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Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

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Ciudad Juárez lies just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. A once-thriving border town, it now resembles a failed state. Infamously known as the place where women disappear, its murder rate exceeds that of Baghdad. Last year 1,607 people were killed—a number that is on pace to increase in 2009.

In Murder City, Charles Bowden—one of the few journalists who has spent extended periods of time in Juárez—has written an extraordinary account of what happens when a city disintegrates. Interweaving stories of its inhabitants—a raped beauty queen, a repentant hitman, a journalist fleeing for his life—with a broader meditation on the town’s descent into anarchy, Bowden reveals how Juárez’s culture of violence will not only worsen, but inevitably spread north.

Heartbreaking, disturbing, and unforgettable, Murder City establishes Bowden as one of our leading writers working at the height of his powers.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published February 19, 2010

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About the author

Charles Bowden

59 books160 followers
Charles Bowden was an American non-fiction author, journalist and essayist based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

His journalism appeared regularly in Harper’s GQ, and other national publications. He was the author of several books of nonfiction, including Down by the River.

In more than a dozen groundbreaking books and many articles, Charles Bowden blazed a trail of fire from the deserts of the Southwest to the centers of power where abstract ideas of human nature hold sway — and to the roiling places that give such ideas the lie. He claimed as his turf "our soul history, the germinal material, vast and brooding, that is always left out of more orthodox (all of them) books about America" (Jim Harrison, on Blood Orchid ).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 211 reviews
Profile Image for Amar Pai.
960 reviews101 followers
February 4, 2012
This book, like Bowden's earlier work Down By The River, makes me so angry I feel like I'm suffocating. People who believe in the "War on Drugs" are so completely disconnected from reality that no rational arguments are even worth mustering. At this point it's like arguing against belief in God. He exists because he exists. Drugs are bad because drugs are bad. The War on Drugs is working because it is working.

50,000 dead in Mexico since Calderon commenced the current "crackdown on cartels." The violence is at a level that nobody in the U.S. could possibly believe. "Plan Merida" sent billions to the Mexican military to fight the cartels. The Mexican military brutalizes Mexico just like the cartels but nobody dares report on any of it because reporters get killed. Juarez is a black hole from which no information escapes. Cartels use the DEA/FBI to knock off their competitors. Through all the torture murders, disappearances, rapes, executions, assassinations, beheadings, strangulations, the flow of drugs and profits remains constant.

AAARGH what's the point of ranting, you either open your eyes or you don't. Americans don't. We can't legalize drugs because we can't. The drug smugglers would just do something else. The DEA/FBI are effective. Cartels are separate from government. Banks are not the enemy. The current system is working. Just give it more time. Just give them more money. God I can see why Bowden lapses into elliptical poetical fragments, it's because the reality is too hard to take straight on.

Taking a step back, Bowden isn't really concerned with elucidating the details of who is killing who, what the larger picture is. He knows the conventional explanation-- collapse of the PRI (ruling party in Mexico for almost a century) resulted in the traditional cartel/govt. accommodation breaking down, and since cartels were no longer protected by govt. they started feuding/retaliating with army and each other . But Bowden's thesis is that all these explanations at this point are just-so tales, and the reality is that violence is no longer tied to any rational framework in Juarez-- it exists like the atmosphere, inescapable and chaotic and just the new reality. This bleak outlook is perhaps unhelpful to anybody trying to fix the situation, but after covering this stuff for 20+ years while the US looks on indifferently (or worse) I think his jaundiced view is understandable.

Donate to Drug Policy Alliance: http://www.drugpolicy.org/

Watch the Wire, understand why "drugs on the table" is a joke

Vote for politicians/initiatives in favor of ending military aid to Mexico, mandatory sentencing laws, marijuana prohibition. Make it clear this is not a "wedge issue" and that "soft on drugs" is just a meaningless dog whistle

Realize that the second Prohibition has not worked any better than the first. It will never work. No matter what the consequences of legalizing/decriminalizing/changing current US drug policy, it can't be any worse than what's happening now. Understand what is happening now.

Profile Image for Jason.
114 reviews584 followers
August 10, 2010
If you could reduce this book to one sentence, it would be this: The murder rate in Ciudad Juarez is now higher than any other city in North America--EVER--and with no significant change in demography or law enforcement procedure, it will continue to climb annually!

Imagine a continuum. On the far left is genocide. On the far right is municipal murder rate. The continuum only captures, say, the last 20 years. (This continuum does not include conventional warfare, where uniformed combatants meet on a battlefield and follow Laws of Armed Conflict.)

On the far left, fading to the right ARE
1983-2002: Sudanese civil war (2 million)
1988-2001: Afghanistan civil war (400,000)
1988-2004: Somalia's civil war (550,000)
1989-: Liberian civil war (220,000)
1991-97: Congo's civil war (800,000)
1991-2000: Sierra Leone's civil war (200,000)
1991-2009: Russia-Chechnya civil war (200,000)
1991-94: Armenia-Azerbaijan war (35,000)
1992-96: Tajikstan's civil war war (50,000)
1992-96: Yugoslavian wars (260,000)
1993-97: Congo Brazzaville's civil war (100,000)
1993-2005: Burundi's civil war (200,000)
1994: Rwanda's civil war (900,000)
1998-: Congo/Zaire's war (3.8 million)
2003-09: Sudan vs JEM/Darfur (300,000)

On the far right, fading to the left, are US MURDERS
1996: 19,650
1997: 18,208
1998: 16,914
1999: 15,522
2000: 15,586
2001: 16,037
2002: 16,229
2003: 16,528
2004: 16,148
2005: 16,740
2006: 17,030
2007: 16,929
2008: 16,272

At times the municipal murder rates may peak, like Miami in the 70’s, New York in the 80’s, Los Angeles in the 90’s, and New Orleans in the 00’s. However, these rates are for the entire United States, with a population of 300 million.

In Ciudad Juarez, a single city with a population of roughly 1 million, the number of murders are:
2008: 1607
2009: 2455

Extrapolate. This means that a single mid-sized Mexican city has 10% of the murders of an entire country 300 times its size! Read that again. This means that a single mid-sized Mexican city has 10% of the murders of an entire country 300 times its size! Compared to the US, Ciudad Juarez’s murder rate is a perverse outlier. The number of murders represents TWO magnitudes of order multiplied by a factor of three. In other words, if the United States had a similar murder rate as Ciudad Juarez, then in 2008: 482,000 murders, and in 2009: 736,000 murders. At this murder rate would you be a concerned US citizen? You betcha would!

So where in that continuum would Ciudad Juarez best fit? Looks to me like it would be closer to the left side--near the genocides. The paper napkin math above is not provided by the author, but I think it makes the point. Ciudad Juarez has a problem. It’s got a murder problem. And it’s at genocidal proportions. You’d be safer in Mogadishu, Somalia or Kabul, Afghanistan.

