Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reading the Lists of the Dead: Poetry and Social Justice in Mexico

I. The Global Economy's New Killing Fields

Yesterday as we walked the dry hills, every small white stone seemed a skull. 
Thousands litter the paths; I had not known there would be so many without number or name. 
Journal entry, 1 March 2011

On February 17th, on my way to Mexico, I begin reading Chuck Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. We'd heard him interviewed on the radio in January, his voice languid and haunted, cracking from the speaker like something from the other side of death.  Which in a way, he is.  He's been counting Mexico's dead and often brutally dismembered--journalists, photographers, prostitutes, police, Central American immigrants, drug addicts, homeless, mentally ill, children, tourists, students, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, passersby--the mounting "collateral damage" of the joint US-Mexican "war on drugs." This month, May, the numbers of Mexico's dead stagger towards 40,000.

Bowden's book reads like poetry; it's an elegy for missing people; a maddened cry; a descent into hell.

Small details arc through the text.  For the most part, Bowden cites newspaper stories--this one, for example, the 907th "murder" story filed in 2008 by his friend Armando Rodriguez, who was then gunned down before the story appeared.  As Rodriguez wrote in El Diario in Cuidad Juarez the night before his own death: "The man assassinated Tuesday night in the Diaz Ordaz viaduct was 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, delicate, light brown complexion, short black hair" (vi).

Nothing is known; everything is known; names are rarely reported.  This is why, recently, in the days of protest called for by poet Javier Sicilia, whose 24 year old son, Juan Francisco, was tortured and killed in March near Cuernavaca, there has been a move to post the names of the dead in town and city squares all over the country. As Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos wrote in his letter of support for Javier Sicilia's call to action, from "somewhere in the mountains of southeast Mexico:" "[W]e know well that to name the dead is a way of not abandoning them, of not abandoning ourselves."

Thus, for a part of one year, 2008, in just one place, Ciudad Juarez, which lies across the mostly dry Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Bowden tries to track and to name every one among the dead or brutally injured that he can find.  He fails miserably.   

Partly because he loses heart--or rather, he and his assistant Molly Molloy do--and partly because it is impossible. This is, in fact, one of the reasons they lose heart.  As he writes in the introduction to his Appendix, titled "The River of Blood," an effort to track and translate the daily press reports of the dead, "At first, it is simply a clerical task.  Read the papers and put down the names, if given, and the time and cause of death....[But] by June 2008, the city cannot handle its own dead and starts giving corpses wholesale to medical schools or tossing bodies into common graves.  The list of the dead becomes a dark burden as solid information dwindles.  And so it finally trails off, a path littered with death and small voices whispering against the growing night" (237).  Elsewhere he notes, "By the summer of 2009, Juarez looks back on the slaughter of 2008 as the quiet time" (233).

But I've not gotten to this point in the book on February 17th when my flight lands in Phoenix, Arizona. Still, I understand one very important thing already: Bowden is tracking a logic of death, a pattern to the killings that will be, as he puts it, "coming soon" to cities all over the world.  It's already scheduled, we could say, for a city near you.

"I want to explain the violence as if it were a flat tire and I am searching the surface for a nail.  But what if the violence is not a kind of breakdown, but more like a flower springing from the rot on the forest floor?" (116)  The factories of Juarez, its famous "free-trade zone" maquiladoras are, Bowden argues, "now the house of death, offering no future, poisoning the body with chemicals, destroying the spirit faster than cocaine or meth" (116).  To make matters worse, they don't pay enough for anyone to get ahead.  Prices in Juarez are basically US prices, but wages are at best around US$70 a week, and workers live in cardboard dumps, without security, benefits or protection of any kind.  The children of these workers don't see any reason to join the wasting fields where their parents labour and die young for such dishonest wages.  Drugs are rampant, so too labour in its fast factories, its killing floors--the new maquiladoras of the new century.

What if, Bowden asks, Juarez isn't "behind the times"--what if it isn't slow, not a spot not yet swept up into the development curve--"what if Juarez is not a failure," but an image of "the future that beckons all of us from our safe streets and Internet cacoons?" (117) What if Juarez is the very figure of neoliberal economic success?

"After decades of this thing called development, Juarez has in sheer numbers more poor people than ever, has in real purchasing power lower wages than ever, has more pollution than ever, and more untreated sewage and less water than ever.  Every claim of a gain is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of failure.  And yet this failure, I have come to realize is not failure....

