MEXICO CITY (Reuters Life!) - Feuds between rival cartels in northern Mexico have spun out of control, unleashing a wave of bloodshed security forces are unable to subdue, the author of a new book on Mexico's escalating drug war said.
'Murder City,' the latest of more than a dozen books on drugs and immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. author Charles Bowden, documents the killings of hitmen, police and bystanders in a drug war that has killed over 26,000 people since late 2006 and defined the presidency of Felipe Calderon.
Arizona-based Bowden, a leading writer on border issues, spent several months in 2008 in the underworld of Ciudad Juarez, south of El Paso, Texas, which is the main drug route into the United States, and now the world's most violent city.
Mixing journalism with the darkly poetic stories of a hitman, a beauty queen, a journalist and a priest, Bowden argues attacks in Ciudad Juarez -- shootouts in broad daylight, beheadings, assassinated police -- can no longer be blamed solely on rivalry between Juarez cartel boss Vicente Carrillo and Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who heads the Sinaloa cartel.
Their feud has spawned a hell where jobless youths see a future only in joining gangs and wading into countless battles over protection rackets, drug sales, smuggling and kidnapping.
"I don't think Vicente Carrillo and Shorty Guzman can shake hands and say it is all over. I don't think that there is anyone sitting in a room who can pick up a phone to stop it now," Bowden said in a recent interview.
Violence in Ciudad Juarez began to climb in early 2008 when Guzman, Mexico's most wanted man, sent hitmen into the city in a bid to edge out the powerful Juarez cartel.
"I don't think most of the violence has anything to do with disagreements between drug organizations, except if you include in that every little punk fighting for his square meter of turf to sell something in a barrio," said Bowden.
He argues that crime and killing are now almost the only ways to survive in a desert city where half of all adolescents are unemployed or cannot afford to go to school.
The book tracks murders that took place in Ciudad Juarez during the first four months of 2008, when violence began in earnest, including slain school teachers, traffic cops, drug dealers, taxi drivers and even 12-year-old girls. After that, Bowden wrote, "the torrent of death became overwhelming."
One character symbolizing lost opportunity in Ciudad Juarez, with its U.S. trade links once seen as one of Mexico's brightest hopes, is Miss Sinaloa, a beauty queen who hailed from the northern Mexican state of the same name.
Like many others, she went to Ciudad Juarez looking for a good time. She got high at a party, was gang-raped and beaten for three days. She eventually ended up in a mental asylum.
For Bowden, who has spent extended periods in Mexico, the violence in Ciudad Juarez is rooted not only in the effective impunity that many drug gangs enjoy but also desperate poverty exacerbated by low wages at U.S.-owned factories.
"This is a city that until quite recently was a poster child for free trade. This was the model. The model is producing death. It is producing adolescents that can't get work, can't afford to go to school and join gangs and become murderers," he said.
Even before the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Ciudad Juarez was a manufacturing center producing goods like televisions for the U.S. market.
The Ciudad Juarez-El Paso area handled $50 billion in trade in 2008, but growth has failed to bring social infrastructure like parks and public transport and the city is ringed with shantytowns and garbage dumps.
Bowden said that the underlying causes of gang activity in Ciudad Juarez, where factory workers say they earn as little at $7 a day, must be examined if violence is to be controlled.
"People ask me for a solution, I say look at the model. If it was a car, you would immediately take it to a mechanic," he said.