Now the book. Charles Bowden has the cold facts as his disposal, yet he chooses to write the book somewhat like a diary. He wanted to reveal what this murder rate has done to the citizens of Juarez. An eerie malaise has descended on this border city. There has not been a single arrest for murder in 2 years; not a single killer brought to trial. Nobody talks about the murders--even if they have relevant information. The police are corrupt, the army is corrupt, the newspaper is corrupt, your neighbors are corrupt. The army is killing cops, the cops are killing informants, informants are killing dealers, dealers are killing each other, and the cartels are killing everybody. Collusion in Juarez is a 3-dimensional web that is perpetually being re-weaved. Women and children are being killed in great numbers. And the killings are peculiar in their brutality. Most of the bodies have signs of torture, strangulation, amputation, and decapitation. Mass graves of 30+ people are not uncommon. People who’ve simply disappeared are not part of the murder count--not part of the count, that is, until their bodies are discovered years later.

Brown writes in a trippy, Jim Morrison, Riders on the Storm type of riff that highlights the killings by exposing the absurdity of daily life in this broken town. Brown takes you on a ride through the heat, the haze, the dust, and the fear in Juarez. The murders happen with such spinning regularity that for 320 pages you feel drugged and listening to a long bass guitar and piano organ solo. Over and over the bodies keep appearing. Their crumpled, limbless bodies appear every morning like dead cicadas. Police take hours to arrive at the scene of a murder. Why? Because they want to make sure the scene is safe to approach. The maimed are not taken to the hospital immediately because the killers will invade the emergency room and spray a magazine of bullets to finish the job. The dead may be the lucky ones. Gang rapes, molestation, severe beatings, and cellar slavery happen every day. Sporadic in the book, Brown interleaves the obituaries of the unidentified dead. Life rolls on; the dead are forgotten; newspapers mention nothing; Riders on the Storm.

The overriding conclusion I draw from this book is that the US war on drugs has not--and will not--work in Mexico. Period. I make this conclusion independent of Brown’s commentary. It’s also my political position on our drug problem in the States. Oh, and if your wonder, murder rates in 2010 are staged to set yet another record.

I wish Bowden stayed in non-fiction territory, because his book has the feel of a long diary. It works, but it’s much of the same, chapter after chapter. However, if this is the first you’ve heard that the Mexican border is dangerous, then this is mandatory reading for you.

Profile Image for Jamie.
1,173 reviews421 followers
October 19, 2022
Please be advised that there will be no apocalypse. The very idea of a Götterdämmerung assumes meaning and progress. You cannot fall off a mountain unless you are climbing. No one here is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. We shall not meet next year in Jerusalem. For years, I thought I was watching the city go from bad to worse, a kind of terrible backsliding from its imagined destiny as an America with different food. I was blind to what was slapping me in the face: the future.

Razed, spoiled, polluted, corrupted, exploited, more bloody than our bloodiest war zone, this is not our past, argues Bowden. This is not our failure. This is our success. This is our progress. We have triumphed.

After decades of this thing called development, Juárez has in sheer numbers more poor people than ever, has in real purchasing power lower wages than ever, has more pollution than ever, and more untreated sewage and less water than ever. Every claim of a gain is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of failure. And yet this failure, I have come to realize, is not failure. The gangs are not failure. The corrupt police are not failure. The drugs, ever cheaper and more potent and more widespread, are not failure. The media is increasingly tame here, just as it is in that place that once proudly called itself the first world, a place now where wars go on with barely a mention and the dead are counted but not photographed.

All the other things happening in the world—the shattering of currencies, the depletion of resources, the skyrocketing costs of food, energy, and materials—are old hat here. Years ago, hope moved beyond reach, and so a new life was fashioned and now it crowds out all other notions of life.

Juárez is not behind the times. It is the sharp edge slashing into a time called the future.
Profile Image for John.
282 reviews65 followers
October 16, 2012
Putting the subject matter aside for a second (if only I could put it aside forever), this book really changed my notion of what a non-fiction book can be. My book diet skews heavily towards the fiction side of things (not my short reads, mind you—if I’m reading something shorter than 10,000 words, chances are it’s non-fiction), and the stereotype notion of a standard non-fiction book that I carry around in my head is something that is basically an extended essay—the author (usually a journalist) has an outline that conveys the point she is trying to make, and the prose functions only to carry the reader through that outline as efficiently as possible. The notion that a non-fiction book can impressionistically convey a situation, rather than teleologically drive home a point, is not something I would have given the genre credit for. That such a book could be written in a voice every bit as distinct as a work of literary fiction, where voice is often more important than the “point”, is definitely something I would not have expected opening up a book from the non-fic section of my library.

But then there’s Charles Bowden and Ciudad Juarez. Even though this book is a chronicle of large-scale and absolutely desperate barbarity, Bowden’s voice is that of a non-fiction Cormac McCarthy: rambling and full of digressions and circumlocutions, but always returning to the horrifying subject at hand with a pared-down prose style and an unflinching portrayal of violence and tragedy. The narrative follows several people—a repentant contract killer, the founder of a desert rehabilitation center and one of its occupants—but unlike non-fiction of a more journalistic bent, Bowden does not try to extract some facile, ready-made, over-simplified “meaning” from their lives. He just gives us a slice of their lives and say “Now you have an inkling of what it’s like.”

To the extent that Bowden has a larger "point," it is not just that Ciudad Juarez is the bloodiest city on Earth—indeed, Bowden does not seem interested in tracing the history that lead Juarez to its current state of mayhem the way that, say, Jason Stearns did with the Congo. Rather, hanging over every story in this book is the fact that the humanitarian disaster of the drug war, for which Juarez is ground zero, is a direct result of decisions made by elected officials in Washington DC, and, by extension, of the people who elected them. That is, the blood that has been and is being spilled as part of the drug trade and the so-called “war on drugs” is on the hands of every citizen of the United States. We are all participants, unwilling or not, in a democratic society that does absolutely nothing to rein in the murderous force our government aids abets within walking distance of the Rio Grande. Our appetite for cocaine and marijuana puts weapons in the hands of one side, and our simultaneous desire to enforce the strict prohibition of these substances arms the other. The net result is blood and torment by the trailer-load. I wish this book would be taught in high school civics classes.
Profile Image for Angie Taylor.
Author 8 books44 followers
August 13, 2016
This book is disturbing. Disturbing in number of deaths. Disturbing in the questions of what is fact and false. Disturbing in the implications that the solutions to the problems in Juarez aren't working. Disturbing in it's entirety.

At times the book reads like a poetic stream of consciousness lamenting the loss of innocence, loss of a people, loss of feeling for what is right and wrong, and a loss of humanity. Throughout Bowden's lament, stories of individuals surface. The people's stories weave in and out of each others and the violence surrounding them. An ever searching reason for why the violence doesn't stop permeates throughout.

