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Books / The Daily Inquisition / January 21, 2009

Today’s Topic: In semi-praise of Down by the River.

Statement of the Grand Inquisitor: As we have ruled earlier, there are few good books. Down by the River by Charles Bowden, a meandering and disorganized collection of facts, soundbites and stories about the opaque world of Mexican drug cartels, barely makes that list. It does so not by virtue of its poetic style and profound obliqueness that reads like something out of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but by offering up a steady stream of fun Mexican drug trade trivia. Books about drug cartels generally don’t need a master stylist to make them interesting–they need a patient stenographer to put the stories and facts in one place. And Down by the River manages to do exactly that. If you’re into the drug violence erupting in Mexico but are hard up for answers, this book is for you.

Down by the River uses the unsolved murder of a likable Mexican-American kid from El Paso, Texas, as its plot vehicle. Killed in an apparent carjacking gone wrong, the kid would’ve been just another forgettable statistic if it wasn’t for one important detail: his brother was the head narc at El Paso’s massive DEA office. , The brother never came close to finding out who ordered the hit, or if it was even a hit at all. He was walled off on all sides: his own agency told him to drop it, the Mexican government protected the alleged shooter, and, despite more than a decade of experience and a huge network of informers, his personal investigation led nowhere. That is, nowhere other than a broken marriage, a comic addiction to playing the lotto dozens of times a day and a couple of hundred thousand dollars of debt.

Bowden uses the down-and-out narc as an intro into the tangled world of the War on Drugs. His is a depressing tale, but pleasant to read. Nothing makes us happier than reading about narcs suffering. But Bowden’s strategy ends up almost killing the book. He just does not know where to stop. At some point, the narc’s whole extended family is introduced into the story. Their history, their dreams, hopes, ambitions, secret family recipes and how the death affected all of them. Huge sections of the book are dedicated to detailing ethnic mood scenes from the South West border: the smell of chilis roasting on the grill, a solemn traditional Mexican family gathering, the sound of corn tortillas being made, or a mother’s sighting of her dead kid’s ghost. All that makes for some really torturous reading.

But there is a redemption: despite the lyrical bullshit, you can tell that Bowden isn’t really on the narcs’ side. Maybe he didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Maybe he can’t write in another way. But you can feel his basic loathing for them and anyone they associate with. The biggest tip-off is that Bowden never tries to moralize the drug trade, not even for a second. He states over and over that the drug trade is business and the drug lords are businessmen. But they are more than just merchants to Bowden. He praises them; even roots for them, just like the Mexican peasants who compose Homeric ballads about the lives, adventures and conquests of the narcotraficantes.

At some point, Bowden quotes Amado Carrillo, the shadowy Juarez cartel leader who faked his own death in 1997, bitching about Mexican politicians Tony Montana-style: “The people who steal money from Mexico and take it out of the country to Switzerland are more of a disgrace than I am. I bring money here to stimulate the economy.” Bowden backs him up without skipping a beat:

In this unwritten history, the drug merchants are almost the only honest players: vicious, greedy, murderous, and candid about their behavior… They are also one of the few industries in the developing sectors of the earth that really do redistribute income and do so at a level without parallel in the thousands of assembly plants now employing the poor of the planet.

Aside from his sympathies to the drug trade, Bowden weaves in a lot of fun Mexican drug trade facts. They’re not crafted into any narrative, but are a gem for anyone interested in Mexico’s drug scene. Did you know that Mexico earns about $10 billion dollars off of its nationalized oil industry and anywhere from $27 to $60 billion from the drug trade? Or that a third of all arable land is used for opium and marijuana cultivation? How about a cartel’s profit margins? Did you know that a 100-ton coke seizure worth a quarter billion dollars causes no fluctuation in the market price? That’s because a kilo of processed product costs about $1,000 in Colombia. By the time it gets to America, it costs $200,000. Ever thought about corruption on the US side? Well, in the 90s, the US government estimated that about a third of all US Customs officials were on the take. Then there’s the big picture stuff about how the US did not want to call too much attention to Mexico’s drug problem because no one wanted to hinder NAFTA’s passage. Or how every single Mexican president has had a slush fund kept full by the drug cartels. Or that American banks laundered up to $5 trillion in drug money for the Mexicans in the 90s? The trivia just keeps going.

