March 2, 2006
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Charles Bowden, a Fly on the Wall Watching the Drug War that's 'Down by the River'
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
"The war on drugs." It's the kind of label that just stops us, allowing preconceived notions to take over. Most of us don't think that much about it, or ever wonder who who has been killed in that "war." Investigative reporter Charles Bowden did wonder. He got into his truck and drove to the front lines and embedded himself in that war to get some answers. His investigation, focusing on a lone victim and his grieving family, unfolds in Down by the River, an absolutely haunting book.
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Charles Bowden: I thought if I could understand and explain one murder, I could explain what was happening on the border. I take the murder of Bruno Jordan because his brother was the head of DEA intelligence in El Paso. I had seen a small mention about the killing in a Mexican newspaper called La Jornada. They had arrested a 13-year-old boy for the killing. I just dialed information, got the phone number for the El Paso intelligence center, and talked to Phil Jordan, Bruno’s brother, who ran the center. He said, “If you come here, I’ll talk to you. I won’t talk on the phones.” I got in my truck and drove 321 miles and walked into his office. Seven-and-a-half years later, the book came out. That’s how it started.
BuzzFlash: Why did it take seven-and-a-half years?
Charles Bowden: Because in the drug wars, whether you’re dealing with law enforcement or dealers, you have to spend months to get what would amount to one paragraph in the book. I became obsessed.
BuzzFlash: That comes through in the book.
Charles Bowden: The structure of the book is simple - we’ll look into one murder. But to explain that murder, you have to retell the history of the United States and Mexico, going back forty or fifty years. The narrative arc is the killing, and trying to solve it, but to understand that you have to understand all this history. I wound up writing the history, with hundreds of footnotes. That took time.
BuzzFlash: Your style is like the Southwestern landscape itself – very beautiful and very engaging and lyrical. You manage to be both compassionate toward the Jordan family, yet very cynical about the context of his death, meaning the drug world lurking in the background.
Charles Bowden: His murder could never be solved, in a simple sense, because it would implicate the governments of both nations in the solution. Once you get into the drug wars in Mexico, it goes all the way to the top of the government. That’s just a fact. And Phil Jordan received zero cooperation from the DEA, his agency, or from the FBI, in solving his brother’s murder.
BuzzFlash: "Cynicism" becomes the operative word, in that this is a show drug war. Phil Jordan, despite being head of a DEA center engaged in the drug war on the frontier, was given the cold shoulder and not helped to solve his brother’s murder.
Charles Bowden: Like I say in the book, he is briefing Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the United States, about the high Mexican officials he’s going to meet in a week in Mexico, and he's giving the drug connections of every one of them. She stares at him with total disbelief. I don’t know how you want to characterize that, because Phil Jordan is your basic American true believer. But they basically destroyed him for trying to find justice for his brother.
BuzzFlash: The Jordans are a close-knit, Mexican-American family. The book was called Down by the River because that's where they lived.
Charles Bowden: Their house is five blocks from the river in a very old barrio in El Paso, Texas. His parents have lived in the same home for over fifty years, just adding rooms as more children came. They won’t leave, because if they leave, they will lose their connection with their dead son. He’s buried four blocks away.
BuzzFlash: You burrow into this family and almost became a fly on the wall in their lives.
Charles Bowden: We’re still friends. I sit alone in silence and grief every January 20th, which was the day Bruno was killed. At 7 p.m. on January 20, 1995, he got out of the pick-up truck at the K-Mart in El Paso, Texas, and was instantly gunned down.
BuzzFlash: In your effort to ascertain who killed Lionel Bruno Jordan, you really do find that the "war on drugs," as the politicians call it, is a show war for domestic consumption. All the obstacles you ran up against, and his brother ran up against, and the great risk you took to enter the drug underworld to try to get some answers, just led you to conclude that it doesn’t really exist. There’s a peaceful coexistence between the U.S. and Mexico in terms of drugs coming into the United States, except for occasional busts.
Charles Bowden: The United States wants a stable Mexico. Mexico is economically dependent on narco dollars to survive. If you could actually shut down the border and stop the importation of drugs into this country, Mexico would collapse. So it’s a show war.
BuzzFlash: What about the argument that they now have increased economic power in petro-dollars?
Charles Bowden: The Mexican oil fields are in severe decline. They’re nationalized and run by one of the most corrupt mechanisms in Mexico – Petroleos Mexicanos, also known as Pemex. Mexico makes more money from drugs than they do from oil, tourism, and the remittances sent back by illegal Mexicans working here. They earn at least $50 billion a year now from selling drugs. They simply can’t live without it. You have to understand the Mexican economy is 4% the size of the United States' economy. Fifty billion dollars is big money in an economy of that size.