Living so close to where these events have taken place and are taking place is disturbing. Not because of proximity, but because I was so unaware of what was going on, and knowing that there is nothing I could have done, or do to alleviate the problem. Although I'm not sure how I feel about all the ideas presented in this book about why such violence is occurring, I applaud Charles Bowden for making the dead's stories known.
Profile Image for Rob Maynard.
33 reviews4 followers
December 4, 2011
The original New Journalism was everything good in the potential for reportage and also held the seeds of its own seeming destruction. The magic that flowed into magazines and books from the minds of Mailer and Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and others defined eras and events and personalities in a way that traditional novels and traditional journalism could not. Wolfe and Thompson, in particular, were such stylists that the writing and perspective itself looked so different that caused generations who followed them to try, try, try too hard to emulate them. Poorly executed attempts by "the next" Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson wasted thousands of pages over the years, most of it thin gruel compared to the masters.

In discovering Charles Bowden by picking Murder City up off the 'recommended' display at my local public library branch I have found a writer that embodies everything that first wave stood for--style, pointillist detail, first person narrative of gripping society-wide impactful events, poetic language and novelistic grip. Bowden immerses himself in Juarez for the awful tale of a Narco-Terrorist state just across from our border, where normal, civil society as we know it has largely ceased to exist and the government is at war with drug cartels over the profits to be gained by selling America our prohibited drugs.

Bowden's ongoing, nightmare tone poem about Miss Sinaloa, local beauty queen who comes to Juarez and is gang raped by cartel foot soldiers, is as creepy a metaphor for an entire society as any I've read. His conversation with a cartel sicario(hit man)reveals both awful detail and dreadful realization that in Chihuahua State kidnapping, torture, murder and body disposal are the only ways out for ambitious dead-end kids without inherited wealth.

Aside from Bowden's amazing writing and reportage, he hammers home again and again a point that I knew in my bones before reading this but now acknowledge as fact--the narrative we are sold in the MSM that we are 'partnering' with the Mexican Government to fight the cartels is bunk, bad information, the current Big Lie. The long-serving PRI Mexican Government had a cooperative relationship with the cartels until the most recent government changeover several years back. Since then, the government is at war with the cartels over who gets the pot, coke, meth, and heroin proceeds. The average person on the ground in Juarez is as terrified of being 'disappeared' by the police or army as they are of being executed or tortured the Sinaloa Cowboys or the Zetas. The Zetas, in fact, started as a rogue element of the Mexican Army Special Forces. Apparently PRI is poised to re-take the Mexican Government in upcoming elections, and the realpolitik hope by the comfortable classes there is that everyone will go back to their earlier split of the proceeds and let the War On Drugs in Mexico return to its earlier cold war status.

In any event, don't read this book if you don't want to know about all that. Bowden's writing is a revelation, and I will seek out his other work as I am able. Murder City is the current mark on the wall for New Journalism IMHOP, and is worthy of consideration along with those Mt. Rushmore-ian figures I mentioned earlier.
Profile Image for Aron.
129 reviews19 followers
July 14, 2010
I found this book extremely frustrating. Bowden did some terrific investigative reporting and when he lets the people he met talk for themselves, the book is fascinating, terrifying and moving. But when he goes on and on about his own anger and frustration, it just sounds self-righteous and his writing deteriorates. Not that I doubt his rage is genuine, it's just that his style becomes florid and overly melodramatic. The situation is dramatic as it is. No need to hit your readers over the head with the obvious.

Another problem is that Bowden repeats himself over and over. Perhaps the book started as a collection of separate articles so Bowden has to repeat parts of the stories to bring readers up to speed. But in the book, where you just read the same thing a few pages earlier, it is annoying. One wonders where the editors are these days.

Finallly Bowden hits us over the head with his argument that Ciudad Juarez is the future for all of us in a globalized capitalist world. He constantly repeats that all other explanations for the situation are just not the truth, but he doesn't provide any evidence for his argument beyond his own rage. The fact is everything he tells us indicates that all the explanations are not false, but partial truths that together create the horrifying situation in Mexico.

Despite my criticism this book is definitely worth reading to get new insights into what is happening south of the Rio Grande. Just skim through Bowden's pontificating and listen to the Mexicans speak for themselves.
Profile Image for Betsy Kalman.
34 reviews5 followers
August 22, 2014
Bowden takes the reader into Juarez and renders the depravity, the violence and the odd humanity of the sicarios--the assassins in a method that is emotionally devastating. "'We are not monsters,'" an assassin explains. "'We have education, we have feelings. I would leave torturing someone, go home, and have dinner with my family, and then return. You shut off parts of your mind. It is a kind of work, you follow orders.'" The city's residents are so completely unable to protect themselves and their families it is amazing that life goes on in this desolate city.
Bowden's conclusion tracks with the biblical concept of evil. One of the few uncorrupted men in the city is El Pastor, who directs Bowden to Ephesians 6:10-13, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
In a city where nothing makes sense, this is the only place Bowden can find resonance, and he this is where he leaves his reader.
Profile Image for Karin Cope.
15 reviews1 follower
January 3, 2016
For the whole review, see my blog entry here:

Note, Chuck Bowden is no longer with us; he died in August 2014.

It begins as follows:

On February 17th, on my way to Mexico, I begin reading Chuck Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. We'd heard him interviewed on the radio in January, his voice languid and haunted, cracking from the speaker like something from the other side of death. Which in a way, he is. He's been counting Mexico's dead and often brutally dismembered--journalists, photographers, prostitutes, police, Central American immigrants, drug addicts, homeless, mentally ill, children, tourists, students, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, passersby--the mounting "collateral damage" of the joint US-Mexican "war on drugs." This month, May, the numbers of Mexico's dead stagger towards 40,000.

Bowden's book reads like poetry; it's an elegy for missing people; a maddened cry; a descent into hell.

Small details arc through the text. For the most part, Bowden cites newspaper stories--this one, for example, the 907th "murder" story filed in 2008 by his friend Armando Rodriguez, who was then gunned down before the story appeared. As Rodriguez wrote in El Diario in Cuidad Juarez the night before his own death: "The man assassinated Tuesday night in the Diaz Ordaz viaduct was a street clown, according to the state authority. Nevertheless, this person has not been identified, but it was reported that he was between 25 and 30 years old, 1.77 meters tall, delicate, light brown complexion, short black hair" (vi).

Nothing is known; everything is known; names are rarely reported. This is why, recently, in the days of protest called for by poet Javier Sicilia, whose 24 year old son, Juan Francisco, was tortured and killed in March near Cuernavaca, there has been a move to post the names of the dead in town and city squares all over the country. As Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos wrote in his letter of support for Javier Sicilia's call to action, from "somewhere in the mountains of southeast Mexico:" "[W]e know well that to name the dead is a way of not abandoning them, of not abandoning ourselves."

Thus, for a part of one year, 2008, in just one place, Ciudad Juarez, which lies across the mostly dry Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Bowden tries to track and to name every one among the dead or brutally injured that he can find. He fails miserably.

Partly because he loses heart--or rather, he and his assistant Molly Molloy do--and partly because it is impossible. This is, in fact, one of the reasons they lose heart. As he writes in the introduction to his Appendix, titled "The River of Blood," an effort to track and translate the daily press reports of the dead, "At first, it is simply a clerical task. Read the papers and put down the names, if given, and the time and cause of death....[But] by June 2008, the city cannot handle its own dead and starts giving corpses wholesale to medical schools or tossing bodies into common graves. The list of the dead becomes a dark burden as solid information dwindles. And so it finally trails off, a path littered with death and small voices whispering against the growing night" (237). Elsewhere he notes, "By the summer of 2009, Juarez looks back on the slaughter of 2008 as the quiet time" (233).

