-Juarez. Naw. Not unless he had a twisted sense of humor, or the young man he was chatting with was Billy the Kid, who was born in the Bronx. But off I went. In 1997 I moved from Brooklyn to El Paso, traveling 2800 miles in a U-Haul Truck. 1400 hundred miles, half the journey, was across the width of Texas. From the blues-drenched East Texas thickets and on through the boggy midlands and rusty oil derricks of the dying swap meet towns. On out toward the Chihuahuan desert. You don’t know Texas unless you driven the width. Four hundred miles west of Austin the air begins to dry out, the birds of prey grow larger, and the land flattens out into a reddish-orange sand punctuated with dwarf Mesquites and Palo Verdes. The surface of the earth looks like Mexican flan that’s been left in the oven too long. You’ve got a few hundred miles to go. Carry water.

As you hit the city limits, if it’s night, you’ll see a carpet of the ten million blinking lights over in Ciudad Juarez. El Paso is the sleepy 1950s old west town laid out on the front of that carpet. To the left is the vintage Plaza Hotel – one of the first Hiltons; on the top floor is the penthouse where Liz Taylor lived with Nicky Hilton. The Plaza’s been closed for years. Hell, the town has been semi-dead for pretty much half a century. If you turn off towards downtown you’ll hit the central plaza with its fountain and the fiberglass sculptures of leaping alligators. Up until the 1960s there were real gators in there, but too many drunks fell in and lost essential limbs. Local color abounds.

Most people don’t exit Interstate 10. They sail through this sleepy downtown and avert their eyes from the poverty shacks of Juarez; keep right on going towards Tucson or Los Angeles. The Promised Land lies elsewhere. Interstate 10 finally dead-ends into the Santa Monica pier, near the antique merry-go-round where you can whirl your kids around in the Pacific sea air, knowing you made it through hell and the badlands.

Occasionally a tourist from Frankfurt or Des Moines will make the unwise decision of turning off; driving the kids over the bridge into Juarez in search of “a real taco.” That might be a very bad mistake, senor. The rules are different on the other side.

Johnny Cash once recorded a recitation titled “Mean As Hell,” in which The Devil is looking for a hell on earth, and God gives him a plot near the Rio Grande which sounds like El Paso. That might have been after Cash was busted here for smuggling ten thousand pills over from Juarez. Ah, the history! Wasn’t it Raymond Chandler who quipped: “No one cared if I died or moved to El Paso?” That quote was ringing in my ears as I stopped here and unloaded the truck. I was home. It was a long long way from Brooklyn. 1400 miles and half a century. In El Paso there was no music scene, no resort hotels, and no welcome wagon. Suited me. So many critics had called me an “outsider” I finally decided to go find where the American outside really was.

I bought a 1930s historic adobe on three acres and settled down to hide and write songs and novels. I was surrounded by rock walls, barbed wire and cactus. Cormac McCarthy lived in a rattle trap adobe up on the mountain; trying to do the same thing. To be left alone to write. Unfortunately fame and fans hunted Cormac down and chased him away to Santa Fe. I’m still here. St. Thomas of the Desert in this dry wasteland where extremes meet. Where men balance their own aridity and desire for reclusiveness with that of the landscape. Like the desert fathers in Egypt, I came here not to find my identity so much as to lose it, eradicate an old personality and re-invent a new one. Society is a cave; the way out is solitude. But there’s a deep history here which begins to claw at you. The history seeps into your spirit and begins to inform the writing with that odd and tangled chaotic soul of the borderlands.

Five hundred years ago a Spaniard, Don Juan de Onate, rode his tall Andalusian horse across the river and claimed this land for Spain. The boys sat down and rested on the river bank and roasted up a few javelinas. It was the first Thanksgiving in America, years ahead of that Plymouth Rock routine. A few hundred years later Pancho Villa rode up and down this same river terrorizing the citizenry; changing his political allegiances as often as he changed his favorite ice cream flavors; marrying dozens of women at a time for the cause of the Revolution. Villa inspired a thousand folk songs and corridos; countless books and movies. His mythical shadow is long. Ask any soldier in a drug cartel.

