Murder City

Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields


By Charles Bowden

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Ciudad Juarez 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.

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

Heartbreaking, disturbing, and unforgettable, Murder City was written at the height of his powers and established Bowden as one of America’s leading journalists.


Also by Charles Bowden
Killing the Hidden Waters
Street Signs Chicago: Neighborhood and Other Illusions of Big City Life
(with Lew Kreinberg)
Blue Desert
Frog Mountain Blues (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
Trust Me: Charles Keating and the Missing Billions (with Michael Binstein)
Red Line
Desierto: Memories of the Future
The Sonoran Desert (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
The Secret Forest (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America
Chihuahua: Pictures from the Edge (photographs by Virgil Hancock)
Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
The Sierra Pinacate (by Julian D. Hayden; photographs by Jack Dykinga;
with essays by Charles Bowden and Bernard L. Fontana)
Juárez: The Laboratory for Our Future (preface by Noam Chomsky;
afterword by Eduardo Galeano)
Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family
Blues for Cannibals
A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior
Inferno (photographs by Michael P. Berman)
Exodus/Éxodo (photographs by Julián Cardona)
Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future
Trinity (photographs by Michael P. Berman)

His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.
—ARTHUR MILLER, Death of a Salesman
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those.
Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.
I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die.
Thank you for waiting.

Armando Rodriguez, El Diario, Ciudad Juárez,
November 13, 2008
The man assassinated
Tuesday night in the Diaz Ordaz viaduct
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,
light brown complexion,
short black hair.
The victim’s face was painted as a clown,
green with a red nose,
reported the State Prosecutor’s office.
He wore a red polo shirt,
a navy blue sweatshirt, blue jeans,
white underwear,
gray socks labeled USA,
gray and white Converse tennis shoes
and a dark, cherry red beret.
The body was found in the Diaz Ordaz viaduct,
at Norzagaray Blvd in the colonia Bellavista,
on November 11 at 9:40 pm.
The body was found on its side,
with bullet wounds in the right side,
and head.
At this time, the motive for the murder is unknown as well as the
identities of the murderers.

For Armando Rodriguez, who was gunned down
on November 13, 2008, after filing 907 stories on the
murders of that calendar year.
Like the rest of us, he was a dead man walking.
His last story appeared hours after he was killed.


