How Juarez became murder city

Charles Bowden


Kai Ryssdal: The Mexican drug wars got rare play in American newspapers a couple of weeks ago when workers at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez were killed. Juarez is one of the most violent cities in the world, an unwelcome distinction that Charles Bowden explores in his new book. It's called "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields." Bowden's spent the better part of the last 15 years covering the changes in Juarez, just south of El Paso, Texas. And when we spoke, I asked him when things began to change and why.

CHARLES BOWDEN: In December of 2006, the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, declared an official war against the drug cartels in Mexico, unleashed the Mexican army. Now in 2007, there were 307 murders in Juarez. In 2008, there were 1,600-plus. Last year, there were 2,600. What's happened also at the same time is the collapse of the city -- 27 percent of the houses have been abandoned, there's 116,000 abandoned houses. At least 100,000 jobs in the factories have disappeared because of the recession. Half of the adolescents in Juarez neither have a job nor attend school. What you're looking at is a kind of disintegration of a society.

RYSSDAL: You make the point in your book that Ciudad today is really a post-economy city. There's nothing there but the drug trade.

BOWDEN: Well, there's something there besides the drug trade, there are still these American-owned factories. Juarez for decades was a kind of poster child for free trade, and for border factories. It pioneered the concept starting in the late '60s. The city's growth has been based off that. What it's produced are American-owned factories that pay people less than they can work on. What's it's produced -- because it's a natural pathway for commerce connecting with U.S. transportation systems -- is one of the largest drug import industries in the world. What it's also produced is the largest human migration on earth, and it is directly triggered by the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1994. Now that treaty was passed to stop the migration -- that we would create wealth in Mexico. Instead we've created poverty.

RYSSDAL: Even if you accept the fact that part of what's happening in Juarez is that Americans want cheap goods, and we signed on to the North American Free Trade Agreement. So too did the Mexico government, didn't they?

BOWDEN: Yes, but we actually put it through a U.S. Congress, and actually talked about it. There was no discussion there. It was announced to the Mexican people. It was announced by the leadership. It was announced by an oligarchy. Mexico is famous for having the most unequal income distribution in the Western hemisphere.

RYSSDAL: What's the hope down there? Is it the Americans' job to help them get what we have?

BOWDEN: I mean, the hope is it's always darkest before the dawn. But what I think is the United States has a responsibility not to make things worse. The United States is never going to be secure by living next to a country that's starving to death. Do you think you can maintain your house in your neighborhood, and have people starving to death next door? Well, you can't.

RYSSDAL: What is it that makes you keep going down there?

BOWDEN: I think it's a window in the future. Juarez is portrayed by people as a modern city, and in many ways it is. You can go over there, and there's a Radisson and an Applebee's. But in fact as the years go by, everything is going backwards there. It's more violent. Wages and real pesos and real dollars decline. More and more people come to the city as a rural economy collapses. If you go to Juarez, you can see everything that is happening. Now, this is happening around the world. But Juarez is convenient. You just walk across the bridge, and it slaps you in the face.

RYSSDAL: Charles Bowden. His most recent book is called "Murder City" about Ciudad Juarez. Mr. Bowden, thanks a lot for your time.

BOWDEN: Well, thank you.

Log in to post16 Comments


I was born and raised here in Cd. Juarez, and while it is true that in the last couple of years violence escalated due to this war against the cartels - it's also not true that we're all starving to death and that there's nothing but drug trade down here. The United States should stop being cynical and accept their responsibility towards this problem. This whole mess is because the Drug Cartels need to supply the demand that your people have for their drugs. So unless you guys legalize it or actually do something crack on drug users in your country, My country and my city will keep on taking this type of beatings.

Mr. Bowden does tremendous research for his books. Killing Pablo was the most thorough examination of the Colombian drug cartel structure and how corruption and simplistic US Foreign policy vis a vis illicit drugs has had zero effect staunching not only the flow of drugs.

Killing Pablo foretold what would happen unless the US changed it's posture, unfortunately he's was right, although his suspicions were it would be Tijuana as the battleground.

Reasonable points, but I think Mr. Bowden forgot to mention the corruption that permeates the Mexican culture. For as long as I can remember, Mexico has always been a society of have and have nots, driven by government corruption. The free trade zone has just provided a new boogie man to avoid dealing with the underlying issues.

Living in Southern California I am continually amazed by how people actively avoid the truth of the border that is alive in our midst. Anyone who has crossed the border can attest to the truth of Bowden's depiction--the border slaps you in the face and it is a reality we all need to come to terms with.

Although this story was quite short, it was one of the most poignant and honest renderings of the situation in Juarez I've heard in months.

Mr. Bowden not only knows his subject matter but does it without an apparent bias, one way of the other.

Honesty like that not only makes me want to buy and read his book but shows others how to rediscover that thing called "honest assessment" that too often is lacking in this culture of shouting matches and noise machines (read: Fox)

Good handling of the interviewee by Kai, as well. Just the right touch.

It is a shame. It used to be a wonderful city. I used to stay in Juarez and commute back to El Paso for business. In 12 years until late 2007, I never worried about my safety. I hope it can return to those days.


With Generous Support From...