Later Villa attacked Columbus New Mexico and the U.S. sent Black Jack Pershing, with young George Patton in tow, but they never caught him. There’s not much about that in our grammar school history books. America had been attacked and invaded and we couldn’t catch the rotten bandito, even though he was only a few hundred miles away. Sound familiar? We could not follow the signs or the spoors; and the blood spoors on this desert can be traced back hundreds of years, beyond Mexico and Christian Spain, to the Moors. Those bastards, the Moors! They sat a horse pretty damn good. They were the forefathers of the modern American cowboy and they rode their little Arab ponies hell-bent on bloodlust. And you couldn’t catch ’em.

During the Mexican revolution the people along the American side of the Rio Grande would take chairs up on their roofs and watch the war on the other side through field glasses. The late El Paso painter, Tom Lea, shared that anecdote with me. He died a few years ago; he taught me many things about this “wonderful country,” including the fact that Pancho Villa had put a price on young Tom’s head when he was six years old. Tom’s father was the Sheriff of El Paso and kicked Villa back across the river a few times. Get the hell out of here you saddle-faced son of a bitch. Little Tom had to have a bodyguard to go to school. Things ain’t changed a hell of a lot. There’s an outlaw feel in each little cloud hanging over my potted agaves.

I crossed the Santa Fe bridge many times in 1997 and heard the rat-a-tat-tat which foreshadowed the rumor of a coming war. After those initial skirmishes came a plague of murdered women. A modern horror story. Hundreds of female bodies dug up in the desert surrounding Juarez. Serial murders? Drug war casualties? Maquiladora workers who walked home late at night? The rash of killings has never been fully explained. Hillary Clinton, in addressing human rights violations and rape in the African Congo, talked about women being the first victims on the front lines of wars against humanity. Holds true in Juarez. A few years ago Hollywood and dozens of journalists came; books were written. Movies were released. Hollywood went home. Committed actresses turned their attentions to other “third world” causes. Or began adopting babies in Somalia. In Juarez matters got worse. A huge black cross went up on the Juarez side of the bridge with hundreds of railroad spikes hammered into it. One for every murdered woman. The sign at the top said: “ni una mas.” Not one more.

But the carnage spread out, disregarding gender and age. The full war was on. The media forgot about the dead women. The headlines, if there were any, were about the “war against drugs,” listing facts baked in the tired rhetoric of presidents and army generals. This time the victims were women, men and babies. You can’t be too precise with an automatic weapon. Not if your wired to the gills on crack and sotol. Not if you’re firing in a crowded bar or bus station. So the Mexican president called in the army.

III. It Isn’t Going Away and Nobody is Going to Destroy It

When I walked out into my cactus garden this morning, I heard that familiar old rat-a-tat-tat of automatic gunfire drifting through the Cottonwood trees to the south. Or was that a cadre of nail guns from the mushrooming housing developments which have ruined the last of our upper Rio Grande farming Valley? You never know. The cartels would be stupid to carry the war over to this side, but the corruption on both sides of the river is pervasive and deep. It effects most of the almost three million people who try to live in this valley the Spaniards called El Paseo del Norte.

El Paso is an abandoned midway of cultural impoverishment. I’ve always wondered why we didn’t have the amenities of San Antonio or, say, Tucson or Phoenix. There are no resorts, tourist attractions, or Whole Foods stores, and even precious few decent restaurants with an outdoor patio. Years ago the city planners could have diverted part of the river into downtown and capitalized on the scenery, in the tradition of as San Antonio. El Paso might have rivaled Tucson as a desert destination; a retirement haven. The climate is a little more temperate than Tucson or Phoenix. But when corporations and big business came calling, decades ago, the city council and powers-that-be delivered the ultimatum, which went something like: We’ll allow you to move in here, but what are you going to do for us? Big Money squirmed with distaste and waltzed away.