Here’s the deal.
We’re gonna take us a ride.
Now be quiet.
Time’s up, you gotta ride.
We brought the duct tape—do you prefer gray or tan? No matter, get
your ass in.
We have the plastic bag, the loaded guns.
You have been waiting?
Everyone is waiting, but our list is so long.
Everyone pretends we will never come.
But everyone is on somebody’s list.
Well, for you, the wait is over.
Let me tell you about a killing season.
You don’t like violence?
I understand.
But get in the car.
You say it hard to see because of the darkly tinted windows?
You will learn darkness.
Miss Sinaloa is a detail. She was special, so fine.
Of course, she took the ride, my God, what a ride.
Okay, yes, there is the matter of cocaine and whiskey and sanity that might undercut her standing in the community.
See those people on the street pretending you don’t exist and this big machine with tinted windows doesn’t exist, pretending that none of this is happening to you?
That was you until just a few minutes ago.
The killings?
Murder itself is simply a little piece of life and so it can be dismissed as exceptional or irrational or extreme.
Though it is curious how, if you kill with style, it does get everyone’s attention.
Surely, we know that even at our best we can only know little pieces of life.
What, you are uncomfortable? The tape binding your hands behind your back is too tight?
Shut your fucking mouth.
You want this pistol cracked over your ugly face?
That’s better.
Now shut up before I have to tape your mouth.
What was I saying?
Oh, yes.
We can still believe that destroying another human life is an extreme act.
Unless of course, the slaughter is done by governments. Or the killing is done to some vague group variously dubbed as terrorists or gangsters or drug dealers or people—and this varies with location—of other color or religious notions.
Still, you can see, there is really nothing to worry about since people know how to ignore whatever interferes with the way people want to think about the world.
Yes. I mean this. People can have murders all around them and have people vanish in broad daylight and still go on just fine and say, well, those people were bad, or it doesn’t happen that often.
Stop shaking your head. You say nothing and do nothing.
You understand?
You are simply along for the ride. And all those things you said didn’t matter, well, now maybe you will change your mind, just a little bit.
The trick is to leave, fade away and stop thinking about the killings.
In the first eleven days of August, seventy-five go down. On Monday, August 11, fifteen are murdered.
Let it go, fade away, turn the page, change the music.
Let me tell you of an incident.
I come back from the shadows against my will.
You don’t believe me?
Believe me.
This incident, yes, this incident. There is this woman, and she is very nice-looking, and a friend invites her to a party being hosted by men who apparently work in the drug industry. The woman, the one I am talking about, and damn you, listen as if your fucking life depended on it, well, this woman lives in southern Chihuahua and so she has little to do with Juárez just as Juárez has little to do with the real world, you know, the United States, Europe, all those kind of places where the real world exists.
When the car comes and she gets in it, her friend takes money from the men but does not come along for the ride.
For the next few days, she is gang-raped.
When she returns to the workaday world, she gives a deposition to the authorities, and suddenly she is on the front page of the newspaper. She goes into hiding, though she is still bleeding from her vagina and rectum. She remembers that at the hospital, she was shunted aside because her case was not considered an emergency.
And so she becomes a detail. That is the way of life. Everything becomes a detail if it interferes with the big picture.
She has never met Miss Sinaloa, but now, they truly know each other and they talk throughout the dark hours of the night, I can hear them, and this makes sleep difficult for me.
But I hide from such matters. I am a coward by nature and I do not like cities, loud sounds, guns, violence, or open sewage systems.
Twice I was at a fresh kill, and the freshness does matter, and flies buzzed up into my face from the blood. I cannot remember the names of the dead, hardly anything about them, but the flies buzz in my face all the time, follow me into good restaurants, trail me to fine venues where people read poems or play serious music in the calm air of the fortresses of culture.
Perhaps you think I am mad? I can see that look in your eyes, and yes, I understand why you have your reservations. But then you do not have to listen to those two women talking into the night. I cannot decide what is worse: when they are crying or when they are laughing.
And something has changed inside, something in a deep part, near that place we can never locate but often claim is the core of our being. In the past, I have covered kidnappings, murders, financial debacles, the mayhem that my species is capable of committing. I spent three years mired in reporting sex crimes. There is little within me that has not been battered or wrenched or poisoned. But the path I followed with Miss Sinaloa proved all my background to be so much nothing. I have not entered the country of death, but rather the country of killing. And I have learned in this country that killing is good.
For years, I toyed with a history of my earth, and I found that the way I could understand my earth was through its elemental fury.
Freeman Dyson, a major physicist, once tried to express the allure of power and killing. “I have felt it myself,” he warned. “The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles—this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”
I think Dyson erred in one detail: This attraction to slaughter and power is not simply a temptation of the mind.
I found this glitter in a room with flies buzzing off the fresh blood on the floor and walls. A candle glittered in the corner by a crucifix. The bodies had been taken out, the machine gun fire had died. There was nothing left but the flies and the flame.
Imagine living in a place where you can kill anyone you wish and nothing happens except that they fall dead. You will not be arrested. Your name will not be in the newspapers. You can continue on with your life. And your killing. You can take a woman and rape her for days and nothing will happen. If you choose, if in some way that woman displeases you, well, you can kill her after raping her. Rest assured, nothing will happen to you because of your actions.
Enough. I can barely speak of this change within me. I can hardly expect others to understand.
How did this change come to pass?
It began with a woman.
In the beginning, I was not looking for Miss Sinaloa. In fact, I had never heard of her and had no reason, no reason at all, to think she even existed. I remember clearly, it was a bright winter day, the sun poured down on me, and the desert seemed so kind and generous after spending time in the colonias and bad bars of the border city.
Suddenly, she appeared in my life.
Miss Sinaloa is . . . waiting.
This is a nice car, no?
We’re gonna have us a time.

