Unreal City

Driving through the desert outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, I saw a car on a pole, a crashed, burnt out, gutted vehicle raised up on a stick, presented like a tray to the birds of prey circling above. Something Terry Gilliam might dream up, it made an apt introduction to somewhere so frightening and surreal it sometimes seemed more like a province of the imagination than a city in Mexico.

The bus I was travelling in underwent two security checks entering the city, including full body searches and an x-ray scan of the entire vehicle. Soon after, we passed a red pick-up truck, in the back of which a man in jeans was standing topless, holding a machine gun to his chest, occasionally training his viewfinder on those behind him, casual as you like. We reached the main station at 4pm. The dusty cars parked out front all had blacked out windows wound up; it seemed the standard safety measure.

When I hailed a taxi and gave the driver my hotel address, he tried to persuade me to stay somewhere else. Uptown was not a good place, he counselled. I said I knew that. He said it wasn’t what I thought; it was the police; they were drunk and disorderly; I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep. I said I thought that was unlikely anyway. He gave up and took me there.

I entered the hotel lobby to eyes on stalks, mouths agape. I suspect the staff seldom saw tourists, especially young, female foreigners. Not only is Juárez the most violent non-warzone in the world and the murder capital of Mexico, it is also home to femicide: the sadistic rape, torture and murder of women in the area. Needless to say, I had been terrified of coming here. It was a reckless self-dare based on a determination to see the source of what I consider the greatest novel written in my lifetime, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, most of which is set in Santa Teresa, a town modeled on Juárez.

Curiously in line with my literary motivations and the way in which 2666 splices reality and fiction, I kept encountering the place through the prism of art, as if it could only present itself to the imagination. My hotel bedroom, for instance, was a Francis Bacon painting. It was windowless (for reasons of security), with viridian green carpet, lurid pink walls, dull neon light and an entirely airless atmosphere, suffused only by a lingering sense of sex or violence. Like the gambler’s grotesques, it became a contorting locus of what the mind wants to keep out but instead locks in.

The receptionist wouldn’t tell me where I could buy refreshments and instead insisted on sending her lackey, a boy with a huge scar down his cheek and a mutilated left eye, to get me a six-pack of beer. He returned shortly with 26 cans and a massive grin on his face. I gathered he had trousered the cash I had given him and stolen the drinks instead of buying them. Hung for a sheep as a lamb, I suppose.

They would not let me out of the building after dark (which, in retrospect, I appreciate), and everybody else was cowed by the curfew too. The hotels, restaurants and bars shut their doors at 5pm sharp. By twilight, the main strip was empty. The silence was stranger than anything else I came across here and deeply unsettling. Standing in the middle of the fifth-largest city in the country, at midday or dusk, you could have heard a pin drop.

Many establishments were closed down, unable to pay what the mafia demanded. The centre was a spectral grid of abandoned or dilapidated buildings, pocked by struggling businesses. The local paper reported that on average 18 were closing a day. The corporate companies, flash hotels and upmarket brothels that superficially sustain the city appeared aloof from the suburbs where most of the residents divide their time between maquiladoras and low-rise blocks of housing. The poorer neighbourhoods are drug-addled slums, dismal and extremely dangerous. 

Driving through them, I found it hard to believe what had been happening here. The factories were so boring to look at it seemed odd that they should be the source of so much hope and horror. The desert stretched beyond the sprawl like a geographic tabula rasa. Against its utter emptiness I had to keep reminding myself that it was anything but – a giant graveyard covering up not only countless corpses but also the many corrupted cases surrounding the dead. blanks  on to which history and the mind project, it seemed that only their stories could make these places real. Yet those stories themselves were incredible, more fucked-up than anything Roberto Bolaño might invent.

Once celebrated for fathering an industrial boom, these factories later became famous for femicide. Initially set up as a cheap means of production for various Mexican and American manufacturing companies, they drew workers from around the country, swiftly turning the town into an urban success story, an oasis of economic growth and high employment in the desiccated north. But today, they are notorious for the disturbing deaths of hundreds of female employees who have been raped, mutilated and murdered, their bodies dumped in the vacant lots attached to warehouses, or else mysteriously disappeared into the desert. These are the femicides. Since 1993, there have been more than a thousand women murdered in Ciudad Juárez and more than three thousand counted missing.

The infamous warring between the Juárez drug cartels dominates the press and the lives of the city’s citizens but I find the femicides both more frightening and intriguing. The drug war is sadly comprehensible. Most of those killed by the gangs are involved in their trade or, less commonly, are hapless bystanders. Their deaths are logically linked to the industry, or sadly incidental. Not so with the femicides. The women are victims of intent, sexually assaulted, physically abused and violated in ways that most of us wouldn’t in our wildest nightmares imagine. The innocence of those murdered and the psychosis of their killers is both strikingly clear and utterly mystifying. Equally apparent and yet baffling is the police’s failure to recognise or prevent what has become a highly specific type of crime.

There are similarities between the hundreds of cases that suggest a method in the madness. Most of the women killed are young, slim, poor, maquiladora workers from the suburbs. And almost all of their deaths remain unsolved, their identities and killers obscured in a litany of botched and mislaid body samples, false confessions, bent accusations, testimonies extracted under torture, retractions, ungrounded convictions, unaccountable early releases, bribes, evasions and outright lies.

It is difficult to understand. Theories proliferate. Many suspect that the criminals are the sons of important political and economic figures, who continue their activities under cover of state protection. Others believe the perpetrators are members of the cartels, which to some extent amounts to the same thing, since both types of men are beyond the law. More analytic accounts suggest it might be a twisted misogynistic backlash. The femicides coincide with the highest levels of female employment in the history of Northern Mexico, following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1993, which facilitated the factory culture that lured thousands of women to work in Juárez. The International Criminal Justice Review argues that the agreement overlooked the impact that industry would have on local communities.  In particular it failed to take into account the effect of high female employment on a culture in which women had traditionallybeen valued within a strictly domestic sphere.

