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Inside the World's Deadliest City

Juarez’s anarchy cannot be separated from American policy and drug addictions, says journalist Charles Bowden.

Drive across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, and you’ll enter the most dangerous city in the world: Ciudad Juárez, where more than 6,000 people have been murdered since 2008, including more than 1,700 this year. Once a fast-growing laboratory for free-trade initiatives, Juárez now produces drugs and dead bodies, as thousands of Mexican soldiers and increasingly brazen gang members roam the city of just over 1 million.

As the killings become more grisly and frequent, questioning their cause has become almost suicidal. At least 30 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since 2006, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That makes Charles Bowden’s new book Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields -- whose most chilling subject is an experienced sicario, or hitman -- all the more remarkable, and important. For while authorities on both sides of the border explain the violence engulfing Juárez with familiar “war on drugs” rhetoric, Bowden argues it is the predictable result of NAFTA’s failure, endemic poverty and America’s appetite for drugs.

“I kept trying to never go back,” says the 65-year-old Tuscon, Ariz., resident. “And then I would realize that I couldn’t walk away.”

Beyond the violence, what surprised you most about Juárez during your time there?

That it keeps functioning. This is a city that’s had 25 percent of housing abandoned. Had at least 40 percent of its businesses slam their doors shut. That has lost at least 100,000 jobs. That has had an explosion of violence, and there are still about one million people that get out of bed every morning and try to go about a normal life. I have said the city is dying, because by any logical standards it is. But there is a part of me that thinks I’m seeing a new kind of human community come into being that I don’t want to face and that I don’t have a name for. A city where murder, violence, kidnapping, torture, robbery and extortion are the economy. This is a new kind of city.

You write that free-trade schemes “have failed and in Juárez are producing poor people and dead people faster than any other product.” What is NAFTA’s relationship to Juárez’s descent into violence?

In the late ’60s the Border Industrialization Program, the prototype of what became NAFTA, was established in Juárez. At the beginning, wages were higher than the people of Juárez had experienced, but after 40 years, they have steadily declined. Factories employ children. NAFTA produced enormous squatter barrios of people who are fully employed by American factories and couldn’t make a living wage. NAFTA destroyed light and middle industry in Mexico, and it destroyed peasant agriculture.

But NAFTA is a disaster that cannot be recognized as a disaster because what we call “free trade” is not an empirical policy tested by fact; it is a theology. NAFTA is a failure. It doesn’t solve poverty, it expands it. And the people burn out because it suddenly dawns on them that they’re like hamsters on a wheel, and they’re going backward instead of forward.

And people then turn to the city’s illegal economy?

It’s not quite that simple. The drug economy in Mexico exists because of U.S. policy—the prohibition of drugs here. It has grown and now injects $30 billion to $50 billion of hard currency into the Mexican economy through criminal organizations. But what has happened in Juárez -- which is not examined often -- is the growth of domestic drug consumption. Various clinicians there estimate this city of a little more than a million now has 150,000 to 200,000 addicts.

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