I have been to the far country with her and now I am back.
The air of morning tastes fresh, the sunrise murdered the night,
and now the light caresses my face. I chew on ash and bone, this has become
my customary breakfast. I drink the glass of blood for my health.
She does not speak. I no longer listen.
The far country lingers on my clothes and in my hair.
I can still smell it here in the morning light. I have brought her
with me and now we will live together for the rest of my days.
Her lips gleam a ripe red and fragrance
floats from her white skin.
Ernesto Romero Adame is thirty-three years old on New Year’s Day, 2008. He sits in his 2005 black Jetta Volkswagen. Bullet holes mark his neck, throat, and chest as he waits stone dead at Paseo Triunfo de la Republica Avenue. He is the first official kill of the season.
It is twenty minutes after midnight on Sunday, January 20, when Julián Cháirez Hernández is found dead by gunshot. He is a lieutenant in the municipal police and thirty-seven years old. Seven hours and ten minutes later, Mirna Yesenia Muñoz Ledo Marín is found inside her own home. She is naked and has been stabbed several times. She is ten years old. On Monday, January 21, at 7:50 A.M., Francisco Ledesma Salazar is killed in his SUV. He is thirty-five years old and the coordinator of operations for the municipal police. The gunshots come from men in a minivan. At 9:30 A.M., the body of Erika Sonora Trejo is found by police in the bathroom of her home. She is thirty-eight and eight months pregnant, and officers think her father-in-law has had at her with an axe. Later that Monday, at 5 P.M., a year-old skeleton turns up in the desert. That evening around 8:40 P.M., Fernando Lozano Sandoval is cut down in his SUV by a barrage of fifty-one rounds. He is fifty-one and the commander of the Chihuahua Bureau of Investigations. Two vehicles, a red SUV and a gray car, figure in the attack. Later, Lozano is transported to an El Paso hospital since Juárez has had recent incidents of killers visiting the wounded in hospitals in order to finish their work.
A list appears on a Juárez monument to fallen police officers. Under the heading THOSE WHO DID NOT BELIEVE are the names of five recently murdered cops. And under the heading FOR THOSE WHO CONTINUE NOT BELIEVING are seventeen names.
As the killings increase in early 2008, rumors begin to spread of Mexican army troops suddenly increasing in Ciudad Juárez and northern Chihuahua. On February 13, the soldiers go to a house and find twenty-five big guns, five small arms, seven fragmentation grenades, 3,494 rounds of various calibers, a bunch of bulletproof vests, eight radios, and five cars with Sinaloa plates. On February 16, they find twenty-one men, ten AK-47s, more than 13,000 hits of cocaine, 2.1 kilos of cocaine base, various uniforms—some of the Mexican army, some of AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigación, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI), 401 cartridges, 760 grams of marijuana, and three vehicles with Sinaloa plates. On February 21, they seize a helicopter.
On the twentieth, seven men are picked up by the army. Later, they say the soldiers beat them with cables, among other gestures.
Around 8 P.M. on Wednesday night, March 5, he crawls across the white tile floor of a small bakery near central Juárez. He has been gone two days and is a member of the city’s traffic cops. Juán Rodriguez, sixty-five, looks down from his counter of bread, sweet rolls, and candies and sees that the man is barefoot and beaten and that all the insignia have been ripped from his tattered traffic-cop uniform.
Then, he hears Carlos Adrián De Anda Doncel say, “No! No police, please! Do not call the police!”
Instead, he calls his wife and says, “My love, I am well.”
Within five minutes, members of his own unit arrive and whisk him away. Two days later, he flees the city. His commander says that since he is absent from duty, he will lose his job. He has three children.
Four days after the kidnapped and beaten cop appeared in the bakery, Rodriguez offers me a roll and refuses payment. When I ask him about the frightened cop begging that he not call the police, he says softly, “I can no longer say that.”
Silence has returned again to this city of two million souls. The governor of Chihuahua has been in seclusion since January—they say his face is frozen due to some mysterious medical condition. The city police have announced they will no longer be answering calls but prefer to stay in their station houses.
The newspaper account of that night notes that the cop’s safe return was a miracle, a historic act, because his captors—never named or identified, and they most likely never will be—“pardoned his life.”
Over the previous weekend, seven men died in executions, one of them a Mexican army captain who worked in intelligence and died driving his car on Sunday morning down a Juárez avenue. By Monday, March 3, eighty-nine murders had been tallied since New Year’s Day.
In 1999, Juárez went a solid year without public evidence of an execution—meaning 365 days without a corpse being left on the street in the customary style of hands bound with duct tape, mouth taped shut, and a bullet through the brain. Then, on the 366th day, the bodies began appearing again. Locals think the year of silent murder came as greeting to the newly elected governor, Patricio Martinez. And the return to executed bodies being left on the street also came as a message to this governor after his first year in office.