But I've not gotten to this point in the book on February 17th when my flight lands in Phoenix, Arizona. Still, I understand one very important thing already: Bowden is tracking a logic of death, a pattern to the killings that will be, as he puts it, "coming soon" to cities all over the world. It's already scheduled, we could say, for a city near you.

Profile Image for Joshua Buhs.
647 reviews105 followers
October 12, 2014

Charles Bowden knows the Southwest. He knows Ciudad Juárez. He's walked its streets, He's talked to its people. He has no patience for armchair pundits. He knows where the bodies are buried.


Bowden's book is about Juárez in the year of 2008, when--as John Wesley Harding said a decade before--pointless death's become/A brand new way of life and the murder rate skyrocketed to several hundred in the single year. Bowden tried to keep track of them all before becoming disgusted. He tried to quit, but couldn't. He talked to the government and the police, read the newspapers, and found them full of lies, half-truths, and speculation.

It was the drug cartels, said the officials, killing each other.

Not quite, said Bowden. The geography of drug dealing had changed, making Juárez central, and certainly drug dealing had something to do with all the deaths. But the police, the military--they were killing and raping, too, with impunity, Juárez was lawless.

Don't write it off as just a Mexico problem, though, Bowden says. We may be looking at the future: a time when the institutions of the state remain, but are ineffective. This is not a new social organization, but a new way of life. One is tempted to think that Bowden's perspective has been poisoned by all the pointless death he has witnessed, and maybe the whole thing is a bit too pessimistic. But then look at what's going on in Ferguson. Hell, look at what's going on in Wall Street. It's true that privilege has always excused itself, and shit has always rolled downhill. The question remains, are things getting worse?

Bowden finds some bits of hope: a pastor--himself a former druggie--founds an asylum of sorts on the outskirts of the city, where the broken can congregate. There are a few journalists willing to call the powers-that-be on their actions, though they are certain to be put on a death-list.

The writing is intimate, even poetic, Bowden at times addressing the reader straight on, at other times versifying news reports. The book is sometimes repetitive, the structure obscure, but that serves its ultimate point of showing the confusion, the mundanity of the horror.

I couldn't help but wonder if Bowden at some point had read Charles Fort or Tiffany Thayer. His critique was essentially a Fortean one: experts knew nothing, newspapers invented stories that flattered the powerful, and the real mechanics behind the events are yet undiscovered.

A very unsettling book.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,541 reviews5 followers
April 10, 2010
This is, without a doubt, one of the most dark and disturbing books I have read in a long time. I heard the author talking on NPR last week, and I was so captivated by his story that I ordered the brand new hardcover on Amazon, something I rarely do.

I have, for years now, been fascinated with Ciudad Juarez in Mexcio. Most people have heard about the 'femicides' that have taken place there over the past ten years or so: hundreds and hundreds of young women raped and murdered, with virtually no one arrested, tried, or convicted for the crimes. Two films have been made about the murders, one staring Jennifer Lopez (which I saw) and one with Minnie Driver (which I didn't see). Perhaps I became interested because of my long-ago studies in college related to serial muder and profiling. Perhaps I just couldn't believe something so awful could be taking place a stone's throw from the United States. Whatever is was, I have studied Juarez over the past few years, and what I have learned makes me sick.

Now, "Murder City" has opened my eyes even wider. Over the past three or four years, more than 5,000 people have been killed with virtually no response from law enforement. The cartels battle each other. The police kill civilians. The federal police kill the local police. The Mexican Army kills everyone. Men kill their wives, girlfriends, and daughters with complete impunity. It is, quite literally, Hell on earth. Poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, pollution, hunger, kidnapping, torture, insanity, disease, and--above all--violence, violence, violence. As I read, I kept thinking about the old Stanley Kubrick movie "A Clockwork Orange." Pointless, blanketing, smothering violence at every level in this sad, broken place. "A wee bit of the old ultra-violence," as the main character, Alex, said in the film. Ultra-violence indeed.

The author doesn't try to explain why all of this is happening. He compares it to sunlight: it just is. Globalization, NAFTA, the War on Drugs...for all I know, the Devil himself. Utterly horrifying. I pity the people of Mexico, I truly do. May God have mercy on all of them, and on us, for our part in creating this nightmare.

I am going to send some money to a small charity that I found in Juarez. It's the least that I can do.
Profile Image for Eddie.
182 reviews5 followers
July 2, 2010
From the very fist page, I was hooked. This was a side of Juarez that I had no idea was going on. All I ever hear about that place, is it's really bad over there and it's right next door to good ol' El Paso, Texas. This isn't a feel good book, whatsoever. It isn't a solution to the problem, either. It's a book just stating the facts on the nightmare that is taking place and is being swept under the rug by politicians, government, and media outlets for many reasons, but mostly due to fear and not knowing how to solve a problem that has grown to enormous proportions. There were parts in this book that even gave me the creeps. One good thing it did, though, was put a different spin on the safety, compared to there, that I feel here in the United States. This book is well written and is a definite eye opener. As dark, creepy and overall sad this book was, I couldn't put it down for the life of me.
Profile Image for Niklas Pivic.
Author 3 books63 followers
June 25, 2012
Geography has made the city the link between the center of Mexico and the transportation arteries of the United States. But in the 1980s, major cocaine routes shifted from Florida to Mexico, and Juárez became the beneficiary of this change. Profits increased manyfold, and by 1995, the Juárez cartel was taking in $250 million a week, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Violence grew accordingly, as did corruption of the local government to protect this money. But nothing in this past of vice, drugs, corruption, and money prepared the city for the violence it was suddenly experiencing. Juárez had tasted two hundred to three hundred murders a year in the 1990s and most of the new century. Suddenly, a month of forty or fifty executions seemed quiet—the previous record slaughter for the city was thirty-nine in September 1995. A new day had begun and it looks like night.

This book is about the crime in Juárez, Mexico, and how it has escalated to the point where 300 murders a month is commonplace, where everybody is controlled by the drug-selling cartels and corruption is the way of doing things.

At first, reading things like the following stanza from the book:

In 2008, between 5,000 and 6,000 Mexicans died in the violence, a larger loss than what the United States has endured during the entire Iraq war. Since the year 2000, 24 reporters have been officially recorded as murdered in Mexico, 7 more have vanished, and an unknown number have fled into the United States. But all numbers in Mexico are slippery because people have a way of disappearing and not being reported.

...felt a bit dramatic, but, I can assure you, it's far less than dramatic over the course of reading more than 30-50 pages. It's commonplace, and not jaded. After a while I was shocked with the gist of
a birds-eye view of things:

According to the Mexican government and the DEA, the violence in Juárez results from a battle between various drug cartels. This makes perfect sense, except that the war fails to kill cartel members. With over two hundred fresh corpses in ninety days, there is hardly a body connected to the cartels. Nor can the Mexican army seem to locate any of the leaders of the cartels, men who have lived in the city for years. The other problem with this cartel war theory is that the Mexican army in Juárez continues to seize tons of marijuana but only a few kilos of cocaine, this in a city with thousands of retail cocaine outlets.

