“I got messages, threats, delivered two or three times. You never take those seriously. The people who are going to kill you don’t send messages, they send bullets.”
Patagonia, Arizona boasts one the best bird watching experiences in the world.
It’s a place American writer Charles Bowden loves to frequent.
When I reach him by phone for an interview, he’s sitting outside in Patagonia, watching blue-throated hummingbirds and an array of other creatures.
Originally, Bowden just wanted to write about nature — and in fact, he started off a fine writing career doing just that — but a sordid world of death and destruction sucked him in and it won’t let him go.
Now bird watching is much more than a recreational activity, it’s an escape from reality.
That reality consists of two distinct subjects Bowden has reported on: (1) He spent three years reporting sex crimes for the Tucson Citizen in the 80s, and (2) Beginning in 1995, he began writing about the Mexican drug war, with an eventual focus on Ciudad Juarez.
Sex crimes pulled him into a world of injustice, but now it’s the drug war, for better and worse, that is his expertise.
For decades, Bowden has dedicated his life to this world. He’s tried relentlessly to uncover the truth that so often escapes the mainstream media.
Ciudad Juarez is consistently rated as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and Bowden has been a prime source of information flowing from the city.
When few dared to write, or try and uncover what was really happening, he worked around the clock to unearth the truth. With the constant help of friend and researcher Molly Molloy, he’s been exposing the twisted world of corruption that has perpetuated and punctuated the violence.
Admittedly, Bowden knows that his white skin, and American passport have kept him safe. Coupled with a sworn secrecy for anyone willing to tell their story, he has become a magnet for murderous confessionals.
Drug dealers, killers, they all find and confide in Bowden. He’s a journalist, he’s a therapist, and his mind is full of countless hours of horrific stories.
Heads being chopped off, families slaughtered, drugs on the move, it’s just another day on the job.
Bowden’s reputation and determination, thankfully, has spawned numerous acclaimed books on the subject. They include: Down By The River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family (2002), A Shadow In The City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior (2005), Murder City: Lessons of the Dead in Mexico (2010), El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin (2011).
Over the years, Bowden’s work has also been published in Harper’s, GQ, Mother Jones, National Geographic, and Esquire.
The subject matter is haunting and often surreal and it reflects in Bowden’s writing. His prose is poetic, and has been described by reviewers as dream-like. The work has landed him several top literary awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
These days Bowden calls Las Cruces, New Mexico home. It sits 78 km’s from Ciudad Juarez and serves as a perfect place to access Mexico while remaining at a comfortable arm’s length.
At times, the sacrifice for Bowden’s reporting seems to be too extreme. It has literally and mentally bankrupted him. But, then again, who else is willing to do this? If we believe that the stories he tells are important — and I do —then his work is essential.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of journalism’s most sincere and fearless voices.
From Juarez and drugs, to bird watching, to Steven Spielberg, to the price of journalism, we cover it all.
. . .
RK: For those who haven’t really researched the Mexican-American drug war, how would you break it down for them?
CB: There is no drug problem. There’s a government policy creating misery. The U.S. government decided it could repeal a market economy. You can’t. If people want drugs they’ll get them. So they created this murderous black market.
I’ve been giving the same speech for years: any society that can live with alcohol can live with anything. You’ll never find a woman with a black eye because the old man had a joint on Saturday night. Then they say drugs aren’t good for you. Well, neither is pizza. What the fuck is government about? Making sure everything is good for me? It’s ridiculous. Obviously, far more crime in our society is created by alcohol than any other source.
RK: Is legalization the best way forward in stopping the violence?
CB: Well, look at it, the only possible solution is legalization. Making it illegal is a bigger problem. Obviously, no society is going to be functional if everyone is high on drugs. We have to decide who we are. The war on drugs is a failure. It’s now perpetuated by people who profit off the war on drugs. There are three key groups who are against legalizing for their own interests: the prison industry, the police industry, and the drug dealers.
Mrs. Clinton said she has problems with legalization but never said what her problem was. None of the press asked her.
RK: Why wouldn’t drug dealers want it to be legal?
CB: Because they could never do anything in a thousand years that would earn them money that selling illegal drugs does. What do you think? If they legalize it they’re going to go into banking? They’d be helpless. They’re terrified of legalization. There wouldn’t even be a market for marijuana because an absolute idiot could grow enough on their window sill to support their own habit.
