First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in Mexico City Tuesday night after making a stop in Haiti on her first official trip abroad without the president. Her trip to Mexico comes as a new report by the Mexican government has found the death toll from the so-called drug war is much higher than previously thought. Nearly 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since a US-backed military crackdown on cartels began more than three years ago. The report said 2009 was the deadliest year in the drug war, with over 9,600 people killed. The death toll is on track to be even higher in 2010. We speak to reporter Charles Bowden, author of Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in Mexico City Tuesday night after making a stop in Haiti on her first official trip abroad without the President. She will be in the Mexican capital for two days, where she’s launching an international campaign encouraging young people to become actively involved in their communities. She’s scheduled to have dinner tonight at the residence of President Felipe Calderón and his wife Margarita Zavala.
Michelle Obama’s trip to Mexico comes as a new report by the Mexican government has found the death toll from the so-called drug war is much higher than previously thought. Nearly 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since a US-backed military crackdown on cartels began more than three years ago. The figures in the internal government document were reported by the Associated Press. President Calderón deployed tens of thousands of troops and Mexican federal police along the US border and in a number of interior cities soon after taking office in December 2006. The report said 2009 was the deadliest year in the so-called drug war with over 9,600 people killed. The death toll is on track to be even higher in 2010, with more than [3,300] people killed in the first three months of this year alone.
AMY GOODMAN: The city of Ciudad Juárez, which borders El Paso, has by far been the most violent area, with more than 4,300 people killed in the past two years. That’s in a city of 1.3 million, making Ciudad Juárez one of the deadliest places in the world.
Charles Bowden is a reporter who’s extensively covered drug violence in Mexico for many years. He’s the author of eleven books; his latest is Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. Charles Bowden joins us now here in our Democracy Now! studios.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s nice to have you in the studio, rather than talking to you on the phone in Arizona or New Mexico.
CHARLES BOWDEN: I don’t know if that’s true, but thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michelle Obama is in Mexico City right now. Talk about what’s happening in Mexico.
CHARLES BOWDEN: What’s happening is, this thing started in 2006 with the new president, as a statement of his personal power. You know, mano dura — “I’m a strong man.” He ripped the mask off Mexico. In other words, he was going to claim he’s the big guy. And the mask he ripped off revealed what’s really going on in Mexico: mass poverty and social disintegration. Now it’s turned into a war by the Mexican government against the Mexican people.
One of the lies Michelle Obama will be told is that 90 percent of the dead people are drug people or dirty. That’s a damn lie. They’re just a bunch of nobodies from little towns. Nobody can identify them as cartel leaders.
The second thing she’ll be told is we’re winning the war on drugs. The war on drugs is over. There isn’t a city in this country where anybody is having a panic because the drugs haven’t arrived this week. What you’re seeing is a slaughterhouse, and it’s escalating. And it’s not going to end.
And I should say one last thing: we’re paying for it. We’re giving him $500 million a year to the Mexican army, which is marauding in the country.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what of this new internal Mexican government report saying the number of deaths has reached nearly 23,000 in the last three years?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, they’re going to have to build their own little Vietnam memorial. They’re holding a Vietnam against their own people within their own country. Three years, they’ve slaughtered 23,000. And that’s a minimum. That doesn’t count the people who disappear, and they disappear all the time. The army takes them away, or someone else. If the Mexican government says 23,000, you can be sure there’s more dead.
Now there’s part — Juárez is running a murder rate of about 200 per 100,000. This city is probably — New York is probably running, what, nine or something. There’s parts of the edges of Juárez that are running 1,600 per 100,000, which is a kill rate of an actual war.
What you have to ask yourself is, why is this going on? Why are we talking about a war on drugs? Why are we giving a half-a-billion dollars a year for this thing, when this war has been going on forty years now? Every drug is more available in this country than it was forty years ago. Every drug has higher quality. Every drug is cheaper. This is a war that benefits prison guards, federal agents, the drug cartels. I mean, the drug organizations who produce it slaughters poor people who consume drugs, and in Mexico, slaughters poor people that want to sell drugs.
What the Mexican government won’t tell Michelle Obama is the addict rate in Mexico has exploded. In Ciudad Juárez in 1995, it was not easy to buy cocaine, because the cartels kept a lid on it. Now the city has up to 200,000 addicts, according to local clinics. This is happening all over Mexico. Part of the killing is there’s a huge domestic market.
What we’ve created, with a foreign policy, meaning our free trade treaty, is, one, slave factories all over the country, where nobody can live on the wages, two generations at least of feral kids on the street. Fifty percent of the kids you call high school kids in Juárez neither go to school nor have jobs. They did a recent university study there, and they found out 40 percent of the kids in Chihuahua, young males, wanted to become sicarios, professional killers. We’re looking at a Detroit, Baltimore, etc., where we’ve created something so bleak that crime is actually, and murder, is a rational way to live. And we’re not going to put a lid on it by “just say no,” by presidential visits, and by — what was it? We’re now going to teach them how to run a court system, you know, send our experts.
