For over a decade Charles Bowden has chronicled the nightmare that is Juarez, Mexico. Situated on the border opposite of El Paso, Juarez has become the icon for all things corrupt and violent in Mexico which involve the drug cartels. Beginning with his book Down By the River – Drugs, Money, Murder (2002) which detailed the killing in El Paso of a recently appointed DEA agent, Charles Bowden has written of the mayhem and murder rates that have risen since 2007 in Juarez. Starting in that year, 307 were murdered in Juarez. In 2008, 1,623 were murdered. In 2009 it rose to 2,754. 2010 saw 3,111 killed. Bowden continued to report the horror in his books including Murder City; Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (2010) and Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez (2010).
Last year Bowden, along with Molly Molloy (acting as an interpreter), a research librarian at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, arranged an interview with El Sicario, a veteran contract killer who worked his trade for the cartel for twenty years. El Sicario was employed by the Mexican police academy and even took a brief training course given by the FBI in Tucson. At a certain point, the drugs and killing took a toll and El Sicario fled the cartel, finding salvation in Christ. He spends his days in hiding, with a large contract out on his life.
A documentary film, El Sicario, Room 164, directed by Gianfranco Rosi, was made from the interviews and shown on French and German television in November of 2010. With Molloy, Bowden edited and published the interviews as El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin in 2011. Bowden writes in his introduction, “The purpose of this book is not to answer the reader’s questions but to teach the reader a new reality, one in which an American reader’s normal questions are absurd because the reader had entered a world of terror and total corruption. The reader is not staring at the face of the sicario, but into the true face of the Mexican state, and in this place no one asks if a cop is honest or corrupt, no one asks if a murder will be investigated, and no one asks for justice but simply seeks survival. In this world, the statements of American presidents mean nothing because they insist on a Mexico that does not exist and has never existed.”
I corresponded online recently with Bowden about what makes a killer, how Juarez might be saved and the fate of El Sicario.
The Rumpus: What first lured you to the ongoing trauma that is happening in Juarez?
Charles Bowden: Ciudad Juarez was an accident that took over my life. In June 1995, I went to El Paso for a murder story for a magazine. After a month, I realized I needed to find a certain photograph in Juarez and so I went over the bridge. I was stunned by the city, the photographers I met, the poverty amid American factories and silence of about all this in the United States. The magazine story became a book, then other things happened and now it is 2012 and I am still not free of Juarez. The city has changed some. In the past four years, over 10,000 people have been slaughtered and hundreds of thousands have fled the place. But one thing is unchanged. Juarez stares at our imperial state and demands that we explain its destruction at the hands of our drug policy, our economic policy and our immigration policy.
Rumpus: What do you think attracts the general reader to the subject of career killers? Are we a nation of rubber-neckers or do we sense on some level that we have the DNA for killing?
Bowden: Fear. Fear of being killed and fear of killing attracts people to killers and murders. Anyone who has covered homicides for a daily paper soon learns this reality from the questions people ask of a story over coffee. In the case of the sicario, Mexican viewers of the documentary are mesmerized and never question it. Americans viewers often pretend it is a drama and the sicario is an actor. I suppose I could excuse this as the result of ignorance of Mexico or simply as stupidity since it is a clearly identified as a documentary film, not Hollywood or Bollywood. But I believe this claim that this documentary is fiction stems from a simple cause: cowardice. Just as I spent my life in a military/industrial complex and yet there is hardly a member of Congress, the clergy or the academy that will state the obvious, that the United States is an imperial power. People here do not want to admit the sicario exists and that such a person can be intelligent and well spoken.
Rumpus: I am struggling to grasp the mentality of a killer; I suppose it’s good I can’t. I am wondering how a person can be an el sicario for twenty years. I noticed in his story a certain military mentality in his rationale that his hits were just “following orders”, that he was always to serve no. 1 who was “El Patron.” It’s as if he wasn’t responsible for the killings. What makes a killer? I feel it’s more than simply a lot of money, women and drugs, or is it?
Bowden: He is responsible for his killings and refuses to blame others. But he is a product of Mexican civilization where you obey the patron and do not claim responsibility. I don’t think he has any particular aptitude for killing. He simply trained himself and became a murderous instrument. Had he been born and raised ten miles further north in El Paso he would have become a white collar professional. For his part, he feels his key moral failing has been impatience and that he killed because it was a shortcut to good money. His later conversion to Christianity is an effort to accept suffering and that good things require time.
The lesson of the sicario is that he is not different from you or me. This behavior is latent in all of us.
Rumpus: I was afraid of that. I tried to imagine myself as el sicario while I read his story. I think I would need more of a violent context to become such a person, such as a childhood in Juarez where death is an everyday occurrence and poverty is the norm. Mexico seems such a perfect storm for what is happening in Juarez – you don’t seem optimistic for the future of that town. What do you think can be done?
Bowden: I am always an optimist. The pessimists are the liars who refuse to admit what is happening. And I’ll give you three things we could do this instant to help Mexico: legalize drugs, renegotiate NAFTA so that it pays a living wage, protects unions and protects the environment and stop Plan Merida which gives $500 million a year to the Mexican army, the largest single criminal organization in Mexico.
As for the sicario, he is one of 13 children. No one else in his family turned to crime and everyone else in his family disowned him. And they were all poor.
Rumpus: A couple of years ago, maybe longer, my sense of time is awful, Calderon threatened to legalize drugs in Mexico. What if he did? Would the economy in Mexico collapse and how would it affect the US economy, a significant portion of which is estimated to consist of laundered drug money?
Bowden: If drugs were legalized in the US, the Mexican economy would collapse since the earnings from drugs bring in more hard currency than its largest licit source, oil sales. Mexico is a corrupt state that has now become dependent on the earnings on an illegal product. But inevitably, the product will become legal and then Mexico will retain its corruption but must face the needs of its citizens now employed by the drug industry who have become steeped in violence and conditioned to higher incomes.
Legalized drugs would cause dislocations in the US economy–the prison industry for example and tens of billions spent annually on drug enforcement. But because the US economy is so large, this would be a minor blow, hardly as severe as the ultimate nightmare for the US economy, global peace, which would shutter its death industry commonly called the military/industrial complex.
Rumpus: What will become of El Sicario, is he still alive, have you spoken to him?
Bowden: I don’t know what will happen to him. Because of stuff I published, things became very dangerous for him over a year ago and I gave him money and he fled. He told me I would never hear from him again.
But in the long run, he will most likely be murdered. His generation in the Juarez drug organization is all but extinct. It is a hard business. But you must realize that he is not a monster. He is not immoral. He is not a psychopath. He is, as I have mentioned, a part of us. We try to avoid that fact just as we try to avoid his behavior.
Rumpus: All this information haunts me. I shared some of this knowledge last night at a gathering of vegetarians and people edged away. I guess its not good dinner talk.
Bowden: No, it is not. There are things no one wants to know. And there are lies everyone wants to hear.
Rumpus: What are you working on these days? How is the bird watching where you live in New Mexico?
Bowden: I am writing about about my desire to escape Juarez and my hunger for wild life and wild places. I am on the fifteenth draft and sinking into a swamp of herons and roseate spoonbills.