Downtown El Paso looks much the same as 1955, except the historic storefronts are now bargain Korean “fashion” joints, Mexican CD outlets, and pawn shops. Oh, there’s a new art museum, the Camino Real hotel, and a renovated theater; but the rest of downtown seems an extension or Juarez. Instead of revitalizing the downtown, the city council allowed a handful of housing developers to go out and destroy the upper and lower irrigated farming valleys along the Rio Grande. Thousands of acres of prime agricultural land were traded off for a quick shot, hangdog economy based around cheap houses which will collapse in thirty years; long before a few hundred thousand Mexican families have paid off their long-term mortgages. And there you have it. The seven capital sins dance like harpies along this river bank: Pride, covetousness, lust, anger…and the Queen Bee Mother, corruption. What are you going to do for us? Cristo!

But you’re interest in the body count, no? The drug war. And the bottom line or the big Why of it all? Amigo, the real story will not be delivered by presidents, politicians, army generals, police sergeants, newscasters, DEA agents, sociologists, dead-line journalists, and all those whose livelihoods dance around the twisting of that murky little gap between doubt and clarity. Fact and furor. Pride and paranoia. The slant and the spin. In the kingdoms of the blind and corrupt, the one-eyed billionaire drug lord is King. Always and forever.

Tucson author Charles Bowden is able to give you the lowdown; he may be our most capable and truthful witness. Bowden surmises that it’s “nonsense” that the United States and Mexican governments are partners in a war against drugs. He calls it a war for drugs as the Mexican economy collapses. Here’s Bowden on the employment of the Mexican Army:

“They’ve moved into Ciudad Juarez and the murder rate has
exploded there. There’s 8000 to 10,000 federal troops and
Federal police now in Juarez. In 2007, there were 300 murders,
A record for the city. But is 2008, there were 1600 people
slaughtered. This year there’s been over 1200 people slaughtered.
That’s the achievement of the Mexican army. Every place they go
They’ve terrified people…the soldiers run amok.”
(democracynow.org 8/11/09)

Bowden asserts that Mexico would sink without drug money because the oil fields are collapsing down there, and Mexico earns up to $50 billion a year in foreign currency from selling drugs. Bowden’s summation: “Drugs have penetrated the whole culture, and it isn’t going away. And nobody is going to destroy it.”

And the guns over there? Most of them come from the United States. It’s estimated that over two thousand a day cross the border into Mexico. There’s only one gun store in Mexico, in Mexico City, and you have to be a cop or a government official or an army person to get in there. The drugs come back across the other way. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and the newest and most deadly front runner: crystal meth. As the United States cleans up our own meth labs and regulates pseudo ephedrine in cold tablets (needed to make meth), Mexican cartels have risen to the occasion; a more purer form is now being manufactured over there. Most of it comes back across this river.

And what do we do with these gruesome facts? Hell, we juggle them up and down and pretend we’re appalled; slide them across the news monitors; then jam them into folders, reports and journals no one reads. This is old territory for me. My master’s degree was in criminology. Then I became a songwriter, and part of that transition was sparked by the frustration was dealing with a Social Science which operates on the wasteful billion dollar dole of research grants, and then publishes findings and statistics in a sterile academic vacuum. Journals hidden in dusty library stacks. I told my old Criminology mentor, back in 1969, that the world would be better off if he published his findings in Playboy, or the New Yorker, or even The Reader’s Digest, rather than these dry and sterile journals which preached to the academic choir. Then I picked up my guitar and waltzed away. Bob Dylan was more of an agent for social change than C. Wright Mills.

So what’s the good news, Tom? Why the hell would anyone stay in El Paso?

IV. Last Stand in Patagonia

“Everything in nature is lyrical in
it’s ideal essence; tragic in it’s fate,
and comic in its existence.”
-George Santayana

El Paso is my own Patagonia. Outside and over the edge. Lyrical in it’s essence, tragic in its fate; comic in its existence. But, it’s a peaceful place. You find that amusing? The war has not spilled across the Rio Bravo. Life is simple and cheap. I like the people. There are ten thousand Mexican restaurants, and the sun going down on the Franklin Mountains always elicits my daily prayer of gratitude. Life seems more precious on the last, wild frontier. There is a raw beauty and a lack of pretense. And that wonderful history which has seeped into my blood; emptying into song and story.