BuzzFlash: If we go back over the last five decades of Mexican-American relations, in terms of the drug situation, this has been a de facto show war on drugs.
Charles Bowden: Smoke and Mirrors, by Dan Baum, was an excellent book on that subject which was also heavily footnoted. He proved conclusively that every reaction or thought in the drug war for forty years by the U.S. government was simply to get domestic political support. It had nothing to do with the drug problem. Until the early 1990s, more Americans died every year by falling down staircases than died from overdoses. We’ve created a sort of fictional monster in drugs.
BuzzFlash: Does the solution lie in the legalization of drugs?
Charles Bowden: Well, if you continue the current policies, your prison population will continue to grow - and 40 to 50% of all inmates now are jailed on drug charges. Drugs will become more common, they will be of higher quality and at lower prices, because that is what’s happened over the course of forty years. Our drug consumption increases, and it becomes cheaper simply because of competition. So this is a failed policy. But there isn’t a politician in the United States who will question the drug wars. It’s considered political death.
BuzzFlash: I want to commend you just for your courage. Clearly you are an investigative journalist who took a lot of risk.
Charles Bowden: You don’t really see it that way when you’re doing it.
BuzzFlash: Why is that?
Charles Bowden: All the roadblocks are just little obstacles, because you’re obsessed with finding out the facts. When you get into this kind of work, you just want to get it down right. What other people see as danger, you see as a nuisance. If I wasn’t writing that book, I never would have gone into the saloons and hellholes that are in that book. I don’t court danger.
BuzzFlash: From our perspective, you took tremendous risks. You contacted drug dealers.
Charles Bowden: I was tired of reading about drug dealers as sort of “them,” and so I went and met them. They’re just people making a living in a murderous business.
BuzzFlash: Is Juarez the city where so many women have disappeared and been found dead and mutilated?
Charles Bowden: Yes. In the same period, 2900 men have vanished. Juarez is a death machine. I did a whole book on it called Juarez, the Laboratory of Our Future. It’s part of the barbarism which they call free trade.
BuzzFlash: In what way?
Charles Bowden: Juarez is full of maquiladoras - factories - where people are paid a wage so low you can’t survive on it.
BuzzFlash: That’s as a result of NAFTA, in large part.
Charles Bowden: Yes, it’s all connected. And illegal immigration explodes in the United States once NAFTA passes. There’s an absolute linear progression. If you’re a Mexican, your real earning power has been declining since the early 1990s.
BuzzFlash: Your look at the war on drugs involved a tremendous investigative job. Out of the story of one person, one family, one murder, grew all these tentacles that illuminated the failed war on drugs and the real acceptance of the drug trade by both the United States and Mexico.
Lionel’s murder is officially unresolved, but reading your book, certainly one would be left with the understanding that this was drug-related and sending a signal to his brother that he better not be an Eagle Scout and take the war on drugs seriously. You had the head of Mexico and his brother, the Salinas brothers, seemingly intimately involved in the drug trade. Carlos Salinas, the president, was a close friend of George Bush Senior.
Charles Bowden: They were making money off it, and banking with Citibank in New York and in Switzerland. They were using the same banker in New York that the head of the Juarez cartel was using to funnel money to a secure place. It’s not an accident. Everybody in DEA knows it, although they wouldn’t officially say it. It would destabilize our relationship.
BuzzFlash: Do you think the President of the United States gets briefing papers that are top secret from DEA, from CIA, and NSA and so forth? Do you think President Bush the first knew this?
Charles Bowden: Of course. Everybody knows it. As it happens Phil Jordan was the guy preparing those briefing papers. I know exactly what they were told because I know the guy who told them.
BuzzFlash: What's the trade-off for a President of the United States?
Charles Bowden: All I can say is, if they really cracked down on drugs in Mexico, the economy and the Mexican government would collapse. Millions of people would stream north to survive. Given that choice, successive American presidents have put on a kind of theatrical war on drugs, but let the business continue because the consequences of ending the business are worse than letting the business continue. Mexico needs the money.
BuzzFlash: What was the torture murder of DEA agent Enrique Camereno in Mexico all about?