When you get to the other drugs they’re dirt cheap to produce; heroin, cocaine are not expensive. What’s made them expensive is making them illegal. There’s a company in New Jersey that supplies all the legal cocaine in the U.S. for ophthalmologists. The last time I checked they were producing it and making a profit of 4 or 5 dollars a gram. That’s what it’s really worth. You could be a bum on the street and feed your habit from change. That’s what would happen. Alcohol would be almost free without the taxes.
RK: So, with Obama back for a second term, any hope for improvements with the drug war?
CB: I’m glad Obama won, but it’s not going to matter for the things that matter to me. There will be nothing on immigration or drug law reform, and no change in our foreign policy. Except we’ll regret having to kill all these sons of bitches.
It’s a lose-lose deal with him. During the 30s FDR didn’t do a single thing on civil rights because he needed Southern votes to get his economic reforms through. Whatever chips Obama has, he’s not going to squander them on the drug war. I think he’d like to fix immigration as a personal matter, but there’s no votes. Illegal people aren’t allowed to vote. If you can’t vote, they don’t take care of you. There’s nothing he can do.
RK: How often do Mexican police want information from you?
CB: Never, they know I’m not going to tell them anything. I have relationships with cops. We have drinks and talk about things, but they’d be dumb to think I’d give up someone. In the case of the Sicario, they don’t want to know, he’s dangerous for their careers. He knows too much. He knows people in the FBI and DEA that are on the organization’s pay roll.
You can’t be moving billions of dollars of contraband across the border without the help of the law enforcement. They have corrupt members, and they don’t want anyone to know it.
RK: Speaking of the Sicario, you knew him but didn’t turn him in. Doesn’t he deserve to be brought to justice?
CB: I won’t give him up to the authorities. I’ll go to jail first, that’s the deal you make. I’m not a PR person. My job is to make people look good or bad. He knew that. I told him that.
He is a creation of government. This is not Jack the Ripper. This is a state police man in Mexico. This is the Mexican government. Finally, someone told the truth. Now whether he should be punished for telling the truth isn’t my job. My job is to keep my word. If he talked to me I wouldn’t help anyone try and find him and I’ve kept my word. It’s a little late to talk about punishing him. That’s the cowardly act governments do. That’s why they attack whistle blowers instead of attacking the problem the whistle blower told them about. That’s the pathology: to kill the messenger instead of listening to the message.
All the people the Sicario murdered, and there were hundreds, are already dead. He stopped killing. I don’t know how you get justice for hundreds of dead people from one guy. In fact, he doesn’t think there’s any way for him to ever make good on the evil he’s done. He doesn’t think he can ever be forgiven. He thinks he’s literally beyond redemption. Maybe he is. He still has nightmares all the time.
He used to fascinate me because I could see him studying me. He would pick up any sign of weakness because it’s his nature. I wrote a book on a financial wizard, Charles Keating, who eventually went to jail. He reminded me of the Sicario. They were both born predators. They were very observant.
RK: You’re reporting from one of the most dangerous places in the world. People die every day. Why do you think you’ve been so lucky?
CB: I’m white. My passport is bulletproof. I’ve never had the same risk. They know it, and I know it. Mexican reporters can be “disappeared” and no one cares. I get “disappeared” and it’s an incident.
The Mexican press is hunted and slaughtered. They’re the one’s who are the real heroes. Not boys like me from the U.S. who go down for a visit.
RK: Have you ever come close to dying reporting from Juarez?
CB: Never. I never thought I was going to get killed. I had an AK shoved in my gut, but that was in Sonora. I’ve been threatened that way. I got messages, threats, delivered two or three times. You never take those seriously. The people who are going to kill you don’t send messages, they send bullets. Those were just efforts to stop me and scare me.
RK: Is Juarez still as dangerous as ever?
CB: The murder rate is lower than it was in Murder City. The killing is still high, but the actual media is in retreat because of repression.
When they killed a photographer at a paper in Juarez in September of 2011, the paper published a front page editorial asking what they were expected to do. What do you want us to do so you’ll stop killing us? We’ll do it. I have my criticisms of the Mexican press, but they take far more risk and pay a far heavier blood price than anyone like me ever does. They’re the ones who are heroes. There hasn’t been an American reporter killed during all this violence, except for one in Oaxaca who was almost certainly killed by the state police during a demonstration. The U.S. press is bullet proof, it causes too much trouble.