Juárez has long supplied Americans with what they wanted—booze during Prohibition, women at all times, opiates when they were outlawed in the United States, quick divorces when the marriages soured—and like the rest of Mexico, the city has operated as a partnership between criminal organizations and government. 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.
I sit on a curb on a heavily rutted dirt street. About ten blocks away rises a new Catholic church, a huge edifice with red-tiled domes etched with yellow tiles, fine new wooden doors, the walls gleaming with stained-glass windows. The church is encircled by new pickup trucks and SUVs, all with deeply tinted windows. Inside, people pray. Set against the surrounding dirt streets and general poverty, the new huge church seems like a miracle. But in this city, it is not. Like the huge discos and fine restaurants of Juárez, it is built not of bricks and mortar but of narco-dollars.
No one speaks of this.
No one doubts this.
But where I sit on the curb, the world is linked to the church and the people praying there this Sunday. Across the street is a two-story home painted yellow and green with iron trim and a satellite dish. Up and down the dirt street, men in dark uniforms with flak jackets and machine guns stand around and watch for something. They are busy digging for bodies in a building just down the street. I can hear the soft voices of people, the bark of dogs, the swish of clothes drying on a line. Overhead, the sun hunts through the clouds. In the yard behind me, there is a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, grape vines, and a large rose bush.
The digging goes on and on for days. There is much to uncover.
I am standing in the desert. A crazy man is talking to me. He says, “Someone is attacking me. I was contracted to make a killing. My family is American.”
He wears a pink sport shirt.
I am sitting in a café.
The waiter asks, “Why did you come back? Aren’t you finished yet?”
I tell him the people of the city keep killing each other.
He laughs.
I am in the crazy place when a retarded man hands me a children’s book.
It reads, “One windy day during the harvest time, Quail sings a song—just as Coyote walks by.
“‘Teach me your song, or I shall eat you up,’ cries Coyote.
“But Quail’s song is no ordinary song, and Coyote may end up swallowing more than he bargained for. . . . ”
That is clearly the risk.
On a Sunday, a man in a Dodge Neon is gunned down.
On Wednesday, two beaten and tortured cops are found under a bridge near the cemetery.
On Wednesday night, that cop crawls into the bakery.
On Thursday, another man is executed.
On Friday, seven men are slaughtered in a house in the state capital by the authorities.
On Saturday, a man in a car is machine-gunned near the crazy place.
On Sunday, a police bodyguard is cut down.
At first, I keep a list, try to see things in sequence, search for cause and effect.
Then I learn and give up.
The kidnapped and beaten cops that turn up, well, they were never reported as kidnapped until they suddenly reappeared.
The cop cut down, his name is not printed, nor the fact that the comandante he was guarding had his name on a certain list.
The names of the seven men killed in the state capital are also never made public.
When I cross from El Paso to Juárez in January, the river is dry. Nine thousand jobs have vanished in the past few months as the economy sinks. It is thirty-three degrees and very still. Air presses down like Jell-O and has a gun-metal blue cast from the wood fires of the poor. A vendor walks with a stack of newspapers on his head and carefully plods between the puddles.
Everything has already begun, but at this moment it has not yet been said out loud. The beginning will come later, when the dead get so numerous we can no longer silence them.
He is really unimportant. He seems to move in and out of jail in New Mexico. He is in the United States illegally, that is true, but he has a list of injustices he wishes to state, injustices that cover thirteen years in the country.
For example, U.S. authorities try to interview him when he is too tired to talk. Also, he suffers from gastrointestinal problems and he is seldom given the right medication at the right time. He has an infection in his right arm, and he does not get proper treatment for that, either. Detention officers have pounded on him and dislocated his shoulder. He says the guards mess with his medications so that he will go crazy. Also, once a dentist drilled his tooth and that tooth disappeared.


On Sale
Mar 30, 2010
Page Count
352 pages
Bold Type Books

Charles Bowden

About the Author

Charles Bowden, the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award and the Sidney Hillman Award, is the critically acclaimed author of numerous books, including Down by the River and Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing. He is a contributing editor for GQ and Mother Jones, and also writes for Harpers, the New York Times Book Review, Esquire, and Aperture. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Learn more about this author