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Interview: Charles Bowden on the violence plaguing Juárez

Beef tripe and birdseed are the keys to maintaining sanity while chronicling the bloody narco-wars along the Mexican border. Just ask reporter and author Charles Bowden.

Probably more than any other U.S. author, he has revealed the intricacies of the violence haunting Ciudad Juárez, most recently in two books, "Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields" and "Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez." He's swatted at flies swarming fresh bloodstains and reported from a house where bodies were drenched in acid before burial. One wonders if he didn't lose a slice of his sanity with each movement of his hand.

He has met with hit men, government officials who know more than they say, pastors struggling to soothe in the war-torn city and Mexican reporters running for their lives.

To recover, Bowden settles back for a while on his land in Patagonia, Ariz., about 20 miles from the Mexican border. That's where the feed and tripe come in: He drops about $150 a month on his hummingbird feeders and lays out a block of tripe for the ravens. "Then we have coffee together," he told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. Something simple and beautiful to crowd out the death and despair in his mind, at least for a while.

He keeps connected with nature as a sort of therapy. After unearthing tales of unfathomable human cruelty, he relaxes by watching the black birds gnaw at the bowels of a cow.

Mexicans, he says, are a people discarded by their government — women who prefer to sell drugs so they won't have to sell their bodies, newspaper vendors gunned down in broad daylight, beauty queens gone mad after being raped for days by police officers, pastors who care for the insane because no one else will. Then he returns to what he says are the "rhythms of the Earth."

"If you don't, you'll go down; you'll be useless; you'll be of no use to anyone," he says.

Bowden spoke for more than two hours about what he saw, what he wants to forget and why he'll probably go back, even though he dreads even the thought of it. In his desert drawl, with the dust from the graves still fresh in his mind, Bowden explains why the fog of narco-terrorism and corruption make it impossible to fully report the slaughter, why the numbers that spew daily from media and government mean little to him, and why what is heard, and not seen, must be viewed with more than a little suspicion. (Note: The audio contains explicit language.)

And he weighs in on whether a woman burned alive on July 4, the day of the Juárez elections, was sacrificed as a message to Mayor-elect Hector "Teto" Murguía.

The violence will not end; there's no reason currently to believe it would, Bowden explains. The shooting and cutting and beating has become thoroughly enmeshed in daily life as jobs disappear, addiction balloons, gangs multiply and the next generation is poised to take over where the older leaves off  — after it is killed off. He tells about "El Pastor," a character in "Murder City" who hears why women join the business and how a basic struggle for control of a drug plaza has gone beyond that and entered a new dimension.

Bowden lives in Arizona, the busiest corridor for undocumented immigrants making their way into the U.S. What drives them, he says, is stronger than any force that might deter them. Bowden says he wasn't raised to "shut the door on poor people," and so he stocks cans of food and water for those who collapse under his mesquite trees. Half an hour later, he says, the visitors are back on their way. "How the hell do you stop people like that?" First he explains what he thinks would happen to Mexico if every immigrant went back.

Despite the success of "Down by the River," a tale about the history of the Mexican drug trade and the accompanying U.S. government hypocrisy — told against the backdrop of a murdered brother of a DEA agent — Bowden lives to get back to bankruptcy, he says. He takes magazine stories to get out of debt, but the kind of books he writes hardly makes him a dime.

"If you get used to it, you're worthless," Bowden says of the beat. Since his days as a crime reporter for a newspaper, he has found ways to save his sanity, a large part of which depends on how in tune he remains with nature. He leads off by explaining what happens, to most reporters, after time.

Mexican reporters flee across the border or are murdered. They are the courageous ones. He has a three-tiered plan for staying alive, which he says that, as an American, isn't hard to do.

In "Dreamland," with artist Alice Leora Briggs, Bowden chronicles the death house where a Mexican informant, working for the U.S. government, participated in the murders of several men. From there, he talks about the valiant Armando Rodriguez, a reporter for El Diario de Juárez gunned down in front of his daughter. She wasn't harmed — and that was on purpose, Bowden says. He's come to know what a professional hit looks like, knowledge gained from interviews with one of Juárez's best assassins.

Bowden has no problems with legalizing pot. The criminal justice system as it stands has created a police state, he says. But he warns of the havoc that would reign — at least temporarily — before that happened.

Racism — that's the simplest reason for anti-Mexican sentiment, Bowden says. The "tea baggers" and Sarah Palin, when they say they want their country back, mean they want a "white guy as president." It's not just here though, Bowden says, urging a close look at how Mexicans treat Guatemalans.

Bowden doesn't harp too much about what people say about "Murder City," including those who allege he doesn't explain the killings. His narratives don't move in straight lines, he knows, but neither does life in Juárez. If warring cartels make peace, the violence won't end, he says. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the leader of the Juárez cartel, doesn't order most of the hits. "It's gone way past that." Meanwhile, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has opened a Pandora's box.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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