RK: If I were to go to Juarez today, would I be at risk?
CB: Tourism has collapsed there because of the killings. You wouldn’t be at a risk because you’re a white Canadian, you’d be at risk because you were worth robbing. (Laughs). It’s a poor and violent city. Nobody goes there anyway. College kids used to go there to get drunk, but it’s not a very attractive city.
Molly was there one day when they killed twelve or fifteen people. She was running around the city doing this and that, and she didn’t even know the killings had happened until she got home.
RK: What’s your favourite part about Juarez? Is there anything fun to do?
CB: No. it’s not very pretty or full of fun. I think the population is clinically depressed because of the poverty. My attraction to Juarez was to learn something, that’s it. You do make friendships, but I’d rather be where I am now, sitting by a creek watching birds, than Juarez. It’s kind of wonderful to be in December and still have hummingbirds.
RK: You once said that you wanted to do what was “right” and get paid for it. Do you see your reporting on Juarez and the drug war like that?
CB: I see myself as a witness. I’m trained as an historian. I used to teach in a University before I decided I didn’t want to be that way. I’m still writing history, just on the fly. I’m creating what’s happening for two audiences: those who read now, and those who come later.
I started recording in 2008 the massive surge of murders in Juarez. No newspaper or magazine was reporting it. It took me eight months to get anything published, because no one thought it was true. My goal was simply to record it. Two years later it became official that is was the most dangerous city in the world.
I don’t want to be the reporter who discovers the Jews are getting killed in 1945. I want to be the guy who reported it in 1939.
RK: What have you learned from reporting these stories?
CB: I was seeing barbarism. I used to think bad people did bad things. I soon learned you can get almost anyone to do bad things. I also just wanted to record this explosion of violence in the 80s. Once you get in that world you learn that you only get one side is from the perspective of law enforcement so I started dealing with drug dealers. I drifted into the undercover world of narcs. The information kept coming.
I did a book Down by the River it took seven years of my life. It’s so hard to get information in that world. It consumed me. It bankrupted me. I had over 80 grand jacked on credit cards. I became obsessed. I wanted to get it down, so I did.
RK: In some ways you sort of stumbled into the dark worlds you’ve reported on: sex crimes and the drug war. When did it all begin?
CB: I took a job at a newspaper because I needed money to buy a new racing bicycle. I walked in and lied, I had no credentials. I thought, if I work here for two or three months I can buy a bike and get back on the road. I wasn’t there very long until I had to go write about child murders, and it changed me. I didn’t leave. I spent three years there because I was learning so much.
I got trapped in it because most people won’t cover sex crimes, most people can’t get people to talk. I was hired to be a fluff writer and I discovered that almost anyone would tell me anything.
I wasn’t raised in rough circumstances, and this stuff horrified me. I burned out after three years.
RK: Do you see yourself as a watchdog against power?
CB: Well, I think it’s part of the obligation if you get into this business, to defend the weak and annoy the powerful. They’re one of the few people who will confront power. I get in this argument with reporters when they say they don’t want to cover something, and I say, “Get the fuck out of this business. You’re using up space.”
RK: Some days do you feel like you’re more of a therapist than a reporter?
CB: Any decent journalist is a therapist. It’s innate in sharing intense experiences. If you are willing to listen to people it benefits them. It’s like exorcizing demons. I’m not trying to achieve that, but it certainly happens. I’m in touch with the cop in Dallas (from A Shadow in the City). They don’t go away because there’s no one else they’ve ever had that intimacy with. I’d still be in touch with the Sicario if he hadn’t run away to save his life. He had no one to talk to. He can’t just tell someone he killed hundreds of people, cooked some of them alive, then go grab a beer. He had never spoken to anyone about what he’d done. If he had before, he would have been murdered, or if he had talked to someone outside he would be admitting heinous crimes. Once he started talking, he couldn’t stop, because it felt so good. He went on for days and days.
Most human beings are looking for two things, someone they can trust, and someone who will find out their real secrets and not reject them. Like the Sicario. At the end of the day he wanted to unburden himself, and he wanted to be heard and not have them turn their backs on him. I don’t have a problem doing that.
RK: You insert yourself in your writing, and sometimes it seems like maybe you’re exercising your demons. Is your writing therapeutic for you?