It is a fairly convincing argument, since almost all of the victims of femicide are factory labourers, kidnapped and killed on their way to or from work and assaulted in ways that are explicitly gender-specific. It would also go some way to explaining the scale of the phenomenon. The numbers suggest that many men are serially murdering many women; it is a widespread effect of social dysfunction, rather than the work of a few anomalous psychopaths.

Yet the Mexican government and State Judiciary do prefer to see it as a freak occurrence for which they cannot be answerable or responsible. The authorities’ inability to successfully or thoroughly investigate the crimes has culminated in several Amnesty International rulings that have condemned the failures of NAFTA, the Mexican government and the Chihuahua State Judiciary as partly to blame for the extent of death and suffering among the people of Juárez. The latest report (March 2012) listed a catalogue of denials, errors and unfulfilled promises- a stark portrait of ineptitude, disorganisation and systemic corruption with little prospect of improvement. 

More heartening, though, were the documentaries I came across on hotel TV screens as I travelled through the northern states. They showed mothers and friends uniting to mourn the deaths of their loved ones and fight for justice. These are mostly women, although, many men have joined the effort. Collectives have formed, such as Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, creating memorial grounds, heading human rights campaigns and finally catching the attention of the global press. Equally importantly, they also bring a kind of reality to the tragedy here. These are people directly affected and involved, rather than impartial national or international bodies. In expressing themselves, recounting their stories and to some small extent realising their demands, they have brought to life what otherwise runs the risk of becoming remote as news or information. This is not to diminish the heroic efforts of certain journalists and NGOs; but taking in factual coverage of these crimes and the way they have been handled is sometimes not possible; the truth is too extraordinary. And before engaging with such atrocities, you have to believe in them, or at least believe in their context.

Of them all, Bolaño’s 2666 remains the most compelling attempt to recognise Ciudad Juárez that I have come across. I first decided to go to Juarez in order to see the place and people on which the book was based yet increasingly found it was only with recourse to 2666 that I could credit this strangest of cities with a kind of reality.

The fourth chapter, ‘The Part About the Crimes’, is a gauntlet Bolaño readers are forced to walk: just under three hundred pages of relentless post-mortems in which the bodies of raped and murdered women are meticulously catalogued. These reports are fictional, but  only slightly-modified versions of the actual femicide reports. Though Bolaño has altered most of the names and locations, he has remained faithful to the nature of the crimes and the forensic language of the original accounts.

It occupies about a third of a book widely regarded as a contemporary masterpiece. The rest of the novel is set in a richly imagined world that relates strongly to, but is clearly distinct from reality, and is written in consistently beautiful prose. ‘The Part about the Crimes’ is pseudo-factual, brutal and entirely without redemption. Bolaño does not analyse or romanticise his subject, nor does he attempt to bring any formal, narrative meaning to bear upon it. This is can be difficult to accept.

Like many, I was deeply puzzled by this chapter. Some critics have found it gratuitous and as such misogynistic. Others laud its unflinching perspective as courageous. But very few writers are happy to discuss what it does to them. Reading the book and seeing the city, I wondered what it would be like to be a woman in Juárez: whether you would live in fear, loath men, go mad or callous over with indifference; or, alternatively, whether it was possible to maintain a sex life or fall in love here. Later, it occurred to me that it might be even stranger to be a man in Juárez. How would you feel about the femicides- saddened and sickened, of course, but perhaps also implicated. Yet, it also made me feel that the moral high ground was a hiding place, a get-out clause, and moreover, an irrelevant posture. ‘Wrong’ appetites and practices exist everywhere, even among the most politically correct. What I like about Bolaño’s book is that he won’t let you ignore them and the bareness and bleakness of his writing force you to take a more personal position on such matters than you would ever want to. 

He stops short of making sense of it for us, but tries to come to terms with Juárez and take his readers with him. This is important because it is an attempt to break down the wall of incredulity surrounding the city, to shake an intellectual paralysis that bedevils even thinking about it. My reaction to Juárez and its crimes was fear and disbelief, and I saw this mirrored by people I discussed the subject with. In 2666, Bolaño is negotiating the kind of stalemate between reality and unreality that such extreme circumstances can generate, and providing access to an otherwise alien reality through fiction.

But Bolaño does not merely open up a point of entry; he recognises the importance of attitudes to a given situation and masters the ways in which style can offer inroads, and also insights, into what is otherwise psychologically inadmissible. In the chapters surrounding ‘The Part about the Crimes’ and in the passages between the autopsies, his prose covers a range of unusual tones, the deadpan, the uncanny, the absurd or the operatic, to name a few. By combining ruthless honesty with the stylistic consolations of beauty and humour, Bolaño’s writing can perhaps mediate a human reaction to what we would rather see as inhumane and respond to accordingly.

Or course, the risk he, and many others, run in writing honestly about Ciudad Juárez is being banal or politically incorrect about somewhere so serious, where the stakes seem too high for faux pas. But then going a little wrong can be the right thing, as was proved by my exit. When I tried to fly out of the city, I found I had left my visa stamp behind, thus invalidating my passport. This meant I would have to remain in the city indefinitely, on my own, with no money. When the lady at the control desk saw my face and understood how grim a prospect this painted, she rolled her eyes heavenward, closed them, and waved me, illegally, on board the plane. It was the only time I fully appreciated the city’s corruption.