Book Reviews

Butchery by the Border

Amexica: War Along the Borderline
by Ed Vulliamy

-Reviewed by Ellen O’Connell

amexica_149x225 In March of 2010, the Obama administration conceded that the insatiable appetite of Americans for illegal narcotics is at the root of the drug wars along the U.S.-Mexican border.  This was underscored by the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s staggering statistic that 90 percent of drugs entering the United States do so as part of the Mexican drug cartel business.  The trade has given rise to a new kind of gangster.  Gone are the glamorous fedora and spats of the 1930s, with murders occurring mainly among those in the underworld.  Today’s Mexican cartel members sport tattoos and kill indiscriminately, leaving decapitated corpses dangling from overpasses, lest Mexican citizens forget who really runs the country.

With all this bloodshed, Ed Vulliamy, a British journalist whose name is familiar to Observer and Guardian readers, has enjoyed a grim sort of luck in the timing of his latest book, Amexica: War Along the Borderline.  Vulliamy is unsparing toward all parties. The United States comes across as feckless, while Mexico appears to be nearly swallowed up by corruption. The book opens with a brief history of Mexico’s main cartels as well as a look back to the days of Prohibition, when organized crime in the United States first established a relationship with Mexican border towns, where alcohol was still legal.

To read “Amexica” is to take a dramatic journey across all 2,100 miles of the drug frontier.  Vulliamy works his way east from Tijuana, stopping to show us some of the most brutal and senseless murders. At stops along the way we meet parents of missing or murdered children and orphans who are traumatized but still relieved to have made it to the United States.

With such a packed journey, Vulliamy spends minimal time on reflection, confining himself mainly to storytelling rather than to analysis. To the extent we get explanations, they tend to come from people who share the author’s worldview-one that finds fault with governments on both sides of the border-which might leave some readers wondering why only one side of the border really suffers.  Still, there’s no doubt that Vulliamy’s lyrical travelogue is the result of painstaking journalism.  The author cares deeply about his subject, and the reader is left with no choice but to care, too.

If there’s one thing Amexica makes clear, it’s how astonishingly deadly the drug trade really is-with victims that far outnumber mere addicts. To date, an estimated 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the years since President Calderon launched his campaign against organized crime.  Most Americans are too removed from all of this to associate any of their small-time recreational drug use with such violence. One can only hope Vulliamy’s book will provide these Americans with a new and more effective sort of anti-drug education, one that abandons a focus on individual health and instead offers a lesson in the immense human cost of the illegal substances we ingest.

Excerpt: “In Juarez, the map of the cartel war frays. Any preconceptions about combat between narco-trafficking structures dissipate into a delta of violence. The chains of narco command have, apparently, collapsed. Something new is happening, something terrifying and more murderous.”

Buy the Book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon, Borders

Ellen O’Connell has been published in several national literary magazines and is a contributing writer to the forthcoming book, The Moment (2011 Harper Perennial). This year she was nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Award and currently teaches creative writing at UC Santa Barbara.

*Photo courtesy xiomele.