Verdict: If we held a course called Mexican Drug Trade Studies, this book would be required reading. And like all textbooks, this one contains a lot of material that we would gladly skip over.

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16 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. mx?  |  January 22nd, 2009 at 4:33 am

    doooo a storyyy on the mexican drug warr pleaseeeee, id like to know what the percepetion is in the outside.
    Its not nearly as exagerated as some of your politicians put it recently that Mexico is or is becoming a failed state, but i do live in a zeta-controlled neighborhood, so its not failed, more like kidnapped but that sounds harsh too, anyway there’s a truce so nothin to worry about, just some people loose their heads from time to time;p

  • 2. Allen  |  January 22nd, 2009 at 8:54 am

    The Exile’s fawning over narco “robin hoods” is getting slightly grating. These people, whose nutsacs you merrily swing from, are mostly motherfuckers, as I’m sure you know. In fact, I’m reasonably certain many of them would happily trod across their own mother’s strewn out body with sharpened cleats to make a buck … or to garrote a snitch. (They’re good capitalists, I guess?)

    Yeah drug prohibition is generally retarded and based on arbitrary exercise of customs that never had a good reason for coming into existence in the first place. But sucking up to the people that sell you drugs just because you like the drugs they sell? Have a little dignity.

    (Sell by proxy, I mean. I’m not talking about your average street level type … who could be almost anyone).

    Besides, to remind you of another obvious fact, the Narco-traffickers can only make their money and play “robin-hood”, redistributing the wealth and growing the economy at the same time, because there’s a black market. Thus, they have a strange symbiotic relationship with the government and Narco officers. After all, if it wasn’t for senseless drug laws, the drug trade would be run by Phillip Morris or fucking Monsanto by now (if it isn’t already). And that would be, like, a bummer. Man. Right?

    The whole thing is just mired in ambiguity. Embrace it.

  • 3. aleke  |  January 22nd, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Unless you have some tribal allegiance to one group or the other, you should always side with the underdog. It’s the only moral solution. Pick narcos over narcs, pick stupid fuck villagers over narcos, pick repressed minority group over stupid fuck villagers

  • 4. Anonymous  |  January 22nd, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Allen, when everyone in the media errs one way, such as toward the cop viewpoint, it’s time for an occasional article, or even an occasional underground newspaper, that errs the other way, such as toward the smuggler viewpoint.

    Legalizing and switching over to Monsanto and Phil Morris would be a million times better, and I have no feelings of ambiguity at all.

  • 5. Rick  |  January 22nd, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    The longer I live the more I wish drugs were at the store. It’s awkward dealing with these dealer people. Make it easy. Yeah, people will get nuts, but like they’re not pitiful and nuts and pathetic now? These are some amazing blinders these mainstream people have on, they can look at human beings and not see the supposed wretchedness and horror a hardcore drug addict has, in normal daily routines. It’s like racism. You hate in this race what is horrible about yourself.

    But you’re really kidding yourself, that speed addiction is a terrible curse on any given human being. I mean, it gives them some pep. Pot addiction is much more like a curse, but speed addiction is what it is: fun for those hours, a little less after.

  • 6. mitchell  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 1:38 am

    What’s up with Zhenli Ye Gon these days?

  • 7. mx?  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    in mexico theres a joke about him, more like a funny phrase, when they interviewed him about all that money ( which probably was the goverments or the sinala cartel)
    “coopelas o cuello” it was like a play on words, like the “flied lice plick” phrase from lethal weapon.
    OH and about him, probably paid off a lot of people and has gone low-profile.
    He was just a little link in the supply chain

  • 8. jason  |  January 24th, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I lived mexico recently for a few months. The “Drug war” hype is mainly american, in my experience. The problems are mainly thought to effect the upper class/government types. The average mexican (most of which do not take “hard drugs”) isn’t effected.

  • 9. mx?  |  January 24th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    I agree with you jason, although i do have friends and people i knew who have been..err..”affected” by the drug war.
    the US Gov. always issues those silly “reports” when they want to pressure a country, and the result is like bad publiciy for the mexican beaches.
    They end up affecting tourism, which looses money for the Gov so they end up giving in to the americans pressure.
    aaaah goddamn gringos we just loooove’em.

