Amexica: War Along the Borderline Ed Vulliamy

Bodley Head, pp.336, 20

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’s second largest border city, is clogged with rubbish, fouled with car exhaust and, increasingly, flooded with narcotics.

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’s second largest border city, is clogged with rubbish, fouled with car exhaust and, increasingly, flooded with narcotics. Mexican drug cartels are now so deeply ingrained in the city’s political and social fabric that not a single bar or shop remains ‘un-narcotised’. Mexico in the 21st century, according to Ed Vulliamy, is a nation shadowed by gangland enterprise and the rat-tat-tat of Kalashnikovs. To live on the US-Mexican border, how ever, calls for special qualities of endurance.

The four US states bordering Mexico — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California — have long nurtured a bandit identity founded on firearms and the right to self-defence. Many an American outlaw (John Wesley Harding, Billy the Kid) has escaped to Mexico’s cacti- prickly frontera. In Vulliamy’s formulation, this 2,100 mile-long stretch of frontier territory is ‘Amexica’. It used to be dominated by gentleman outlaws in stetsons involved in loan-sharking and smuggling. No longer.

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Amexica, a work of vivid social reportage, charts the rise of a new-look Mexican drug baron, who pursues power and money for their own sake. Poverty and the decay of civic values have allowed the narco cartels to flourish. Some 90 per cent of the cocaine currently enjoyed by Americans is thought to come across the border. Run by computer-literate entrepreneurs, the frontier cartels have spread their tentacles as far afield as oil-rich Huston; in their savagery, they kill reporters, women, magistrates and police — anyone who dares to obstruct their business. The total of those murdered in Mexico in 2009 alone reached 7,724. Frighteningly, the violence seems to be devoid of any ideology or purpose.

After 2006, when President Felipe Calderón declared war on his country’s narcotic trade, the violence became ever more grotesque. Bodies were no longer quietly dumped in the desert; they were displayed for all to see and in some cases decapitated or flayed. Often, the levels of violence defied comprehension. Ciudad Juárez became infamous for a series of unsolved sex crimes. Bodies of hundreds of women were found dumped in the municipal rubbish tips and industrial parks on the city’s outskirts. The slaughter gave a new word to the Spanish spoken in Juárez: feminicidio — femicide. Conceivably the transborder killings were the work of rival drug cartels or renegade policemen mixed up in the cartels. Either way, it seemed to be symptomatic of a nation which has long lost its moral bearings.

Throughout, Vulliamy dilates knowledgeably on pre-Hispanic customs and superstitions in Mexico. Known derisively as los indios, the country’s rural dispossessed worship the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexico’s first indigenous saint), as well as a black-hooded reaper figure known as Her Most Holy Death. These saints are a hybrid of Catholic and Meso- american Inwdian belief, and accord well with the narco-trafficker’s cult of death. Wretchedly, the poor idolise the narco traficante as one of their own made good.

With its paraphernalia of chocolate skulls, scythe-wielding skeletons and other grotesqueries, Vulliamy’s book might have issued from the charnel house of Baudelaire’s imagination. In pages of gritty reportage and low-life legwork, Amexica creates a truly evil sense of menace. If Vulliamy has a weakness for bijoux adjectives such as ‘lambent’, ‘scintillescent’ and ‘griseous’, he has produced an extraordinarily powerful work of reportage. Rarely has the adage ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!’ seemed so relevant.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: America, Book review, Mexico, Non-fiction, Social reportage