Chronicle Book Review: "Our Lost Border" and "The Fight to Save Juarez"

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso, eds. (2013, Arte Publico Press, 290 pp., $19.95 PB)

The Fight to Save Juarez: Life in the Heart of Mexico's Drug War, Ricardo Ainslie (2013, University of Texas Press, 282 pp., $25.00 HB)

More than six years after then President Felipe Calderon unleashed the Mexican military to wage war against the country's wealthy, powerful, and murderous drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- Calderon is gone, but the unprecedented violence unleashed by his campaign continues largely unabated. The new administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto is claiming some successes, but lauding the fact that the killings are now going on a rate of only a thousand or so a month is more a sign of how far things still have to go than have far we have come.

While talking a good game about how his administration is going to pursue a different path from that of his predecessor, Pena Nieto has in fact largely maintained Calderon's policies. The military is still out in the field fighting cartel gunmen, the government still shouts out with pride whenever it captures a top capo (and it has captured three in the past six weeks), and Pena Nieto's plan for a national gendarmerie to replace the soldiers is busily vanishing before our eyes.

Rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, it still looks much like the same old Mexican drug war, even if it isn't garnering the attention north of the border that it did last year. The reason for that lack of attention now may not be nefarious. Last year was a presidential election year in both countries. For the US electorate, that meant the border and the Mexican drug war was an issue; for the Mexicans, the drug war came to define Calderon's tenure. Now, the elections are over and attention (at least north of the border) has turned elsewhere.

But for the people who actually live on the border, the issue isn't going away. And even if the violence, the corruption, and the criminality miraculously vanished tomorrow, the scars -- physical and psychological -- remain. Too many people have died, too many communities have been devastated, too many decapitated heads have been left in too many places. Local economies have been devastated, long-time cross-border ties, familial and otherwise, disrupted.

At best, one can say that Rio Grande Valley Mexican border towns like Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros have already been through the worst of the conflagration -- like a forest after a wild fire, most of the combustible fuel is gone. The scores have largely been settled on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande: The Sinaloa Cartel has severely weakened its rival Juarez Cartel, the Zetas have nearly eliminated the Gulf Cartel. While only a couple of years ago, Juarez and the other valley cities were ground zero for the Mexican drug war, the fire has moved on, to place like Michoacan, Durango, and Chihuaha City.(Although, after these recent captures of cartel leaders, things could flare up again as rival underlings scramble to replace them and rival cartels scramble to take advantage.)

In The Fight to Save Juarez, psychoanalyst and multi-media documentarian Ricardo Ainslie details life in El Paso's sister city during the worst of the cartel violence, relying on a quite impressive series of interviews with then Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, human rights workers, state and federal government officials, cartel gun molls, and ordinary citizens. Ainslie provides a smart, detailed, and fascinating look at a city devastated by anarchic violence and the winking complicity that accompanied it.

One of his most striking achievements is to narrate the outbreak of war between the Juarez Cartel and the encroaching Sinaloans, and to locate the opening of hostilities squarely in the ranks of the Juarez municipal police. Ainslie makes painfully clear how corrupted the department was, with a high proportion of its membership doing double duty as La Linea, the strong-armed enforcers and executioners for the Juarez Cartel. It was those guys who were targeted by the Sinaloa Cartel, first with exemplary executions, then with invitations to switch sides, then with more executions of those police who refused their offer. And the gang war was on.

Ainslie deftly navigates the intricacies of state (not so much, thanks to a corrupted Chihuahua governor), local, and federal efforts to do something about the savagery and about the police department. The bloodletting in Juarez, already festering in the national imagination, became Mexico's issue number one after the massacre of neighborhood youth at a party in Villas de Salvarcar by cartel gun men, and Ainslie was there as Calderon and his ministers were forced to come to Juarez and take the heat for the results of their policies.

Ainslie brings nuance and subtlety to his reporting, illuminating political rivalries and the interplay of different levels of government, as well as the human suffering and economic disruptions involved. The Fight to Save Juarez clears away much of the murkiness surrounding what went on in Juarez during those bloody years beginning in 2008, and places the struggle there in the context of a society where just about everyone is complicit in one way or another in the gravy train that is the Mexican drug trade.

What Ainslie does not do is question drug prohibition. For him, drug prohibition is simply a given, and the answers to Mexico's problems with prohibition-related violence and corruption must come from somewhere other than reevaluating the drug laws. That said, his reporting is still a valuable contribution to understanding the realities of Mexico's drug war.

Similarly, the essays in Our Lost Border generally do not question drug prohibition. What they do do, with uneven degrees of success, is bring life in a war zone home at a very personal level. Whether is it Richard Mora lamenting the loss of the Tijuana of his youth or Diego Osorno writing about the wholesale abandonment of a Rio Grande Valley town to warring cartel factions in "The Battle for Ciudad Mier," these Mexican and Mexican-American writers describe a cherished past vanquished by a bloody, horrifying present.

And Our Lost Border is bilingual, the essays appearing in both Spanish and English. That is appropriate and even symbolic; Mexico's drug war isn't just Mexico's. As Americans, we own it, too, and for border Mexican-Americans or even as Anglos with cross-border ties, this isn't about violence in a distant land, this is about the binational community, friends, and family.

Neither of these books even pretends to be an anti-prohibitionist manifesto. But that's okay. They both help us achieve a richer, deeper understanding of what is going on on the border in the name of the drug war. We can draw our own conclusions.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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