- Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez
At a time when drug-related atrocities occurring along the US-Mexican border appear in the news with regularity, and when the New York Times highlights a female drug crime wave that has increased women inmates in Mexico by 400 percent since 2007,1 Howard Campbell’s book dives right into the eye of the storm. Told from the position of an academic whose roots and present residence have allowed him a deep access to the local community on the El Paso/Juárez border, this volume untangles an entire network of relationships permeated by drug trafficking. Campbell condemns the official US “war on drugs” as a hypocritical, racist, and counterproductive campaign that fails to confront the reality of high-level state corruption and the covert, deep-rooted criminal infrastructure existing within the general population. Likewise, he refrains from pitting legal and illegal players in the narcotics business against one another, although he recognizes nevertheless the devastating effect of drugs that has irrevocably transformed the border zone. Campbell’s position is sympathetic toward the countries where the drugs are [End Page 246] produced, in that its inhabitants suffer the worst consequences of the illegal drug trade. It suffices to mention the mass executions of law enforcement agents and civilians in Mexico, while the prevailing US discourse demonizes drug producers and advocates puritanical values, yet continues to provide a relentless consumer demand (10).
Campbell constructs a fascinating ethnographic study of people directly involved in the drug business, which combines empirical social-science research with oral histories from the traffickers themselves, local historians, and law officials. These narratives are accompanied by the author’s analytical commentaries that contextualize each story within the broader spectrum of academic research. The oral histories shed light on the lifestyle of drug traffickers, their modus operandi, and their reasons for success and failure. They also encompass broader topics related to drug organizations as a whole, their transformation over time, their cultural and moral codes, as well as their impact on the society as a whole (39). The second half of the book examines the cultural dynamics of law enforcement on the border, exploring the rationale behind those who go into this line of work, and the ramifications of such a choice.
Above all, the volume presents the diversity and the human dimension of people both involved in drug trafficking and those dedicated to the antidrug effort. Going back to the 1930s and 1940s, when Ignacia Jasso González, aka “La Nacha,” was the indisputable Heroin Queen of Juárez, Campbell’s volume illustrates the region’s transformation, up to the most recent bloodbaths suffered by the civilian population and countless disappeared that sometimes turn up in Juárez narcocemeteries. The story of La Nacha reveals a number of factors that allowed her to survive until a ripe old age: her attachment to her own social class uninterrupted by the cash flow, her practice of bribing everyone, and her community service that involved numerous charitable acts right alongside her drug houses and brothels. There is a palpable nostalgia about her folksy style that seems almost harmless next to the ruthless bloodbaths of the contemporary cartels. The account of a witness to a recent Juárez drug killing (166–70) substantiates this observation in that the level of violence and its effect on the general population have skyrocketed into a climate of panic, paralysis, and utter distrust of law enforcement. Campbell’s figures speak for themselves: the sixteen hundred murders committed in Juárez in 2008 constitute the bloodiest year in record.
Campbell’s collection includes the willing and unwilling participants of today’s drug business of all ranks: from the queenpin “Cristal,” who abandoned her comfortable middle-class environment to embrace high-level drug trafficking in the United States, Mexico, and Colombia, through lowest-rung informants whose last deal cost them their lives (194), to petty drug pushers in Juárez, whose best clients are...