It just keeps going, on a personal level, i.e. without facts having been completely drawn from books:

A friend of mine can barely leave anything in his house, because local addicts rob it the moment he exits. He is on his third large dog. The previous two were poisoned. He has hopes for the third guard dog.

When the cartels are actually openly searching for merciless killers to join their death-squads, you get a sense of how much people are prepared to do to earn money from selling drugs:

In Nuevo Laredo, the sister city to Laredo, Texas, people notice a huge banner floating over one of the major thoroughfares. The message is simple: “Operative group ‘The Zetas’ wants you, soldier or ex-soldier. We offer a good salary, food and benefits for your family. Don’t suffer any more mistreatment and don’t go hungry.” The banner also advises, “We don’t feed you Maruchan soups [a brand of ramen noodles].” It lists a cell phone number. In Tampico, another banner appears that says, “Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel. We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice. What more could you ask for? Tamaulipas, Mexico, the USA and the entire world is Gulf Cartel territory.” The authorities in Mexico City say they think the advertisement is authentic. The Zetas, besides maintaining training camps for new employees, also equip their people with automatic weapons, grenades, dynamite, and rocket launchers. Presumably they also get machetes since the group sometimes decapitates its adversaries. One of the Zetas’ leaders is said to have elite Guatemalan soldiers as bodyguards. On March 17, Mexican authorities in the state of Tamaulipas seize a Jeep Cherokee with special features: a smoke-screen generator, bulletproofing, and, attached in the rear, a device to throw spikes on the road.

While the violence, the daily life in it and the way that the author constructs this in the book is well-written, there is also a lucid, poetic deal to the book. Throughout it, the author draws parallels to "Miss Sinaloa", a woman who was "raped out of her mind", and a former beauty queen:

Violence courses through Juárez like a ceaseless wind, and we insist it is a battle between cartels, or between the state and the drug world, or between the army and the forces of darkness. But consider this possibility: Violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button. Violence is not a part of life, now it is life. Just ask Miss Sinaloa.

The poetic tangent actually works to the benefit of the book, as it enhances the feeling of how hum-drum murder, rape and corruption has actually become, and how everything that is officially reported throughout the town seems to have very little or nothing to do with reality.

As with the Italian mafias, there have been some serious attempts made to get to the problem from its core:

Under President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), a new incorruptible force, Fiscalía Especializada en Atención de Delitos contra la Salud (FEADS), was created. One part deserted, became the Zetas, and functionally took over the Gulf cartel in the early days of the new century. In 1997, an organized crime unit was formed to tackle the cartels, and at the same moment in Mexico City, the agents of yet an earlier squad assigned to fight drugs were found dead in a car trunk. FEADS was finally dissolved in 2003 when it was found to be hopelessly corrupt. Under President Felipe Calderón, yet a new federal mutation emerged—AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigación). Its head was murdered in the spring of 2008. His dying words to his killer were, “Who sent you?” The government later determined the hit was done by the Sinaloa cartel, with the killers led by a former officer in the agency.

And to further address how widespread corruption, lying and how the information in the city papers are to be believed:

Violence in Juárez always has an ability to become invisible. Since no one trusts the police, crime statistics are often guesswork because citizens of the city do not report what has happened to them. Since the police are often criminals, there is little incentive for them to fight crime. Since torture is the basic forensic tool of law enforcement, the elements of law and order have developed few, if any, skills in solving crimes. Since virtually everyone arrested confesses after enough beatings, there is a patina of crime fighting to disguise the actual business of a gangster state. Since all of this is obvious, it is almost never said and very often not even consciously believed. In most instances, the criminal police and the citizens both share in a fantasy that the crimes are being investigated, the criminals being tamed, and the person standing before them in a uniform and carrying a badge is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Some notes from the people of Juarez are also very interesting:

“You see birds walking on the pavement in Juárez,” he explains, “and their heads dart from side to side because they are waiting for someone to throw a rock and kill them. This is the way it is for narcos.”

And as the author talks to a professional hitman (whom are called "sicarios", of whom there seems to be quite a lot of in the city):

I ask him how much he would charge to kill me. He gives me a cool appraisal and says, “At most, five thousand dollars, probably less. You are powerless and you have no connections to power. No one would come after me if I killed you.”

A real sicario, he notes, does not kill women or children. Well, unless the women are informants for the DEA or the FBI.

Everything is contained and sealed. In the 1990s, they used crazy kids to steal cars for the work, but the kids, about forty of them, got too arrogant and started bragging in the nightclubs and selling drugs. This violated an agreement with the governor of Chihuahua to keep the city quiet. So one night in 1998, fifty police and one hundred fifty guys from the organization, who were to ensure the job was done, rounded up all the kids on Avenida Juárez. They were not tortured. They were killed with a single headshot and buried in one hole. “No,” he smiles at me, “I will not tell you where that hole is.”

And on...

Also, there is a story that says reporters track police radio in order to cover the murders, but that now, for the first time, voices are coming over these police channels and over their cell phones, warning them to slow down, to not arrive at the killing scene just yet. Because it is not finished.

A new list of police yet to be executed is found outside a police station. At the bottom of the list of names is a simple thought: “Thank you for waiting.”

“The narcos,” he wants me to understand, “have informants in DEA and the FBI. They work until they are useless. Then they are killed.” He pauses. “Informants for the FBI and DEA die ugly.” He explains. “They were brought handcuffed behind the back to the death house where they found thirty-eight bodies,” he rolls on. “A T-shirt was soaked with gasoline and put on their backs, lit, and then, after a while, pulled from their backs. The skin came off with it. Both men made sounds like cattle being killed. They were injected with a drug so they would not lose consciousness. Then they put alcohol on their testicles and lit them. They jumped so high—they were handcuffed, and still I never saw people jump so high.” We are slipping now, all the masks have fallen to the floor, the veteran, the professional sicario is walking me through a key assignment he completed. “Their backs were like leather and did not bleed. They put plastic bags on their heads to smother them and then revived them with alcohol under their noses. “All they ever said to us was ‘We will see you in hell.’ “This went on for three days. They smelled terrible because of the burns. They brought in a doctor to keep reviving them. They wanted them to live one more day. After a while, they defecated blood. They shoved broomsticks up their asses. “The second day, a person came and told them, ‘I warned you this was going to happen.’ “They said, ‘Kill us.’ “The guys lived three days. The doctor kept injecting them to keep them alive, and he had to work hard. Eventually, they died of the torture. “They never asked God for help. They just kept saying, ‘We will see you in hell.’ “I buried them with their faces down and poured on a whole lot of lime.” He is excited. It is all back. He can feel the shovel in his hand. Smell the burned flesh.

It's all daunting. Very heavy.

