Lionel Bruno Jordan was murdered on January 20, 1995, in an El Paso parking lot, but he keeps coming back as the key to a multibillion-dollar drug industry, two corrupt governments -- one called the United States and the other Mexico -- and a self-styled War on Drugs that is a fraud. Beneath all the policy statements and bluster of politicians is a real world of lies, pain, and big money.
Down by the River is the true narrative of how a murder led one American family into this world and how it all but destroyed them. It is the story of how one Mexican drug leader outfought and outthought the U.S. government, of how major financial institutions were fattened on the drug industry, and how the governments of the U.S. and Mexico buried everything that happened. All this happens down by the river, where the public fictions finally end and the facts read like fiction. This is a remarkable American story about drugs, money, murder, and family.
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Journalist Charles Bowden has written eleven previous nonfiction books, including Blood Orchid, Trust Me, Desierto, The Sonoran Desert, Frog Mountain Blues, and Killing the Hidden Waters. Winner of the 1996 Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction, he lives in Tucson, Arizona.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
We are in the safe house. The sun bakes at ninety and the humidity keeps stride with the sun. Texas wobbles under the blows of summer, the storms threaten, the whiff of tornadoes gives a tang to the changing skies. The street is tree-clogged, narrow, and lined with stretch versions of ranch-style houses. Plano, hugging the north flank of Dallas, is one of the richest suburbs in the United States. This section of that sanctuary houses managers, the lower end of the Plano pecking order. Weekends reverberate with lawn mowers, weekdays find the street abandoned as couples work to pay for their homes.
The woman scrubs diligently in the kitchen. Not compulsively, she notes, just rigorously. She is short and friendly. She was born in Mexico and raised in the United States and most of her life has revolved around the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA. This is not her home, she is just helping out. This could never be her home. Everything about the house is wrong. It reeks of a failed marriage, of depression. And of Anglos. This last failing is never mentioned, it is too obvious for mention. Anglos mean a cold world, a soulless world, a place where there may be money but something essential is always missing.
That is why she is here. He's gone now, doing errands, but she is here to fill this missing thing, unnamed, unmentioned, but obvious. Too obvious to discuss. She has been tied to him most of his life, through his single time, the second marriage, and now with the new divorce she is, well, back in the picture. She is bright and works hard. And she prides herself on being practical, on not succumbing to the fatal temptations of the imagination, and this house is not practical nor is this place. Nor is this thing about the death.
"They have to let Bruno go, leave him in peace," she offers.
"But that's hard when he's your own brother," I reply. I don't mention the glass of water and the candle.
She nods, but still she knows.
She has been busy telling me everything, about the details of the ruin, the little discrete acts, the betrayals, the hopes dashed. And the hopes once again renewed, just as the hopeless kitchen counter is being renewed as it emerges from months of neglect and begins to shine and smell fresh once again. She is preparing the playing field for her chicken tacos. It has not been easy. The cilantro, for example, sold in Plano is not really cilantro. Here, smell it. See? It is off, like something dead, something faint and lacking soul.
"Phillip," she announces, and she always calls him Phillip even though every one else calls him Phil, "has to stop this stuff about drugs. It is all he wants to talk about. I go to Mexico and I see hotels and nice businesses and at the trade conferences, no one talks about drugs. And I don't see drugs. He has to stop this."
"But that is not easy," I reply. "It is everywhere if you look, if you know how to look. It is too big to ignore."
And then I trail off because I understand her point. It is a healthy point.
I can't even produce a metaphor for the drug world anymore. I don't even like the phrase the drug world since the phrase implies that it is a separate world. And drugs are as basic and American as, say, Citibank. Mexico's three leading official sources of foreign exchange are oil, tourism, and the money sent home by Mexicans in the United States. Drugs bring Mexico more money than these three sources combined. The United States and Mexico share a common border more than 1,800 miles long. Its official, licit, World Bank-type economy is piddling -- 4.5 percent that of the United States. Both nations, along with Canada, are officially partners in a common market under the umbrella of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Mexico and the United States are partners in an unofficial economy called the drug business.
The number for the money in the Mexican drug business, around $30 billion annually, came from the Mexican attorney general's office in the mid-1990s, and is smaller than the current take. The number is roughly the same as that quietly issued from time to time by the agencies of the United States government.