Charles Bowden: He was kidnapped by members of the Guadalajara cartel and tortured for two days. They taped the torture, and they were asking him questions. Those tapes have never been made public - the DEA and the CIA have the tapes. What they were trying to find out is how much he knew about the connections between the cartel leaders and the heads of the Mexican government. That’s it. I happen to know the guy who led the investigation of the murder of Camereno. Almost every human being that was in the house in Guadalajara where they tortured Camereno had been trained by the CIA and was an asset. They had trained them to be an anti-drug force in Mexico, but they went over to the other side. That’s why the case was "buried."
BuzzFlash: Are these people still free and moving about Mexico?
Charles Bowden: That’s right. They busted a couple guys, who are technically in prison, but they show up at parties all over Mexico.
BuzzFlash: You have one very vivid description of going down further south into Mexico, and meeting with a drug kingpin in a vast ranch, and the partying that’s going on.
Charles Bowden: The party went on for five days and five nights.
BuzzFlash: It's like the old Al Capone days in Chicago.
Charles Bowden: They are the government. They are interchangeable in Mexico. I was once drinking with a major drug dealer, and I said, “Who do you work for?” And of course, what I was asking was which cartel. And he said, “I work for the President of Mexico.” And he meant it. He was angry over the hypocrisy that he’s allegedly a criminal, when in fact, the people he sees on TV are taking money from him. He was a killer. I know of four people that man had murdered in my own city, because he told me that.
BuzzFlash: Why didn’t you pose a threat to these people?
Charles Bowden: One, anybody in the drug business knows they’re going to be murdered and forgotten. Secondly, if I had sneaked around trying to find things out, I would have been killed. But I was public about it. I’d sit in front of these people while they were sitting there with machine guns, and make notes. That’s how it happened. I just acted like it was normal. Slowly, I built relationships with trust. At the same time I’m doing this, I have deep connections in DEA. One thing I never did was betray a DEA operation to a drug dealer, and I never betrayed a drug dealer to DEA.
BuzzFlash: You kept the confidentiality of your sources.
Charles Bowden: I’m down there at one point with a drug dealer from the United States. He’s buying cocaine for a shipment north while I’m there. We go down to get a bunch of drugs and he’s going to bring them up through U.S. Customs. If that shipment had been seized, I would have been murdered, because they would have thought: ah, he was the reason it was seized. That’s the risk. I knew when I was sitting there, and they were arranging this business deal, that if anything went wrong, they’d blame me.
BuzzFlash: You’ve written other books and articles on the drug trade. How did this come to interest you?
Charles Bowden: I was a reporter for a newspaper in the early eighties in Arizona. I’ve always had a deep interest in biology, ecology, the environment. Scientists I knew who had been going into the Sierra Madres in certain areas, collecting plants, started coming back with reports that they couldn’t get into villages because suddenly there were men there with machine guns. Everybody was growing drugs. I thought, well, this was a story. I became increasingly obsessed with why this huge industry was growing right at my doorstep, and it was not being reported. That was the beginning.
Then the scale of the business got huge. Full-bodied jets were landing, full of cocaine, and none of this was being reported. At one point, I took photos and gave them to Jack Anderson, the columnist, trying to get him to print it. They simply didn’t believe what I gave them.
BuzzFlash: We have an argument about immigration going on in the U.S., now, and there are the Minutemen. A couple of weeks ago, there were allegedly encounters between American immigration officials on the border and people who looked like they were in the Mexican Army.
Charles Bowden: They were in the Mexican Army. No drug dealer would try and look like the Army, they would try and blend in. The Mexican Army is in the drug business. The movie "Traffic" was not a complete fiction.
BuzzFlash: Let's get back again to the personal story of the Jordan family.
Charles Bowden: It’s absolutely certain that Lionel Bruno Jordan, who was murdered at the age of 27, had no connections to drugs. He was getting ready to get married, he sold suits at Men’s Warehouse, and he was preparing to enter law school. He had lived a totally blameless life. He had nothing to do with his brother’s career in DEA. He was slaughtered for no reason.
BuzzFlash: The family is the fine, upstanding, model American family. They happen to be of Mexican descent. One brother is a heroic DEA agent – your honest, straight-arrow DEA agent, incorruptible. His younger brother was shot and killed in a parking lot. No one will cooperate to find the real murderer. They pin it on a young kid. The Mexican Consul in El Paso won’t answer any questions directly.
Charles Bowden: The Mexican Consul is funneling drug money to the criminal attorneys that are defending the kid who did the killing. We know that because of DEA wiretaps.