We have the numbers. Since January 1994, there have been 3,955 murders in Juárez. Since January 2008, there have been 540 murders. It is the last day of June, and there is still time. The numbers that give us comfort, those dates and tallies, these numbers are still tumbling in. We can write them in columns on white paper and install order in our minds. But still, that door must be opened.

By the end of 2008, the monthly totals reached beyond two hundred. By summer 2009, more than three hundred murders in a month became normal in Juárez.

Even despite the way things have been going and, indeed, are going, the author and life itself leans towards hope, but not without a very real way of getting at things. I wish this book would have explained global drug trading and how the future of drug trade and the workings of the cartels could pan out, as this would perhaps have provided a very special prognosis of things to come. But will change come, really? The drug trade is simply too rich. Its dividends pay off too easily, and its main players refuse to give up their positions; to what, really? Minimum-wage jobs in low-interest sectors?

This is a really well-composed and well-written book. The tempo, the pace and the feeling is more than most non-fiction books ever get, and with the poetic tinge throughout makes this memorable. And very sad.
Profile Image for Dora.
Author 10 books6 followers
May 13, 2015
Harrowing and hair-raising investigative journalism in a city which lays waste to many who try to uncover its secrets.

Spoiler: although he's still alive, the author didn't escape Ciudad Juárez and probably never will. Something about his time there seems to have broken Bowden, but he was able to spin his despair into some top-notch reportage. Much of the book is taken up with the reporter's (rather more literary) version of screaming and tearing at his own face, and I agree with the many reviewers who've noted that the text falls apart in those places. So did I, a few times. Worth a read.

TL;DR - this book is well-researched and brutal; it's kind of disjointed, but not enough to suck.
661 reviews3 followers
September 28, 2015
Magnificent, horrendous account. Brutally poetic and should be required reading for all Americans, particularly the ones who scream so blithely and inanely and pitifully ignorantly about illegals and refugees. We have no idea the courage of the people of Juarez for simply rising each morning, going to work, to school, to the store. El Pastor is a hero, not all the guys with guns, not any of the guys with guns. Bowden paints a charnel house, yet, yet, with a strange beauty, something irresistible while almost but not quite smothered by pain. I hope things are better now.
Profile Image for Christopher.
10 reviews1 follower
January 31, 2013
"Murder City" by Charles Bowden is a visceral, gritty journey into the chaos and violence that has gripped the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez since 2008. Juarez has always been a dangerous town, but since Mexican president Felipe Calderon unleashed the nation's military on his own people, it has turned into a wasteland of murder, rape, crime and terror. Bowden chronicles the city's downfall with the eye of a scientist and the pen of a poet, he introduces us to haunting characters, chilling stories and produces a work that isn't just about Mexico, but about the heart of darkness found in all societies. This is writing that deserves to be compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "News Of A Kidnapping." It also closely resembles Hunter S. Thompson's style of "gonzo" journalism.

Bowden here is not providing a traditional, academic study, some here have complained about his "odd" writing style. What Bowden has done is capture the SPIRIT, the humanity of the situation. "Murder City" is about the victims of history, the human beings swept up in a hurricane of madness. He brilliant mixes hallucionatory passages with facts, figures and historical research. The portrait he paints is of a Mexico where the basic system of society is decaying, falling apart due to many factors. He brings the city of Juarez to life with edgy descriptions of its dusty landscapes, dangerous slums and the wealthy districts full of Barbie dolls who walk down the street with their shopping bags, trying to ignore the apocalyptic wasteland around them. We travel everywhere from the bars to the underside of the bridges that connect to El Paso, Texas. Bowden provides details on Mexico's drug cartels, including El Chapo Guzman, Mexico's own Pablo Escobar who hovers like a ghostly presence over the bloodshed. There's also the Zetas, a cartel composed of former army commandos. All this and more is provided with rich insights.

One of the most memorable aspects of Bowden's book is the characters he presents here. We meet former hitmen now hiding out in undisclosed locations, describing the inner workings of the cartel, the horrific torture and assassinations they carry out to keep a major industry going. Americans will be shocked to read the stories of journalists fleeing for the lives, terrified of both the cartels and the murderous army, seeking asylum in the US only to be imprisoned by immigration authorities. One of the key characters is the ghostly "Miss Sinaloa," a beauty from Sinaloa who arrives in Juarez, parties hard and then finds herself gang-raped for three days by Juarez police officers, she is then dumped at an asylum in the outskirts of the city where she slowly regains her mind and even finds love. Bowden uses her as a sort of Siren, a personification of what is happening to modern Mexico. The other presence, more terrifying, is that of the Mexican army. The news reports a lot on the crimes of the drug cartels, but Bowden here explains that the Mexican army is a criminal organization itself, not fighting the cartels but fighting for a slice of the action and pay. Bowden chronicles how the Mexican army is marauding through out its own country, looting, disappearing and raping. One of the great touches of the book is the empathy Bowden also manages to convey for the Mexican people themselves who want change, they want better things, but find themselves trapped between a criminal apparatus and a corrupt regime.

"Murder City" is not just about the drug war however, it is also about our own modern, capitalist history. Bowden shows here how Mexico is feeling the aftershocks of years of "free market" policies imposed on the population. Juarez itself is the offspring of NAFTA, which Bill Clinton promised would end illegal immigration and move Mexico into First World ranking, instead it has ravaged an entire population which now finds itself either fleeing to the US or depending on a narco-driven economy at home. There are chilling, poetic moments where Bowden warns that Juarez is not some anamoly, it is not a freak, it is the future, our future, Mexico is simply getting the first taste.

"Murder City" is the kind of nonfiction that gives you facts, but at the same time transports you to a time and place with the energy and prose of great literature. Bowden presents his gallery of assassins, murders, victims and borders with powerful images, scorching words and a unique passion found in few books now on the bestseller lists. If you want some sort of dry study of Mexico's current ills, look elsewhere, "Murder City" is nonfiction noir that goes to the heart of the matter. This is one of the year's best nonfiction books.
Profile Image for Sheehan.
605 reviews29 followers
June 17, 2010
This book was awesome, disturbing in it's frankness about the chaotic nature of Juarez Mexico; once heralded as the proof positive of the potential of NAFTA, now a city in crisis. Between the Mexican Army, which hunts local police, the "cartels" which disappear people, all the players who deal in the drug trade, and the general Juarez population which survives some 2400 murders (2009) in a city of not more than 5-6million; the reader is pummeled with some harsh realities.

A press which is cowed by the constant explicit threat of violence, and the deep deeep deeeeeep entrenchment of a narcotics market in all aspects of the civil administration, city, state and federal, it becomes clear very early on that this is what a truly failed state looks like.

But wait, it gets crazier!

Aside from the wanton violence is the inability for non-Mexican press to even approach the issues at hand, violence is always described as cartel-driven, even though locals could not, nor would they dare, name which cartels actually are running the drug trade, and many would indict the armed forces, paramilitaries and police as complicit.

