A Visit to the Border: Juarez El Paso and Murder City

by Thailand Lawyer on January 7, 2011

Perhaps spending my wild teenage years in a crazy border city was what led me to become an American expat in Thailand.  Returning to El Paso Texas after so long was a disorientating experience.  People once remembered as strong are withered with age and local legends once believed invincible are long gone, reclaimed by the desert dust. However new legends spring up from nowhere and the jagged peaks of the Franklin Mountains that cut through El Paso bear eternal witness  to the folly of our human conceits.  A light snow dusted the adobe homes of rich and poor alike in El Paso Texas on New Years Day 2011.

El Paso Texas is separated from Juarez Mexico by an international border, thousands of law enforcement officials and a steel fence. But as any El Pasoan will tell you, the two cities are inseparable and feed off of each other in a mutually parasitic relationship.  There is little private economy in El Paso, at least in terms of a legitimate private economy.  The Army base of Fort Bliss employs tens of thousands of US citizens as does the Border Patrol, US Customs, the FBI and a host of other uniformed and non unformed government agencies.  Across the border there are the maquilladores, the US owned and operated factories employing cheap Mexican labor.  These factories, were engendered by the North American Free Trade Agreement, theoretically allowing US companies to compete in a global economy by utilizing the less expensive Mexican labor.

However, under the surface the real business in El Paso is what comes naturally to a border city where the third world country meets the first world in an arbitrarily drawn line in the sand:  Smuggling.  In the El Paso Juarez metropolis, free wheeling entrepreneurs smuggle weapons and money from the USA into Mexico and people and drugs are smuggled from Mexico into the USA.

As a teenager in El Paso in the 70’s and 80’s, you could go downtown and literally walk across a bridge in five minutes and be in smack the heart of bustling gritty and exotic, Mexico.  Sounds were louder, smells were stronger and life was more intense.  Similar to Thailand in a way, life in Mexico had the lure of danger and adventure around every corner.

There were the crippled cigarette vendors, hawking “Cancer sticks”.  There were whore houses and donkey shows.   There were the after hours joints, with names no one would recognize except fellow border people, the Sub, the Kentucky Club, the Cave and my generation’s favorite:  Fred’s Rainbow Bar.  But there was also the high society section, evoking a European style of life, with soccer stars on big billboards, and the gated neighborhoods of the privileged, and all that seemed so far removed from the mundane Texas border.

The Juarez party and shopping scene is dead now, decimated by the violence that has made Juarez famous as the most violent city in the world.  To some, this violence is a product of the Drug trade and organized crime.  The official line states that there is a war going on between the drug cartels in Mexico who are fighting for turf.  The Mexican government and the Mexican Army, with the support of the USA are fighting a valiant but ultimately losing battle against the narco traffickers.

To others, the Drug War and US policy is the real culprit.  What is not in dispute however is that there were over 2,600 murders in Juarez in 2010 and only a handful of arrests..  No one with a choice travels from El Paso to Juarez anymore.  Juarez is considered by many to be the most dangerous city in the world.

The Thai Airways flight from the USA to Thailand on Thai Airways is a direct flight out of LA that takes 17 hours.  You can try to squeeze into a comfortable position and get a snooze or you can read a book.  A friend in El Paso gave me a book called Murder City by Charles Bowden.  The book analyzes Juarez’s demise with a combination of colorful prose, evocative imagery, hard facts and rational argumentation.

Criminal defense attorneys, like police, judges, prison administrators, drug dealers, pharmaceutical and alcohol companies have a vested interest in keeping drugs illegal.  The criminal justice system is our bread and butter. We need fuel to keep our motors running and that fuel is the poor suckers who are the other side of the fence, our clients, customers, suspects, prisoners and defendants.  Inevitably they are the small fry.   But in our lucid moments or in a self effacing joke among colleagues, we may acknowledge our hypocrisy and the feint stench of a corrupt system.  But how deep down the rabbit hole do we really want to go? Bowden’s book attempts to explore, if not answer, these questions but he does so in a literary style that evokes the mood of irrationality, fear and denial that affect the day to day life of the people involved.  Juarez is the final conclusion, a living metaphor, of our hypocrisies and lies, the worst case scenario, the place where our dreams have turned to nightmares, and our nightmares have stepped out of the dark corners of our slumber and into our waking life.

The book has been criticized for lacking a journalistic matter of fact style.  Bowden has avoided a dry sociological analysis and instead writes in a manner more akin to a song or a poem, attempting to make the reader not only to understand but to feel the dehumanizing effect of pointless and brutal violence and the sense of hopelessness engendered by a situation that goes beyond the pale of rational problem solving.  Bowden seems to want us to feel the heart of violence, some area in the human of experience that we only confront in our bleakest moments.  I read the whole book in a single sitting on the flight from the USA back to Thailand.

Murder City by Charles Bowden is available on Amazon. com

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sito January 7, 2011 at 16:47

Hi Thailand Lawyer. I was happy to see your piece. I’m in El Paso and interested in “El Paso Ex-Pats.” I’ve been involved in EP media projects, most recently http://www.newspapertree.com, for some time. Juarez has changed, and I can’t see how it’s not permanently damaged. Or maybe it hasn’t changed, but the veneer has been stripped off and what was below all this time is bubbling up.

Jen February 1, 2011 at 04:07

Thailand Lawyer’s article has sparked my interest in Bowden’s book. I would like any non-fiction book about Juarez to address how poverty, unemployment and poor access to education induce drug dealing as a way to make quick and easy money from a product with an incessant demand. The demand drives drug dealers to organize themselves into fully operating and violent businesses. Thailand Lawyer writes that Bowden’s book gives readers an poignant reading experience, but does the reader also walk away more knowledgeable about the causes and effects of the drug violence in Juarez?

EPHS 59 January 17, 2015 at 03:57

Thanks for the memories.

Adding Follies, Waikiki, Green Lantern, Lobby, Irma’s, Million Dollar Club, Stork Club, La Florida, La Fiesta, La Nueva Cucaracha, Chinese Palace, Kismet, Cavern of Music, Sylvia’s, Alcazar.

I see from Google Street View that Marino’s and Kentucky Club are still there.

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