"Everything in Juarez will soon be state-of-the-art. For years, the prosperous here have bundled themselves into gated communities, and now their strongholds are not sufficient, and security has vanished from the life of the city,  After all, this is a city where the publisher of the newspaper and the mayor and his family live across the line in the United States in order to feel safe.  There is no job retraining in Juarez because there are no new jobs to be trained for.  The future is here now, the moment is immediate, and the message is the crack of automatic weapons.  All the other things happening in the world--the shattering of currencies, the depletion of resources, the skyrocketing costs of food, energy, and materials--are old hat here.  Years ago, hope moved beyond reach, and so a new life was fashioned and now it crowds out all other notions of life" (118).  

What's coming isn't an apocalypse but the fulfillment of decades of policies that gut city services, destroy institutions and tax bases, separate the haves and have-nots, and ensure that the poor become ever poorer.  Structural readjustment--soon to happen or already begun in a municipal or state zone near you.  It's a great idea for governments to get out of the business of governing.  You can turn everything over to business--or what you can call business.  Remove oversight. Then it's all a free-trade zone!  And by the way, bring your weapons, you'll need them.  It's a jungle out there.

 It is midnight when I zip the book into my bag, collect my luggage and walk out to the taxi stand.  The air is warm, dry; a nice change from winter in Nova Scotia.  I want to go to the Tufesa Bus Lines station in Phoenix.  I have the address in my pocket and pull it out to ask the two young African American guys on night shift at the taxi stand how much a ride out to the mall where the tiny bus station is going to cost me.  

Wait, where are you going? they ask me.  They mean, once I get to the bus station.
To Mexico, I answer.  I want to catch the 1:30 am bus.
Aren't you afraid?
No, not really.  After all, I'm not going to a political meeting outside a grocery store in Tucson.

They laugh, wanly.  On January 8, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in the head 10:10 in the morning at a meet and greet with constituents outside of a Safeway Supermarket just north of Tucson.  Altogether, 19 people were shot that morning, six killed, by a young man with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and a mission to assassinate, and still many politicians and residents of the state continue to press for the right not only to carry arms of any sort, but, as well, for the right to carry concealed weapons. 

The taxi comes.  My cab driver is Iraqi; he's lived in Arizona since just before the outbreak of the Second Gulf War.  When I tell him where I want to go, he too asks, Aren't you afraid?
Of going to that mall, or of going to Mexico? I ask.
I don't know, he says.  Either.
Should I be? I ask.  
This question makes him laugh; this is when he reveals that he's Iraqi, and has more than enough of his own dead to worry about.

The bus station is tiny and the only brightly lit spot in the mall. Be careful! my cab driver warns me, as he unloads my bags.  I hope you know what you're doing.

I'm fine! I tell him.  I've done this many times!  But I begin, for the first time, to worry that perhaps I don't know what I'm doing.  I'm sure this worry is a product of the influence of Bowden's book, but I'm sufficiently spooked that I decide it wouldn't be a good idea to be seen reading it just now, so I pull out a novel, something more innocuous looking--Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna.   Who knows who might be looking, who might be watching?

II.  Benvenidos a Mexico!

Sometime before 2 am we board the bus.  The bus has come from Nevada, or perhaps somewhere in California.  Nearly every seat is filled and the luggage hold, beneath the bus, is overflowing.  A Peruvian family is aboard, touring the Americas, and their very large suitcases sprawl across the tops of every compartment.  They and the driver wrestle gamely with these behemoths, but to no avail. Everyone laughs and holds up their hands: nothing to be done.

I take my seat, the driver switches off the lights and I settle into a fitful sleep.  Half an hour north of Tucson, the driver pulls off of the road and turns on the lights.  He waits a minute, until it's clear that everyone is awake, and then he says, very quietly, very seriously, in Spanish, In half an hour we will be in Tucson. If you do not have the papers you need to cross the border, you need to get off of the bus at the station in Tucson.  US agents will be getting on this bus before we get to the border.  You need to make sure you have all of your papers in order!  Any questions?  And then he gets up and walks to the back of the bus where I am sitting--the only middle-aged gringa on the bus--and asks me, did you understand that?  Do you have your papers?
Si, I reassure him.  I have a Canadian passport.  Gracias.  I tell him I will need to get off of the bus on the Mexican side of the border and go to migracion for a tourist visa.  Will he wait for me to do that? 
I am relieved.

No one gets off of the bus in Tucson.  We pick up two passengers and head south in the dark.  We stop on the American side of the border, the lights piercingly bright. Two border agents board the bus--a man who steps quickly to the back of the bus, and a woman, with a little hand-held passport reading machine who stays in the front.  They begin to interview the passengers in Spanish.  The woman is slow, gentle--the good cop, while the man is rough, even nasty.  He tears open luggage in the overhead bins, shakes things, wants to know why we're all on the night bus, prods a garbage bag full of mysterious soft white bricks--baby wipes it turns out--roughs up a couple young guys.  None of us look at each other or at him; we're all nervous, all ashamed, guiltily so.  Anything could be an infraction; you never know what.  