Aside from the eye-opening facts the book shares, the tenor of life in Juarez, the constant "present" everyone is forced to live in not being able to plan a future, nor time/resources to reflect on the past, are constantly just surviving. Bowden does a fine job of interweaving interviews with the gunmen for hire with the stories of various victims. The victims are named in the press, the minutiae of the killings are named, but never are fingers pointed or crimes followed-up on beyond the cursory platitudes. We are talking about assainations of government workers, left with notes of other forthcoming victims, all intended to terrorize, with so many true murders following up the previous threats.

This book has more than any other this year, provided a full shift in my thinking about "failed states" about what it is to live without structure/assurances of safety, and the true cost of consumption of the North.

If you can find a copy of this book, you should read it!

Here is an indicative quote (p.234)

"Some blame the violence on a war between cartels, some blame poverty, some blame the army, some blame the army's fighting the cartels, some blame local street gangs, some blame drugs, some blame slave wages, some blame corrupt government.

But regardless of blame, no one can figure out who controls the violence, and no one can imagine how the violence can be stopped.

But everyone grows numb. Murders slip off the front page and become part of the ordinary noise of life."
November 7, 2016

Reads like a diary with plenty of stories to make you cringe. I was a young man in a Juarez cantina in the winter of 1994 and witnessed my first brutal bar fight. Never imagined it could have ever gotten worse. Never been back since then. Thank God!
Profile Image for Darren White.
18 reviews1 follower
July 25, 2011
Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
by Charles Bowden
352 pages. Nation Books. $27.50

Juárez is diseased. It doesn’t take a thorough read of Murder City: Cuidad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields to pick up on the fact that something is alarmingly wrong in a city where jobs pay immorally low wages, drugs and the people who deal them infiltrate the culture in all aspects, where the government and police are corrupt and massacre is commonplace.

For nearly 360 pages, though, writer Charles Bowden explores what a year in one of the most dangerous cities in the world—just a short walk away from the U.S. border—is like. He interviews a journalist fleeing for political asylum in the U.S. after an article he wrote offended the wrong person. He interviews a religious figure operating a makeshift mental asylum in the desert. He interviews a former sicario who has killed, and killed, and killed, and killed, now hunted by other killers and left with the weight of his sins.

In between these interviews, he watches as Mexican police exhume bodies from a neighborhood death house—which is exactly you think it is—and searches for a former patient at that asylum named “Miss Sinaloa,” who was brought there after a brutal rape at the hands of the Mexican police officers. Miss Sinaloa becomes a metaphor for Juárez, one that is interesting, but unnecessary. Juárez is a place that is recognizable to us. It is beautiful and hideous, human and barbaric.

Unfortunately, Bowden’s prose—a hard-bitten, clichéd New Journalism slice of Hemingway machismo—threatens to sink the book with a vague, abstract vibe that, though perhaps well-intentioned, does a disservice to the people of Juárez, whose stories have been woefully underreported by the U.S. and Mexican media. They come across as merely sketches at times here. In a recent interview with the New Yorker’s Book Bench, Bowden said the style was an attempt to convey the “the pain, the fear, and the ruin of the city.” Maybe, but I think it was an attempt to write a modern classic, the product of writer’s ego.

Bowden lets enough of a traditional narrative shine through to make the book—which runs for a short-but-by-no-means-breezy 230 pages—readable. That leaves the remaining pages of the book to an appendix where Bowden attempts to record the 2008 Juárez murders.

If you can complete the appendix without tearing up and feeling your heart sink into your stomach, then you are a stronger than I. The crushing weight of the repeated, meaningless murder—which is mostly happens to the city’s poor, both innocent and guilty—is too much for the human conscience to bear. I gave up after a few pages and just skimmed the seemingly infinite names, dates and causes of death.

Children raped and murdered. Old men murdered. Children orphaned. A city now home to more than 150,000 drug addicts. Thrill kills made by sicarios loaded with cocaine. Political assassinations, increasing in number.

What we bear witness to in Juárez—and Mexico as a whole—is not just a war for drugs (Bowden astutely notes that the corrupt Mexican Army seeks to control the drug trade for their own personal and financial reasons—many “seized” drug shipments somehow find their way back on the street in the U.S. and Mexico), but rather the entire breakdown of law, order, civilization and humanity within a nation that borders our own. It is not a problem confined to a race or nation, though, but rather a problem endemic in us forever—the darkness ever-present in men’s souls and hearts.

Murder City is long on description and short on answers, and for good reason. What solutions are there for human depravity? None stick. Truly “clean” religious figures are hard to find in a country where priests have been quoted saying the drug dealers that build their cathedrals and churches are very generous—where sicarios have their bullets blessed by priests. When Bowden, an atheist, finds them, he allows them to speak in long blocks of text. A good man is hard to find. Drug money isn’t part of life in Juárez, it fuels life.

Bowden, for his part, focuses on the hopelessness of jobs in a city that is considered by some to be a model of the global economy, but where in reality workers work grueling hours to produce inexpensive American goods for $70 a week in a town where the cost of living is only about 10 percent less than it is in the U.S.

He also thinks that perhaps, just maybe, giving the wholly corrupt Mexican Army (who are often responsible for the killings, especially after Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s 2008 decision to dispatch them to the city to combat the drug violence) billions of dollars in U.S. aid is a bad idea.

Murder City is an uneven book by a very good journalist, one who has spent more time in the Juárez dust than any other working U.S. writer. Despite this unevenness, it’s a book that becomes more relevant with each headline. Within weeks of my writing this, a car bomb has exploded in Mexico City, it has been revealed that a prison warden was releasing incarcerated sicarios and then stocking them with vehicles and weapons to perform nighttime murders, and thousands of glue-sniffing Mexico City teenagers have begun flocking to a cathedral to pay tribute to patron saint of lost causes St. Jude. Resolution will not come quickly.
Profile Image for Bob Price.
321 reviews4 followers
May 1, 2011
Having been to Juarez, and having friends there, this book greatly interested me. Having read the book, this is a must read for anybody who wants to understand the situation in Juarez, because this is (to my knowledge) the only book that is willing to look at the killings.

Juarez is the final destination for a great deal of Mexicans who wish to become US Citizens legally. Any Mexican citizen who wishes to legally come to the US must go to Juarez. But by coming to Juarez, they are putting their lives in jeopardy.

Beginning in 2006, violence in Juarez has skyrocketed. Over 2500 people were murdered in 2008 and the violence keeps on going. Some blame the drug cartels, some blame the military, some blame the economy, some blame serial killers, but nobody can truly understand the violence. People are killed for selling drugs, for buying drugs, for losing drugs, for trying to quit the habit, for love, for hate, and for no good reason at all.

Bowden helps us enter this world. He has done a massive amount of on the ground research and has put his own life at risk. He has interviewed many different people: people who want to stop the killing, victims, the killers. Some of these interviews will stay with you for a long time.

The main problem with the book is Bowden's writing style. He jumps from subject to subject without much clear delineation. He inserts personal comments with research and the reader is not clear as to which is which. At times, his book displays artistic qualities that are not clear to understand. He can be very repetitive.