  • 10. mx?  |  January 24th, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    ooh and jason where did you live?
    because if you didnt live in any of the disputed “plazas” then the drug war could hve passed unnoticed by you.
    In my city we had shootouts between narcos vs cops, narcos vs federales, narcos vs soldiers, narcos vs cops/federales/soldiers, narcos vs narcos, executions (hits), decapitations, people getting disolved in acid or burnt in gasoline-filled trash cans, narco messages (written threats between narcos, and against corrupt politicians and police commanders.
    i remember they even threw people from low-flying cessnas in sinaloa.

    lovely country, you should visit the beaches(:

  • 11. paul  |  January 26th, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    A kilo of coke costs $200,000 in the US? I regret to inform you that in WA and FL the going rate for a kilo of coke is around $6-7,000.

    Not as dramatic as the police would like folks to believe.

  • 12. L. Macarius  |  January 27th, 2009 at 5:26 am

    “They are also one of the few industries in the developing sectors of the earth that really do redistribute income”

    Hahahhaha! The lies people tell to simply ease up the guilt. Honeslty, you’ve never actually seen how these drug barons live do you? Pretty close to where I grew up in Brazil, this Lebanese drug dealer had a house with collums made from Carrara’s Marble (yes, he imported them from Italy) with details painted in gold.

    While the kids seeling drugs in the favelas barely have clothes, or any medical assistance.

    Wealth distribution my ass…

  • 13. Mycos  |  January 27th, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Of the LE defenders I see one with remarkable insight into the conservative fear of ambiguity.
    http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~hannahk/conservatism.html It’s this one affect that causes them to see the world in simplified, black and white terms. It’s where phrases like “the law is the law” and “my country, right or wrong” relieve such people of the responsibility to think things through. This is also the seed from which the “Nuremburg Defence” arose, and from which prohibition now continues. LEOs can avoid taking any responsibility for their actions by telling themselves they are “merely doing their job”.

    The last poster sees only the mansion of the dealer, not the mansions belonging to the landowners for whom the politicians sat in their mansions drafting laws that keep everyone else so poor that the only way they can afford the shirt on their back is through drug trafficking. I guess if he had his way, these kids wouldn’t even have that much. Yet he blames drugs for how little they have, and not the real reason…conservatives like him who feel compelled to justify inequality. (see above link)
    What? Are we to believe the poor were better off before prohibition opened up a trillion dollar US market for something they have been quietly doing for centuries? If all that money were still sitting back in the US, how does that help the people down there?
    Any way you look at it, it’s a vast redistribution of money/wealth that would have otherwise remained back in the US.

  • 14. russiandyev  |  January 31st, 2009 at 4:39 am

    I am looking forward to the “W” film review if the drugs are not the only thing that may interest eXile in literature and films. I’m sure it’s worth discussing.

  • 15. kopkejaime  |  February 1st, 2009 at 5:42 am

    You cover a certain amount of interesting articles and it seems like a pretty good little rag, topics are controversial,I got a look at this due to an article on “ANSWERS” from Yahoo. THe Mecican thing is classic abuse of National borders…
    Used to enjoy partying when I was a kid but after looking at all the death just for smuggling, Reefer isn’t even worth the high anymore when you think about all the young kids that died so it is undetected by government officals, If I wanted to play roulette I would get a six shot revolver, when I was playing was in the late sixties and seventys. Some of the movies cut trying to portray the aspects of the reality seem to fall short of the truth to the American public with lack of impact, as if it were propagated as opposed to understated.
    Personally if I were tryingto relax I don’t need the heat of potential homicide barking up my ass. Makes you wonder if the government shouldn’t leagalize it(reefer) just for monitoring and the revenue angle, might help cut down on the contraban murdering that is taking out premisquous kids. That in itself is worth a form of boycot. It would take some brainstorming but…

  • 16. Robert Scofield  |  April 29th, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I was looking for more books on the drug war in Mexico and found this.I read The Plaza by Guillermo Paxton recently, and even though it is fiction, it is based on fact, and I would say mostly fact. It was a quick read and I could not put it down until I finished it. It is an eye opener, to say the least.


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