Let me tell you something about the Mexican justice system. Ninety-three percent of the people convicted there never see a judge. Ninety-three percent of the people convicted there never see an arrest warrant. Ninety-two percent of the people convicted there are convicted with no physical evidence. We’ll skip that they’re all tortured. There are no — there’s essentially no jury trials. This is not a justice system; it’s a, you know, a murder system. You’re processed like sausage. We’re, quote, going to “reform” it.
What we’ve done is what we’ve done historically: we’ve gotten on the wrong side. We’re not siding with the Mexican people. We’re siding with the people that own the country and terrorize them.
I’ll be calm now.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, you went to Juárez first in ’95, and you write how you thought you’d stumbled into hell, but then later you realized that that was the golden age. In your book, you paint a very dark picture of Ciudad Juárez. Tell us about the city.
CHARLES BOWDEN: OK, I’ll tell you about the city now. Twenty-five percent of the houses have been abandoned in a city of poverty where housing’s short. They’ve got a bumper crop there now: 10,000 new orphans from the slaughter. Forty percent of the businesses have closed. Thirty to sixty thousand people have fled to the United States. You know, this is a city dying. And I must say, this was the poster child for NAFTA. This was supposed to be — make it all work. It’s a laboratory now created by Dr. Frankenstein.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you paint some very interesting pictures of the characters that you meet in this book, and one of them is Miss Sinaloa. Explain who she is.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah, she was a beauty queen who came there for a party. Sinaloa, you know, turns out a dozen beauty queens a year. Drug guys get their girlfriends named queen. She came there for a party and was gang-raped for three days by the police and went insane and wound up in a mental institution run by a friend of mine, Pastor Galvan, and slowly recovered. And I used her as an example of what the city does to people. Actually, the mental institution is full of former lap dancers and everything else who have just lost their minds.
This is a city that destroys people. This is a city where Mexico used to tout it as having the lowest unemployment in Mexico. This is a city with 400 foreign factories, mainly US. This is a city where nobody listening to this program could survive twenty-four hours on those wages. This is a city where factories move from here to there, and what they’re paid here an hour, they’re not even going to pay there a day.
AMY GOODMAN: Your figure, 2009, there were 2,660 murders in Juárez, but only thirty —-
CHARLES BOWDEN: That’s been updated to 2,753. We keep finding more dead people.
AMY GOODMAN: So 2,750, but only thirty arrests.
CHARLES BOWDEN: That’s right. Not -—
AMY GOODMAN: Not convictions.
CHARLES BOWDEN: No, it’s a joke.
AMY GOODMAN: Just arrests.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Look at, you’re in far more risk driving fast in Juárez than shooting somebody. You know, you’re not going to be arrested. These recent consulate killings that caused Secretary Clinton and others to fly to Mexico City happened in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon in front of City Hall in a city with 11,000 federal police and army checkpoints everywhere. A convoy of cars, you know, follows these people and executes them, and nobody sees anything. And you can stand on the bridge going to El Paso and watch the whole scene. It’s right at the base. There is no law enforcement.
AMY GOODMAN: You say it’s a war for drugs.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah, I’ll tell you why. Look at, 40 percent of the Mexican budget, for example, comes from their oilfields. Their oilfields are dying. This current president says they’ll be gone in nine years. The second licit leading, as far as the money in Mexico, is remittances from illegal Mexicans working here who send back $20-$25 billion a year. Drugs earns the country $30 to $50 billion a year. For Mexico to seriously say “We’re going to wipe out the drug industry” would be saying “We’re going to commit suicide.” The country has become dependent on it. It’s a tiny economy compared to ours. It’s four percent the size of the US. Drugs mean a great deal in that economy, that revenue stream, that, no, they’re not going to destroy drugs.
I’ll give you another factoid: Mexican government has announced they’ve made 53,000 drug arrests since they started this war. Less than two percent are the Sinaloa Cartel, the biggest one. I guess they haven’t had time.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the US is now funding to the tune of half-a-billion dollars a year the Mexican government for this so-called drug war.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: How tied in is the Mexican military and the police in these killings?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, there have been hundreds of complaints in Juárez to the official state — the government representative on human rights, of the military murdering people, kidnapping people, torturing people, raping people, robbing people. And I’ve got to tell you, you have to have more guts than I have to go file one of those complaints in Juárez, because you might get a visit. That representative, Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, is now handling his office from El Paso, because he’s getting death threats in Juárez, and the army won’t protect him.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So the mayor of Juárez lives in El Paso.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, he denies it. He says, “Look, I just keep that house there for business.” Yeah, look at, the publisher of the daily paper in Juárez lives in El Paso. It’s not safe in Juárez to be rich. The rich areas of the city are being increasingly abandoned as people move to El Paso so they can be nice and safe with their money.