BuzzFlash: And the American government didn’t want him to pursue it. They didn’t want to anger the Mexican government by pursuing this.
Charles Bowden: The effort of the border patrol to stop illegal immigration is also simply for show, because if we really bottled up Mexico and a half million people a year couldn’t come north, the economy would collapse.
BuzzFlash: You also have in your book that, even on shipments coming through in trucks at border check points, crooked Americans are just allowing these trucks in.
Charles Bowden: Yes. When I spoke earlier of the drug dealer arranging the shipment of a load of cocaine to the United States, that person I’m dealing with "owned" the border crossing. He owned U.S. agents. That’s how he was going to move it through. I knew the exact town it would go through, and he had paid people in U.S. customs to wave it through.
BuzzFlash: Has there been any official government response to your book?
Charles Bowden: No. Nobody wants to deal with it. This war is a fraud, unless you get murdered in this war.
BuzzFlash: Suppose that we in the United States were really serious about taking on the drug industry in Mexico, and let’s just say theoretically we could wipe it out. You’re saying the economy in Mexico would collapse. People would do whatever they could to cross over into America to make whatever money they could make
Charles Bowden: That’s right.
BuzzFlash: Therefore we leave the status quo, which is drugs coming in.
Charles Bowden: This isn’t some ugly conspiracy by corrupt American presidents. This is what’s called realpolitik. Tolerating the existence of a narco-state in Mexico is preferable to having an economic collapse in Mexico. Successive presidents have looked at the facts and made the same decision. So this is not the result of some evil leadership in our country. It’s simply confronting reality.
BuzzFlash: The Mexicans might say, you’re using this stuff, that is your responsibility. You clean up the consumer side. It’s not our problem.
Charles Bowden: That’s correct. That’s what they all say, and they have a point. Also, drugs don’t have very much value until they get to the United States. Then they explode in value. The real profits are made here.
BuzzFlash: And you couldn’t have the extent of drug trafficking unless you had some officials paid off in the police department.
Charles Bowden: In almost any city in the United States, it’s easier to find cocaine than it is to find veal. The stuff is everywhere, and everybody knows it.
BuzzFlash: Someone’s got to be letting it get through.
Charles Bowden: Everybody that gets into the drug industry becomes corrupted. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cop or a robber. There’s just too much money. All you have to do is blink and you can get paid. You’re standing there waving cars through at the border. You’re a U.S. official. You wave cars through all day. All you have to do is wave one more through and you can make $50-100,000 in the blink of an eye.
I’ll give you an example. They busted a drug ring in 1989. This ring had moved 900 consecutive loads of cocaine into the United States through one crossing in El Paso – one bridge – without ever being detected. That's mathematically impossible unless you buy people.
BuzzFlash: Did anything happen?
Charles Bowden: Well, the ring got busted. But it terrified DEA and I’ll tell you why. They took down 21 tons of cocaine in a warehouse in California in 1989, and after they did that, the price of cocaine did not go up. It had no effect on the market, so much was coming in. That was the first time that DEA really understood the magnitude of the drug use in this country, because it’s very hard to track. People don’t report how much coke they use every week.
BuzzFlash: Has anything changed under Vincente Fox?
Charles Bowden: I’m not going to criticize Mr. Fox, but he’s not really in control of Mexico. The drugs continue to be moved. The cartels continue to flourish. The army continues to be corrupt. Any Mexican president that effectively waged war against the drug industry would be murdered.
BuzzFlash: As one candidate was.
Charles Bowden: Yes, Colosio.
BuzzFlash: It’s heart-wrenching to read about the Jordan family and their loss.
Charles Bowden: It devastated that family. That family believes in America, and America betrayed that family. They have gotten no justice for the murder of their son and brother.
BuzzFlash: The only justice done - because the Mexican and American governments both put up obstacles to finding out who really was responsible - the only justice for Lionel Jordan is your book, Down by the River.
Charles Bowden: That’s right, and it’s even worse than that for me. Lionel Bruno Jordan was one of thousands of people murdered on the border in these drug wars, but he’s the only one that got a book. The others don’t even get that. It’s like it never happened. I find that morally repellent. I think human life matters, and I think ignoring death on this level is a sin.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much.
Charles Bowden: Adios.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Editor Mark Karlin.
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Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family (Paperback) by Charles Bowden, a BuzzFlash premium
Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family (Paperback) by Charles Bowden , a BuzzFlash review
Charles Bowden: No more fear: Vote as if it matters - because it does (9/04, Arizona Daily Star)