When the drug industry does get mentioned, it gets dismissed by Mexicans blaming the United States for creating the drug market because of its vile habits and the United States blaming Mexico for permitting the drug industry because of its corrupt practices. I disagree with both positions. Drugs are a business, one of the largest on the surface of the earth, and this business exists for two reasons: the products are so very, very good and the profits are so very, very high. Nothing that creates hundreds of billions of dollars of income annually and is desired by millions of people will be stopped by any nation on this earth. A Mexican study by the nation's internal security agency, CISEN (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional), that has been leaked to the press speculates that if the drug business vanished, the U.S. economy would shrink 19 to 22 percent, the Mexican 63 percent. I stare at these numbers and have no idea if they are sound or accurate. No one can really grapple with the numbers because illegal enterprises can be glimpsed but not measured. In 1995, one Mexican drug-trafficking expert guessed that half the hotel room revenues in his country were frauds, meaning empty rooms counted as sold in order to launder drug money.
A part of me sympathizes with the woman cleaning the kitchen that is not hers, that is a relic of her lover's failed marriage. I can taste the desire to move on, to leave all the arrests, tortures, corrupt politicians and cops on both sides of the line, to abandon talk of deals and busts. To smell the roses and let the cocaine go to hell or the customers. Outside in the yard, a small dog lazes in the sun, a mongrel from El Paso. The dog is called Cokie, short for Cocaine. And here, the dog's world has been reduced to the decent order of bones, water, a food dish, and two rubber balls for play. The trick is to pretend Mexico does not exist. Or if it does exist, that it is very much like the United States, just with a different cuisine and language. For decades the man of this house kept Mexico at bay. And then, it came visiting in a form that trade agreements and folkloric dances tend to ignore.
The visit was violent. In Juárez, the Mexican city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, the world has been reduced to this: between 1993 and 2001, at least 2,800 people were either murdered or raped or kidnapped or simply vanished. In Mexico City, the attorney general's office has placed the mug shots of 1,400 federales on a Web site to better enable citizens to identify them when they rob or torture them or, perhaps, kill someone. A Mexico City suburb has followed suit with its police force so that, the mayor explains, the local citizens can protect themselves from the community's eight hundred cops. The mayor already had fired half of the force for corruption. Recently, one Mexican politician called for reinstating capital punishment in Mexico -- solely for police offenders.
The house is cluttered with DEA bric-a-brac -- plaques, citations, photographs, the litter from a career. The woman wants such things gone, consigned to the past. She wants the breath of a fresh, new life. There is a logic to this since in the end this work with DEA has brought ruin. Yet, it is hard to let it go. It is hard to pretend it never happened. Others can do this, but for those who were involved in the blood rituals such an act requires personal mutilation. I understand this dread of burying the past at the very same instant I share her desire to erase it. Or better yet, to have never known it at all.
There are things -- the gulag of slave labor camps in the former Soviet Union, the burning bodies of the Holocaust in Europe, the clanking chains of human bondage in the United States -- that intelligent and honest people know occurred and yet grow weary of contemplating. The drug business is not like such things. Beyond some songs, a few action-packed movies, the drug business is never really acknowledged. Drugs may be the major American story of our era, the thing that did more to alter behavior and law, that redistributed income to the poor far more dramatically than any tinkering with tax codes, that jailed more people and killed more people than any U.S. foreign policy initiative since the Vietnam War. But this vital force, this full-tilt-boogie economic activity, is absent from our daily consciousness and only surfaces when discussed as a problem. And this problem is always placed on the other side of town or the other side of a line or the other side of the river.
Imagine over a quarter of a trillion dollars in a decade, imagine thousands of murders in a decade. Then imagine such things never existed. That is the drug business in one impoverished nation, Mexico. On the U.S. side of the line, all the numbers and consequences are larger.
The woman is right. Clear the house of this clutter, sell it, move on.
But there are these things, strands I think, yes, strands weaving together to form a tapestry. In this instance, the tapestry has these little loose ends that are visible, but the weave and tapestry themselves are not. One tiny strand involves Matamoros, the Mexican town facing Brownsville on the Rio Grande. A dozen or so men armed with automatic weapons took over the three-story state police station there one afternoon this season. They carried AK-47s, wore bulletproof vests and masks, and at first the state police thought it was nothing, simply some prank being played by the federal police. The men seized a Mexican soldier being held in a kidnapping case. When they finally left they showered the police station with bullets. In 1984, a similar group of men took over a Matamoros hospital where a business rival was being treated. They left five dead. Then there was a prison riot in 1991 when a drug group took over and burned the place to the ground. Or the time when Juan García Abrego, the business leader of Matamoros, caused some headlines by kidnapping an Amer...
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