He seizes my passport and looks at it closely.  You were born in the US, he says, why are you using a Canadian passport? 
Because I'm a Canadian citizen I say.  This is hardly good enough.  
Why are you on this bus? 
Because I'm headed to Guaymas, where I have a boat, and it's much less expensive to fly to Phoenix or Tucson and take a bus than to fly from Canada to Mexico. 
Why are you on the night bus?
Because my flight arrived at midnight, and a bus leaves for Mexico at 1:30 am. 
It's clear that he doesn't like any of these answers, not a single one, not from me, not from any of the others.  But we're all clean.  Apparently. No one is removed from the bus.  

3:30 am. We slip across the border into Mexico and everyone must disembark and haul their luggage into the aduana, then step up and push a little button beneath a stoplight.  Red--unlucky you!--you must have every item in your luggage unpacked and handled by the customs officer; green, you may drag your things back to the bus.  I draw green, stow my luggage, remind the driver I must go to migracion, and then find someone to let me through the gate to the immigration office.  The gate seems to be penning a dozen young men in some kind of custody.  They sprawl on the concrete and talk from the corners of their mouths, spitting occasionally. A guard escorts me past them and into an office where a uniformed young woman hands me a an application for a tourist visa.  I fill it in, pay 250 pesos, and am given permission to stay in the country 180 days.  My passport is stamped, my visa card inserted, and I head back to the bus, escorted by the security guard.  

4 am and everyone is on the bus. They've been waiting for me.  I walk back to my seat and the older man sitting across the aisle behind me stands up and extends his hand, which I take.  Benvenidos a Mexico, he says formally, bowing slightly.  And then he straightens up, looks me in the eye and grins impishly.  BE CAREFUL! he says loudly in English.  I laugh, along with everyone else on the bus.  Clearly, it's the new Mexican joke.

He knows, as well as I do, that it's what everyone in El Norte has said to me as soon as they hear I'm headed for Mexico.

III. Hasta la madre: poetry and social justice

I cannot bring myself to read the list of the dead.  I have to--what other claim do these people have upon us now but this--to be remembered thus?  And Chuck Bowden and his assistant Molly Molloy have been made crazy my compiling this list: it is something to which we must bear witness, but I fear it.
Journal entry, 2 March 2011

"One puts oneself to the pain of reading the papers," poet CD Wright observes in her poems of rage against America's contemporary wars, Rising Falling Hovering.  I try to put myself to the pain of finishing Bowden's book, and the lists of the dead at its end. The details mount unbearably; more than 300 hundred murders in less than five months are documented thus:

 "A homeless man was found this morning with his head destroyed by a large rock next to a wall in the Colonia Hidalgo" (238).

"This morning the mutilated body of another executed man was found..." (239)
"The body of Mirna Yesenia Munoz Ledo Marin lies in a white casket in the center of a room in a small adobe house in Colonia Mexico 68, watched over by her family and friends" (241).

"Corner peanut vendor midday by a man traveling in a car similar to those driven by the State Investigative Agency..." (241-42).
"Vidal Arambula was violently taken from his home on Puebla Street, and after being handcuffed, he was apparently told to run for his life (la ley fuga) and was then machine-gunned in the street. His body was left lying on Avenida Mexico in front of a taco stand" (246).

The resonances of this last entry seize me--la ley fuga--in which both law and runner are fugitive.  Without the rule of law this is the law, the rule, and it runs, "run so you may be a living target." Practice for future killings. Killing, the hardest habit of all to break.

February 13, 2008 is the date on this clipping.  Who can go on? But the killings neither pause nor cease, and I am not even halfway through this single short list of some of the dead.  If 100 abbreviated accounts are this agonizing, what of the 40,000 dead whose names Javier Sicilia and many others are trying to assemble, speak, and post in town squares all across Mexico? And so I read on.

A March 15, 2008 article from El Diario about the exhumation of 33 bodies from a warehouse in La Cuesta, Cuidad Juarez recounts the following story.  While neighbours suggest they had "sometimes heard strange noises in the house that they attributed to tortured souls, ... an older man living next door discarded this idea.  'Look, here you have to be more afraid of the living than of the dead'" (265).