All in all, this book will help people understand the situation in Juarez. I recommend this for everybody to gain a perspective on some of the down sides of globalization.
Profile Image for Jason.
Author 20 books65 followers
January 8, 2016
The author, an American journalist who has lived and traveled extensively throughout Mexico, is unfliching in his descriptions of the reality of life in Juarez: the corruption and violence carried out by the military and the police (often against each other), the shockingly regular murders associated with out-of-control drug wars, the frequent discoveries of mass graves throughout the region, the random assassinations of Mexican journalists for writing seemingly innocuous stories, and, most disturbingly, the kidnapping, rape, and murder of women in Juarez with apparently no consequence. Bowden makes the reader feel what it's like to live amid the chaos: the fear, the desperation, the resignation. He also includes a memorable cast of characters: a holy man who ferries lost souls to a mental asylum in the desert, a terminally ill advocate who is heading to her death disillusioned, a former beauty queen who has been brutalized and is remembered for her flawless beauty, and a born again former contract killer who seeks redemption, quotes scripture and resigns himself to his own eventual murder.

The only problem is Bowden's style--an hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness prose that does a disservice to the urgency of the subject matter. He writes in nuances when he should be presenting specifics. He waxes poetic when he should be advocating. He glosses over details to make the reader feel what it's like in Juarez, but the reader should know intellectually what's happening. People need to be aware of what's going on in this US/Mexico border town, so they need a lucid guide, not a prosaic art project. On this level, the book is not nearly as definitive as it should be yet it's notable for capturing the atmosphere of Juarez so vividly.
1,508 reviews17 followers
February 18, 2011
This was the most recent pick of one of my book clubs. It sounded really interesting from the summary on the book jacket. I was looking forward to learning more about what is going on in Ciudad Juárez. However, this book was nothing like I imagined it was going to be. Instead of being an investigative journalistic look at the events, the author wrote something that I have a hard time even explaining. If it's possible I understand even less about the issues in Ciudad Juárez than I did before I read the book. He bounces all over the place in time and space. I had a really hard time following anything he was saying and the book did not seem to have any kind of coherent narrative let alone say anything that shed any light on the issues the city is facing. Basically the only thing I understood was that there's a lot of people getting murdered there, which is pretty much what I knew going into it. The only reason I forced myself to finish this book was because of book club. I do not in any way recommend it.
Profile Image for Liz.
751 reviews
June 8, 2011
I was expecting a straight book-length piece of journalism and instead got a warm-up for Bolano's 2666. There is analysis in here but it's mingled with the author's fantastical visions and dreamlike interpretations of the violence and death in Ciudad Juarez. Miss Sinaloa, one of the victims, becomes his sort of muse for the book. It seemed like the author, like some of the residents, can't find a rational way to explain the spiraling violence (there is none, apart from greed) and seeks a more otherworldly interpretation. Meanwhile, he reports that many other residents have accepted the city's new reality for what it is and take death as a daily possibility. Literary merits aside, the book succeeds in building a convincing case for the involvement of Mexico's army as a full-fledged player in the war for (not against) drugs, which we in the U.S. are told is a turf battle amongst cartels. Less successful for me was the strong diatribe against development and globalization without the presentation of any better alternatives.
Profile Image for Chris.
10 reviews28 followers
October 28, 2011
This was the best book I have ever read on how poverty creates violence. Living in Mexico I used to use what Charles Bowden describes as "magical thinking" or thinking that I know what probably happened behind every murder. While my wife uses the "ignore it and it won't happen to me approach" Murder City was a real eye opener. Particularly the way the media covers the murders (or lack thereof). I would recommend this book to everyone. In the end I really don't know if anything can be done to stop the violence in Mexico. My heart goes out to those that live in Juarez and have to face the military checkpoints, corrupt police and cartel backed street gangs nightly.
Profile Image for Pelin.
21 reviews2 followers
August 14, 2014
I always wanted have more information regarding Mexico's war on drugs and this book was perfect for my purpose. It was quite enlightening since I was hearing so many negative and positive things about the so called war. It reveals a lot of statistical information as well as the emotional and sociological aspect of the situation especially on Ciudad Juarez since it is argued to be one the most violent cities in the world. The only criticism I would bring regarding the book is that the author jumps from one issue to another quickly without a break. I thought that he could elaborate more on some parts.
6 reviews
October 24, 2012
I can't tout this book's brilliance enough. It's not a straightforward history of modern Juarez and the rise of the cartels, and it's not a personal narrative of one's life among the killing fields, but a strange and effective intermingling of the two.

I know that many readers take issue with Bowden's style, but for me I don't see any other way for him to let the story grow in a way that would resonate so strongly with the reader. You get the feeling that you intimately know him and the principal characters (particularly Miss Sinaloa) in a way that a straightforward, journalistic approach wouldn't allow. The story becomes more brutal and shocking with each chapter, and the sense of helplessness and frustration grows more staggering - hard thing to achieve in a book that kicks off with the violent rape and murder of a local beauty queen at the hands of the police who were brought in to protect the people.

I could go on and on about Juarez itself, but since this is a BOOK review, I'll conclude by saying that the more books like 'Murder City' that are published, the more likely the situation there will be addressed (in a real way). Hopefully Bowden is inspiring a new generation of journalists to approach their work with the same empathy and creativity that he demonstrates here.
17 reviews4 followers
September 13, 2011
Charles Bowden appears to have looked into the heart of darkness in Juarez and been driven somewhat crazy by it. Small wonder, what is happening there is unfathomable. Any attempt to impose meaning on the slaughter going on there can only be preliminary and approximate. Still, credit Bowden with having the nerve to be there and attempting to tell the story in any fashion at all. Mexican journalists, lots of them, have been killed for writing much less than Bowden. What he is saying is that our schema for understanding what is happening in Juarez are inadequate; it's not just the cartels warring against each other, or against the government, or against the army, but it's all that and something more, a frenzy of violence originating from many sources. Attempts to curb the mayhem seem to exacerbate the problems; specialized, elite drug enforcement agencies split off from the government and become drug gangs themselves (Zetas), police act as bodyguards for drug men, soldiers kidnap and murder police, etc..

Who among us would have the nerve to do what Bowden has done?
Profile Image for Neil.
21 reviews3 followers
July 7, 2010
I heard this guy on NPR and paid full price for the book at Barnes & Noble, which is something I almost never do. The interview was that good, but the book is a whole lotta this:

"The dead are past lying and the dead know one real fact: Someone killed them. They often do not know who killed them. Nor do they know why they were killed. But at least they know they have been killed and are now dead."

Also, the "Murder Artist" chapters read like fiction and probably are.

Listen to the interview for free and skip the book:

Profile Image for Jeremy.
306 reviews1 follower
July 1, 2011
This was a tough slog. I had to take some necessary detours into Scrooge McDuck comics and other lighter fare. I couldn't read all of the appendix, which was clippings from Juarez-area newspapers for every killing in 2008. It was too much. Every page was "another body was found. Then another. Then another." It's repetitive, but in a hypnotic way, an incantation calling up some dark god. I've been to Juarez a couple of times, walked out in the open air on the street, even purchased candies and fabrics for my wedding. I don't think I'll go back.
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