I irrigate my fruit trees from the Rio Grande and think of the days when Sinatra and Nat King Cole and the Kingston Trio played down river in Juarez. The days of the “quickie divorce” Burt Bacharach wrote about. Marilyn Monroe divorced Arthur Miller in Juarez, then strolled down to the Kentucky Club and bought the house a round of Margaritas. Hell, the Margarita was invented in Juarez in the late 1940s. Gypsy Rose Lee stripped at The Palace Club and Manolete fought in the bull ring. Steve McQueen died over there in a clinic. This is a place to write and to absorb the history. A place to be left alone to create and conjure up your own meaning to events on either side of the river. Forget about the final answers. They will not be forthcoming.

Our gun laws are not going to change. Certain drugs will not be legalized. The drug cartels will never disappear. These are people supporting what’s left of the Mexican economy. Some drug czars are revered in narco-songs and others might throw monetary support the local village schools and hospitals. The “war” will either be fought to a conclusion or go underground, like a hidden desert river which appears hundreds of miles away. Always running with human blood. Cristo. Jesus Cristo.

I’ll watch it all go down from Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, the great bar and restaurant which sits up near Mt. Cristo Rey, overlooking the lights of El Paso. (Okay, there are a few good bars here.)Trains roll cross the mountain at happy hour and border patrol trucks chase illegals through these desperate, yucca-choked rocks and rills. Over yonder the ugly black border wall snakes across the sandy hills. The wall is our knee-jerk attempt to intimidate Mexican illegals who want to do the dirty work we shun. But this is still the old west, amigo. Those class equations have always been such. The Chinese built the railroads with a shotgun at their head, and their opium was always available in the back of the chop suey joints and whore houses. The “greasers” and “chinks” did the dirty work; and those red devil Apaches raided our horse camps until we sent Geronimo down to Florida to chill out. We’re getting it under control, ain’t we? It’s the coked-up, Manifest Destiny politics of Methland.

These are the far regions and outer limits of America. La Frontera. We’ve twisted and exploited and mined the old West for those clichéd, watered-down versions of violent cowboy and Indian stories, where John Wayne kicks ass and rides away in a white hat. Now it’s the drug soldiers and assassins in baseball caps who hold court with submachine guns, which we sold ’em. They’re the ones kicking ass. You can write it from any political angle and subtext. You can walk around leaning on the moral, self righteous crutch of whatever religion and political party or news magazines you subscribe to. The palaver don’t cut much on the backstreets of Juarez. There’s a story here, but it exists in illogical fragments, chaotic subtexts, and poverty economics cured in the meth-soaked algebra of need, greed and corruption. And eventually it all plays out in song. Folk songs, cowboy ballads and Narco-corridos. What you can’t see with your eyes you can feel in your heart. Hand me down my old guitar.

But hell, it’s sundown. I’m parched. The mountains are turning crimson and the beer is cold. The rat-a-tat-tat might be gunfire, or the ice in the blender over there in the Mecca bar. I’ll leave you to your safe and well-edited taste of doom flashing across the six o’clock news. Somebody inside the bar has played Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,”and for a brief moment I have all the poetic details I need about the frontier and these borderlands I’ve come to love. But no answers, amigo. Never any real answers. Only a noir lyricism which drifts out between the comic and the tragic.

“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Easter time too
And your gravity fails and negativity
Don’t pull you through
Don’t put on any airs
when you’re down on Rue Morgue avenue….”
-Bob Dylan

Tom Russell
El Paso-Juarez
September 11, 2009

Art by Tom Russell


Tom Russell’s career as a musician, painter and consummate storyteller stretches back nearly four decades, with a catalog of more than 20 albums and a devoted following that cherishes his tales of the American experience. Some of his most ardent fans are fellow artists: Russell’s compositions have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Doug Sahm, k.d. lang, Iris Dement, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Ian Tyson, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark and Dave Van Ronk. Russell moved out to El Paso from New York City ten years ago. He's one of the last of a generation of beat-descended searchers, who include his friends Ramblin' Jack Elliott and the late Charles Bukowski. But that was all just a first act. Russell’s new album, “Blood and Candle Smoke,” recorded with members of Calexico, comes out September 15 on Shout! Factory. More from this author →