AMY GOODMAN: Charles Bowden, you dedicate your book to Armando Rodriguez —-
CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- who was gunned down November 13th, 2008, after filing 907 stories on the murders for that calendar year. You said, “Like the rest of us, he was a dead man walking.” His last story appeared hours after he was killed.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah, well, look, I’m a reporter. We’ve got to remember our own. That case has never been solved. It will never be solved. This was a man who got up in the morning, went out in front of his house at 8:30 a.m. to warm up his car to take his eight-year-old daughter to school, who was sitting in the seat behind him — beside him, and guys come up and just execute him, you know, literally machine-gun him. The child was unharmed. And nobody sees anything. And the entire Mexican government can’t, quote, “solve” the case. He was silenced.
You know, the American press, in a way, gets too much credit. People ask me, you know, “Chuck, is it dangerous down there?” It’s nothing for me. The Mexican reporters are being killed. The Mexican reporters are being tortured. And yet they’re putting out more honest news, in my opinion, about what’s going on in Mexico than the whole US press corps. So I wanted to memorialize one who paid the ultimate price.
AMY GOODMAN: So what, Charles Bowden, needs to be done?
CHARLES BOWDEN: We need to reexamine our policies. You know, I’ll give you the twelve step program and a — well, I won’t go twelve steps; I can’t count that high. Renegotiate NAFTA. We can’t have a peaceful country where it destroys the livelihood of the people in it. There’s got to be decent wages. You have to have the right to organize a union. You have to have plants that have environmental controls.
Two, realize the war on drugs is a disaster. It’s forty years in. We’re at war with our own people. We’re destroying nations, like Mexico. We’ve got — if you’re against drugs — and most of your viewers and listeners are on them, only they got them from their doctor. If you’re against drugs, this is a public health issue. You don’t send a cop because you’re having a cardiac. That’s a start.
The third thing is, change our immigration law. We’ve got 20,000 men and women now on the line with guns hunting Mexicans. These Mexicans are coming north because NAFTA in good parts destroy their economic base in Mexico. You’re not going have a peaceful world if you’re making war on the poor. Now, I don’t have a solution to immigration, but I know one solution is nobody is going to stay there until they have a decent living there. If we destroy their living, they’re going to come here. You want to build walls for recreation, go ahead. They’re irrelevant. They didn’t work for the Chinese, either. They got a Mongol emperor eventually.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you’ve written movingly about — in the book and elsewhere, about the psychological effect of reporting from Juárez and on this issue. You’ve called it very self-destructive. What do you mean by that?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, if you get numb. I used to do murders for a daily paper in this country. I bailed on that after three years, because you’re not worth your salt if you go in there and it doesn’t bother you. Look, I don’t know how to deal with 2,753 people slaughtered in one year. I don’t know how to be such a tough guy that I go in a room in August 2008 in a drug clinic where nine people have been machine-gunned during a prayer meeting, and the only thing in there now are puddles of blood and columns of flies. Incidentally, that incident happened, according to everybody in that barrio, while the Mexican army sat outside with guns, and then they released these four guys to go in with machine guns. It also happened they were in there killing people for fifteen minutes, but nobody noticed. Well, it wears you out. So that’s why. I found the ultimate cure for Juárez: I’m doing a story on Arkansas.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Does anything give you hope?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Certainly. To start with, the war on drugs has to end. We can’t build any more prisons. Secondly, the endurance of the Mexican people.
I’ll give you a thing for hope. The biggest anti-poverty program, I believe, in the history of the world is going on now. It’s the remittances of the Mexican poor. We’ve got ten or fifteen million Mexicans here sending $20 to $25 billion a year home directly to poor people. They’re not sending it, you know, through the government, through caciques, political leaders. It’s the largest transference of wealth, I believe, in history, poor person to poor person.
We’ve got Mexicans all over this country building new worlds, buying homes and things, becoming acculturated. If we do what some of the people on the right in this country want — put them all in cattle cars and ship them home — it’ll be far more explosive than when the Germans sent Lenin back to Russia. I mean, these people have learned that you get public schools for free, your kids get educated, you can buy a house and own it. The cops are semi on the level. You deserve a decent wage.
You know, the other thing is, as I said, NAFTA will have to be renegotiated. It’s a machine producing poor people who flee their own country. Eventually there’s going to be — you know, somebody’s going to smell the coffee.
And I think the war on drugs is ending, because, frankly, it’s no longer the darkness at the edge of town. I do stories all over this country. I don’t care where you go, the drugs are everywhere. I don’t care where you go, people are being arrested. I did a story in western North Dakota, county of — you know, got more people in this room maybe than the county. They busted eighty meth labs in a year. What are you going to say, that these are, you know, the lesser breed or something? I mean, these are a bunch of people that look like potatoes that plow fields. That’s what our war on drugs has come to. We’re killing ourselves with our war. We’re not helping anyone.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Charles Bowden. His new book is called Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. Thanks for being here.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, thank you.