War in Juarez: Anthropologist Howard Campbell on Mexico's Increasingly Violent Drug War

By Doherty, Brian | Reason, February 2010 | Go to article overview

War in Juarez: Anthropologist Howard Campbell on Mexico's Increasingly Violent Drug War


Doherty, Brian, Reason


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THE MEXICAN CITY of Juarez, just over the border from El Paso, has suffered through wild spasms of drug-related violence during the last few years. While the federal government in Mexico City announces stronger crackdowns on the drug trade, dueling cartels are murdering each other--and unconnected bystanders--with increasing impunity. These crimes are often preceded by hideous torture and followed by public displays meant to inspire terror, such as tossing a rival gangster's head into a crowded club.

Howard Campbell, a sociologist and anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, describes that frightening world in Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez. While Campbell's introduction exudes academic chops, with talk of how the "drug war zone" is "a theoretical concept that refers not only to a historically contingent, constructed geographical location ... but also to a mental place and a symbolic domain--similar in Foucauldian terms to the dialectic between 'real society' and 'heterotopia,'" the heart of the book is human stories, compellingly told.

Drug War Zone is composed of more than a dozen personal testimonials of people whose lives touch the drug trade in different ways. The book's dealers run the spectrum from tough Mexican women to idealistic American anarchists; its drug warriors range from a Juarez cop trying to stay on the up and up to an undercover American narc. Campbell also looks at those outside the cops/crooks conflict, giving voice to innocent witnesses and journalists taking risks to report on drug war violence. The reader comes to know the sights and sounds of the bridges and tunnels, the sweat of smuggler and border guard alike. Their stories add up to a vivid, ground-level portrait of the futility inherent in trying to prevent people from selling and using drugs.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty spoke with Campbell by phone in November.

reason: What inspired you to study the world of illegal drugs on the Juarez-El Paso border?

Howard Campbell: Two factors caused me to write this book. One was living in Mexico for many years and realizing that the drug business was so huge, and there was quite a bit of information publicly known in newspapers, yet the government didn't seem to do much; the underworld could go on undeterred. Then I moved to El Paso and began to realize as the drug war accelerated how damaging to local society it was, mainly because of the violence. Drug abuse can be a problem, but the overarching problem was the violence associated with illegal drug trafficking. And it was easy to research and write because I knew so many people who knew the drug trade from the inside.

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reason: Many of your subjects--particularly Francisco, who was murdered by the Carrillo cartel, and Mexican investigative reporter Rafael Nunez--paint a very dangerous world, one where saying too much to the wrong people can be fatal. Was this a frightening topic to research and write about?

Campbell: It is a dangerous world, but I was really more worried about the safety of my informants than myself. They have more at stake. I disguised their identities as much as possible so they'd be protected. I found people surprisingly open to talking about these issues, maybe because the drug trade and drug war are such an everyday part of life in their communities. In El Paso and Juarez, people are not as shocked at drug issues as people tend to be further in the interior. Another factor is that many people I interviewed I have known for a very long time, and we had already established strong bonds of trust.

reason: Why has the drug war violence in Juarez gotten so insanely out of control in the last few years?

Campbell: The big Mexican cartels have been around roughly for 30 years, and for the first 20 years they operated freely, and there was not really a high level of violence and public insecurity connected with drug trafficking. …

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