CB: I put myself in the material in place of the reader. I’m like an invention or foil. I guess I need therapy too. When I finished doing sex crimes, I went off into the mountains and wrote a book about mountains. I was a wreck, I needed to detox. In sex crimes, nobody wins. Homicide is easy. It normally happens between consensual adults. It’s easier to handle, you know it’s dangerous. You have a raped child and there’s no way to deal with it. No one can.
My plan in life was to write about nature, I just got side tracked. That’s probably where I’d spend most of my time, if I didn’t have all these pesky dead people bothering me.
RK: Was bird watching something you got into before you became a writer?
CB: Yes and no. They sort of came together. I’ve been watching birds for over thirty years. I do it every day. It happened once I got deep into newspapers, there was nothing left for me but bird watching. You don’t have time for anything. You can’t have a hobby at a newspaper where you have to travel to do it. It has to be something you can do anywhere, anytime. Bird watching is convenient.
RK: Is it now a means to escape the harsh realities of what you see and report on?
CB: Yes, that’s precisely it. I’ll make it simple. I write about death but I look at life. Birds are positive. Murders are not. There’s never been a murder that hasn’t been a failure of a society and individuals. You need an antidote, I chose birds. I also like to study plants and other things. Otherwise, you’re going to go under. Every cop on the street learns they need to take precautions or they’ll be destroyed by what they’re living through. The kind of stuff I write isn’t different.
RK: You write a lot about religious people and seem to find inspiration in them, but you don’t claim any personal faith. How would you describe your feelings towards religion or God?
CB: That’s a fair question. I’m not religious, I just lack the energy to be an atheist. In fact, during my lifetime the three great moral points I had to face: The Vietnam war, the Civil rights movement, and the slaughter in Mexico, the only people that consistently stepped up to the plate were a bunch of goddamn ministers, priests, and nuns. Without exception. You couldn’t know the civil rights movement without knowing that a bunch of black ministers were risking their lives down there to get civil rights for everyone.
In the Vietnam War I was stunned by some of the Catholic clergy and the Quakers in the anti-war movement. They were the strongest people in my opinion. I was a secular lefty, but they impressed me.
The same thing is happening now on the border. The only people standing up and speaking out are the religious, both Protestant and Catholic. Everyone who looks into it finds that out. You don’t know that because they’re not self-publicizing people. They think moral behaviour is more important than ego.
I had an experience a couple days ago. We gave a talk to a bunch of religious people – pastors and nuns – in El Paso. All these priests and nuns belonged to different orders but all believed in liberation theology. They’d all had their lives threatened and were lucky to be alive. And, they were all old. They had actually taken the preaching’s of Christ and not only lived them but risked their lives trying to live them. I thought, I don’t know if I’ll ever live long enough to have a moral record as good as the people in that room.
I was dealing with a priest there who had been expelled from Chile under Pinochet because he would repeatedly go in front on the government palace and hold up a sign that said, “Stop the Torture.” That’s a better record than Henry Kissinger and other pieces of shit can ever claim. People like that inspire me, increasingly my colleagues don’t.
RK: You’ve said music and bird watching keep you sane. What kind of music do you like?
CB: I listen to a lot things. Most of the time I listen to classical, and it varies depending on my mood. I’ve been listening to Tchaikovsky to calm down. But, when I’m feeling good – not insane – I’ll listen to Beethoven. When I’m really sane I listen to Bach because it’s like listening to mathematics. I listen to lots of popular rock. I am absolutely uninterested in rap and hip-hop, that could just be an age thing, but the idea of sampling to me is dumb. I am appalled what has happened to music. I go to any city and hear hits from when I was twenty on the radio. It’s like, “What the fuck? This wasn’t supposed to be forever.” I heard Hotel California and thought, “Isn’t there anybody out there doing anything?”
RK: Has anyone ever mistaken you for Neil Young?
CB: I’ve had Mexicans tell me that. But, no I haven’t gotten free tickets for anything.
He wrote a song called “Down by the River” which was one of his anthems. I expropriated the title for the book because it fit.
RK: I noticed William Langewiesche wrote a blurb about your work. Are you friends?
CB: I’ve never met him but I talked to him on the phone. He was deeply embedded in Iraq. I asked him, “How long is this going to go on?” He said, “I’m a reporter, I don’t do prophecy.” I think they should put that on the wall at journalism schools.
