"This unwritten history takes place down by the river, on the fabled banks where two nations meet. The official history is about the corruption of Mexico. The unwritten history, or the one that is almost instantly erased, is about the corruption of both nations." -- Charles Bowden, "Down by the River"
Charles Bowden has made a name for himself as a chronicler of life in the desert Southwest, first as a reporter for the Tucson Citizen, then as the writer and essayist responsible for works such as "Blood Orchid," a searing meditation on hope and hopelessness, natural beauty and environmental devastation, and, above all, the darkness at the heart of the American dream. But for the past few decades, to write about the Southwest is also to write about the drug trade, drug prohibition, and its devastating impact.
Bowden has touched on such themes in his previous writings; in fact, some would argue that he has become obsessed by them, his work filled with lugubrious portrayals of death, destruction, and degradation, his prose turning melodramatic as, like Cassandra, he warns of dire consequences awaiting us.
But the US drug war, as waged in Mexico and on the border, is a melodrama, generating horrific violence, fabulous wealth, and personal tragedies of all sorts on a daily basis. Evil villains abound -- traffickers like Pablo Acosta, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, former Mexican President Raul Salinas, and the nameless hit men whose "adjusting of accounts" has left bodies all over the place -- only to be fought by the forces of goodness, namely the brave men and women of the DEA, Customs, and the rest of the US drug-fighting apparatus.
At least that is the official narrative. But as Bowden admirably shows in "Down By the River," in the real world of cross-border drug trafficking, this sort of "moral clarity" is soon lost in the murk and the muck. If, as Bowden strongly argues, various Mexican administrations have been complicit in the drug trade, then what about the various US administrations that have largely turned a blind eye to bank deposits of drug trade profits? If the cross-border drug trade is immoral, what about the immorality of men who make a living befriending others and then betraying them to the authorities? If Mexico is a country often denounced for torture -- and it is -- then what about US enforcers who, with a wink and a nod, turn over drug suspects to be tortured? (This is a question that can be asked more broadly as, on one hand President Bush denounces Saddam Hussein as an evil torturer, while on the other, reports begin to filter out of Afghanistan that US troops there are up to the same nasty tricks.)
Bowden doesn't necessarily have the answers to these questions, but what is important is that he raises them. If "Down By the River" accomplishes anything, it is to show that drug prohibition and the drug trade are wrapped in a pathological embrace, both feeding off the other, and both corrupting and dehumanizing not only themselves but the societies that generated them.
Bowden's narrative begins with a murder in El Paso in 1995 and expands outward from there like ripples in a pond. The death of Bruno Jordan was just another killing in a city that saw too many during the 1990s, except this time the victim was the younger brother of the incoming head of the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center, Philip (born Felipe) Jordan. Was the murder a thinly-veiled warning to Jordan not to mess with the Juarez Cartel? Philip Jordan thought so, and so did his El Paso-based family. Interspersed with plentiful digressions, Bowden details Jordan's descent into obsession and revenge as he spend the next few years trying to find who was behind his brother's murder.
Bowden explores the rise of Amado Carillo Fuentes ("the Lord of the Skies," a moniker he gained by buying 747s and using them to ship planeloads of cocaine from Colombia to Mexican airfields south of the border), almost casually noting the daily appearance of bodies in Ciudad Juarez as drug wars raged across the city and sketching the outlines of US efforts to thwart the trade. But he also takes the reader deep inside the Jordan family, an All-American Mexican-Italian clan deeply rooted in El Paso.
In the Jordan family, the ambiguities and tensions of the US war on drugs are encapsulated. Brother Tony, a nightclub singer on both sides of the border, tells Bowden of singing for the drug lords. Cousin Sal, another DEA agent, ends up in prison himself after attempting to arrange the murder of someone he thought was involved in Bruno's killing. And Philip Jordan, like an exemplar of US drug policy, loses his way, falling into a cycle of vengeance and depression, rage and despair.
So... did the cartels kill Bruno Jordan? By the end of "Down By the River," the reader is no more certain then at the beginning. And that, perhaps, is Bowden's point. In this man-made disaster called the war on drugs, truth is elusive, a plaything in the hands of those who would impose their agendas, and there is enough muck to dirty everyone involved. Charles Bowden may not have the answers, but readers interested in the effects of US drug policy on the border can go along for one hell of a ride as Bowden searches in the shadows.