And this is exactly the problem.  It's why Spanish reporter Judith Torrea--the only international journalist who remains in Cuidad Juarez--quit her New York-based job and moved to Juarez, where she reports on the killings, but also on the lives of survivors--mothers, brothers, lovers, children and friends of those gunned down in this joint US/Mexican "War on Drugs." Her blog, Ciudad Juárez, en la sombra del narcotráfico (Juarez City under the shadow of Drug Trafficking) is an oral history of the agonies of the living, of those who have buried one family member or friend after another, of those who hope without hope that their "disappeared" children or parents or partners will finally come home.  

Torrea poses a question for us: "how many murders are needed in Mexico for some to enjoy a line of cocaine?" Like Bowden, who writes, "one way to lose your sanity in to believe that the violence results from a cartel war" (23), Torrea is explicit about why, we could say, la ley se fuga en Juarez, the law and the rule of law itself is on the run and being gunned down in Juarez: “The Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, and the army are not fighting a war against drug trafficking. They are supporting the Sinaloa Cartel and its head, ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, to defeat the Juárez Cartel." Or as Bowden describes this situation, "The state still exists--there are police, a president, congress, agencies with names studded across the buildings. Still, something has changed, and I feel this change in my bones" (22).

Everyone does.  Not to feel it in your bones is already to be dead, perhaps.  What should be legitimate is not legitimate--in Bowden's words, "in this new way of life, no one is really in charge and we are all in play" (22).  The consequences of that are lethal, not only to life, but to truth.

When Mexican President Felipe Calderon insisted that the dead sons of one mother were gang members, Torrea investigated, and disproved that allegation.  Not everyone who is gunned down in this "war" is a criminal, many are simply poor and unlucky, bit actors, walk-ons in the killing fields. Torrea and Bowden and virtually anyone else with the courage to report on it wrestle against the slipperiness of "truth" in this "war," where if you die you must have been in with a bad crowd, there must have been a reason; if not, after death, because you're dead, you're converted into a criminal.   Or as Javier Sicilia puts it in his May 8 speech in Mexico City: "The wickedness of crime has killed [those who have died in this drug war] in three ways: by depriving them of life, by criminalizing them, and by burying them in mass graves with an ominous silence that is not ours [but the silence of the government, which stands by, even approves, as its citizens are assassinated.]"  The alternative, as he writes in his open letter to the Mexican government and the cartels, is simply to accept that "death [is] a matter of statistics and administration all of us should get used to"--and this is completely unacceptable. 

The phrase "no mas sangre, estamos hasta la madre, ni un muerto mas!" / "no more blood; we've had it up to here; not one more death!"--watchword of the 8 Mayo marches in Mexico--emerges out of the rage and sorrow of Sicilia's April 3rd letter,  where he writes to Calderon and his minions:

There is no word to describe such pain [as we surviving family members feel]--only poetry can come close to it, and you know nothing about poetry. What I want to say today, from these mutilated lives, from this pain that has no name because it is the product of what does not belong to nature--the death of one’s child is always unnatural and this is why there is no name for it: one is therefore neither an orphan nor a widower, one is simply and painfully nothing--what I want to say from these mutilated lives, I repeat, from the indignation sparkled by these deaths, is that we have had it up to here (hasta la madre).

We have had it up to here with you politicians--and when I say politicians, I am not referring to anyone in particular, but to a large number of you, including those who make up the political parties--because in your power struggle, you have torn the fabric of this nation. Because in the middle of this war, which is badly designed, badly made and badly conducted, in the middle of this war that has thrown the country into a state of emergency, you have been unable---because of your meanness, your fights, your miserable skulduggery--to create the consensus needed by our nation to find unity, and without which this country has no way out. We have had it up to here because the corruption of the legal institutions generates complicity with crime and the impunity allowing it to be committed; because, in the midst of this corruption that is proof of the failure of the State, every citizen of this country has been reduced to what philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called, using a Greek work, zoe: that is, unprotected life, the life of an animal, of a being that can be subjected to violence, kidnapped, ill-treated or humiliated and murdered with impunity; we have had it up to here because you only use your imagination for the sake of violence, weapons, insult, and in so doing, you show a profound scorn towards education, culture and job opportunities implying decent and good work, which is what makes great nations; we have had it up to here because this short-sighted imagination is allowing our youth, our sons and daughters, to be not only murdered, but later criminalized, made falsely guilty in order to fulfill the intent of such imagination; we have had it up to here because another part of our youth, due to the lack of a good government program, have no opportunities to get an education, to find dignified work, and therefore, being pushed towards the periphery, are possible recruits for organized crime and violence; we have had it up to here because in view of all that, citizens have lost confidence in their rulers, their police, their Army, and they are afraid and full of sorrow; we have had it up to here because the only thing you care about, apart from gaining helpless power that is only good to administer misfortune, is making money, encouraging competition, your damned “competitiveness” fostering boundless consumption, which are other names for violence. 