I think he’s done some extraordinary work. That book he did on excavating the World Trade Center (American Ground), that is like an American hymn. Everything that was done was an act of improvisation; like a jazz ensemble.
He wrote a story years ago called “The Shipbreakers” which I think is the literal parable of the third world. Because of the pollution laws in the US, every ship that gets decommissioned sails around the world to one beach in India where a bunch of people wearing diapers crawl all over it and tear it apart with their bare hands. It’s a great story.
He’s a great reporter. He’s especially gifted at describing mechanical things because of his pilot and engineering background. He loves machines. Anyway, I’m a fan. I think Atomic Bazar should be required reading.
RK: Who are some of your favorite writers or inspirations?
CB: The greatest American novelist was William Faulkner. When I was younger I thought he was shit. But, I read him again five years ago and I was wrong. I hadn’t been around enough blocks to realize what he was doing. The trick is that he’s famous for his quirky prose, long sentences. All you have to do is listen to it and it all makes sense. It’s all oral. It’s a voice talking to you.
I believe that all American writing begins with Lincoln’s second inaugural. The brevity of adjectives, the direct sparse language, is what modern writing is. It’s a startling piece of writing. And, I think he helped invent modern writing, as opposed to British writing which will apparently be paralyzed until the end of time by a love of semi-colons.
You have to read Lincoln’s second inaugural speech. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. What he does is list the terrible carnage of the civil war, which killed 600,000 Americans out of population of 30 million. He says, “maybe more have to die, maybe every drop of blood has to be spilt for 200 years of human slavery.” Can you imagine a leader saying that to a population now?
RK: Are you going to go check out “Lincoln”, the new Spielberg movie?
CB: I’m a Lincoln fan, but I don’t like going to movies. I don’t like Spielberg either. I consider him a mush-headed director and I was appalled by the racism inherent in his Indiana Jones stuff. Look, I’m no fan of the Middle East except for the cooking, but it’s preposterous to have a scene where some Bedouin doesn’t know what a pistol is. That’s nonsense. What it was was a stereotype of those “dumb motherfuckers.” He’s done that repeatedly. When he made Schindler’s List he said he didn’t know how bad the Nazi’s had been. You’re too fucking dumb to breath if that’s how you learn about the Holocaust.
I’m sure the film is good. Lewis is just an extraordinary actor.
RK: Do you think your writing style was influenced by the second augural? It’s often very punchy.
CB: Well, actually that’s not true but I understand your point. I sometimes have sentences that go on for two or three pages, but I believe in American language, which is a living language. There is no need for semi-colons. American language is based on rhythm. It’s heavily influenced by African-Americans. If black people hadn’t come here we’d still have to listen to shit like Yankee Doodle. American writing is rhythmic. Marie Austin, a minor writer, long dead, thought you could never understand Lincoln’s prose unless you knew that in his former years he’d been a rail splitter. The rhythm of the Gettysburg address are the rhythms of a man swinging an axe. I thought that was a rather insightful thing.
RK: How would you describe your literary rhythm and voice?
CB: I’ll save you time. I come from working class people. My father got a law degree, but basically they were lower class whites. The way people held the attention of others was their ability to tell a story. I believe there are two streams in American literature: One is people raised orally like me, and the second is people who never heard a story told in their life.
I used to try and teach writing before I gave up on it. I would say, “If you’re in a bar and you turn to the person next to you and you tell them a story and they keep listening, that’s exactly what you’re going to do when you write a story for a newspaper or magazine.” That’s how you edit it. You edit it to make them pay attention. You only write it because you think it matters. But, the way you structure it is to get them to pay attention.
The trick in a book is to get them to turn the page. Once you get them inside, it doesn’t matter; they’ll go the distance. In a book, you have to own the reader in the first 3 or 4 pages.
RK: Writing has taken a tremendous toll on you. Why is it worth it?
CB: It’s not worth it anymore. I’m trapped. People come to me and they won’t talk to other people. I think this stuff has to be recorded, but I’d rather write about birds. I can’t get away from this. I would be morally derelict if I walked away and tried to have fun. That’s why I relate with these religious people. They’re not dour. Old nuns and old priests are kind of a jolly lot. They’ve run their race, they’ve seen a lot, and they don’t think they’ve wasted their lives. They did something they believe in. Most people can’t make that claim.
Most of the people I deal with are losing, they’re being crushed by a society. You’re not doing a favor if you break down, you just need to record it, so people can learn.