I have quoted Sicilia at such length because this is the letter that catalyzed the recent demonstrations in Mexico, and it's clear why; his is a language that has force and emotional resonance; it is a language that names things: loss, grief, nothingness, corruption, the point at which we've all had enough--hasta la madre. Now and then, this is something that poetry--and poets--can do, something we are called to do.  Poetry doesn't make injustice cease or social justice happen--feet in the streets and the stubborn and unremitting press of bodies and shouts and national and international pressure are required for that. But poetry cries out; it names our sorrows and our yearning--even, sometimes those situations--a parent bereft of a child--for which we have no words.  And although Sicilia has sworn off writing poems since his son's death, it is clear that poetry has not left him.  On the contrary, now more than ever, as he dedicates himself to the urgencies of activism, he's drawing upon its deepest resources.

May's National March for Peace in Mexico has given rise to a call for a National Peace Accord, to be signed in Ciudad Juarez--"the epicenter of sorrow"-- on the 10th of June 2011.  The terms of this pact are terms any citizenry ought to be able to demand of its government.  They are terms forged in Mexico, and paid for in blood there--and in this season in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, the West Bank, Guatemala, El Tucson and Los Angeles,  and yes, even in Toronto.  Let us not simply read this poetry then, but line up behind it and act upon it:
1. We demand truth and justice.
2. We demand an end to this strategy of war; what we need is an approach to governance that ensures the security of our citizens.
3. We demand a fight against corruption and impunity [from prosecution].
4. We demand a fight against the economic roots of and proceeds of crime.
5. We demand emergency care for youth and effective actions to reconstruct the social fabric.
6. We demand a participatory democracy, a better representative democracy and the democratization of the media.

As Javier Sicilia warns, "If we don’t do this our children, our boys, our girls, will only inherit a house full of helplessness, of fear, of indolence, of cynicism, of brutality, and of deception, where the señores of death reign with their ambition, their excessive power, their complacency and their complicity with crime" (8 Mayo speech in El Zocalo, Mexico City)

Quotes from books are cited by page number; citations from websites are linked back directly to the source cited.

Charles Bowden.  Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. New York: Nation Books, 2010.

Barbara Kingsolver. The Lacuna. New York: Harper Perennial. 2009.

CD Wright, Rising Falling Hovering. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press. 2009.

Online sources:
Interview with Chuck Bowden. "As it Happens." CBC Radio. 13 January 2011:

The number 40,000.  Cited by Javier Sicilia and others in

Javier Sicilia's call for days of protest: "A National Emergency: Javier Sicilia Calls Upon the People of Mexico."Youtube Video posted by Yabastanomasangre. English subtitles.

Letter of support from Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos to Javier Sicilia: English translation: Espanol:

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords shot in the head: a detailed summary of events and links to news stories may be found at

Judith Torrea, the only international journalist who remains in Juarez: Silvia Duarte. Judith Torrea: Under the Shadow of Drug Trafficking." Online magazine Sampsonia Way. January 2011:
Torrea's comments come from this article.

Judith Torrea. Ciudad Juarez en la sombra del narcotrafico. Blog.

Javier Sicilia. "Javier Sicilia Speech from the Zocalo in Mexico City" May 8, 2011.  The Narco News Bulletin. Published May 10, 2011:
In Spanish:

Javier Sicilia. Open Letter.  In Olivia Stransky. "Letter from Poet Javier Sicilia to Mexican Government and Cartels." Online Magazine Sampsonia Way. May 17, 2011.
In Spanish:  

National Peace Accord: Full text here in Spanish:
Six key demands are listed in English and Spanish (awkward English translation) here: Geraldine Juarez. "Mexico Day 4: 80,000 Citizens Demand Peace Justice and Dignity Against the War on Drugs." Global Voices Online. Blog. 13 May 2011.

See also:

Discarded shell. Bahia San Carlos. Sonora, Mexico.
Feathers. Beach. San Juanico, BCS, Mexico.
Severed Ray head. La Ramada. BCS, Mexico. Rays are killed and dismembered in great numbers as bait for sharks, for shark's fin soup and other delicacies.


  1. Very nice Karin, sad but so true. Internationally it is really sad that people driven to make monumental amounts of money cannot see the long term results of their actions. I think Bill Gates is one of the only ones I know that gives back a lot of his profits. Even that results in him making more money by the tax breaks he receives because of it. Keep up the good work.

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