Like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Ed Vulliamy’s Amexica explores violence and bloodshed along the porous border between Mexico and America. Unlike those blistering novels, Amexica belongs in the nonfiction section: it’s a sustained work of investigative journalism, part travelogue, part horror story, and all-too real. Blood Meridian and 2666 both have clear roots in the violent history of the borderland, but the membrane of literary fiction serves as a kind of psychological protection for the reader, an affective out, perhaps — “It’s just a book,” we might tell ourselves. Amexica, on the other hand, is unrelentingly true, real, and inescapably ugly. I have a predilection, I almost hate to admit, for literary violence, for bloody books—Blood Meridian and 2666 are two of my favorite books—although bloodshed is not the only reason I read. The violence in Amexica though can be stomach turning at times. Here’s a litmus test—the book’s first paragraph—
As dawn breaks over the vast desert, the body is hanging from a concrete overpass known as the Bridge of Dreams. It has been there for two hours—decapitated and dangling by a rope tied around the armpits. The sun begins to throw its rays across the busy intersection with its rush-hour traffic and former American school buses carrying workers to sweatshops. And it is still there an hour later, this grotesque, headless thing—swaying, hands cuffed behind its back—in the cold early morning wind that kicks up dust and cuts through the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, the most dangerous city in the world.
From the outset, Vulliamy is unflinching in his portrayal of the borderland, the strange, amorphous world he calls “Amexica,” a place riddled with ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty; indeed the only thing certain in Amexica is violence.
Vulliamy’s book is a west-to-east travelogue of Amexica, from the Pacific Coast (where he takes part in a surreal picnic on the beach where relatives pass food through a wire fence) to the Gulf Coast of Texas. What unites each stop along Vulliamy’s way is the relentless war between rivaling drug cartels and the federal, state, and local police. To clarify that last sentence, let me point out that the drug wars on the border are bellum omnium contra omnes, war of all against all—the drug cartels are at war with each other, but law enforcement are at war against each other as well, the various police forces backing various drug cartels.
Vulliamy’s difficult job is to suss out the whys and the hows of the drug war, but it’s an almost impossibly huge task. He tells us—
This book is not so much about a war as it is a view of a singular place in time of war. It is about the ways war impacts Amexica, but it is also about how the war is a consequence of other—mainly economic—degradations and exploitations, quite apart from drugs, from which the border’s people suffer. A suffering due not least to the fact that narco cartels are corporations like any other, applying the commercial logic and following the same globalized “business models” as the multiplicity of legal enterprises that have wreaked havoc along the borderline. Indeed, the drug violence is in many ways a direct result of this depredation caused by the legal globalized economy. The cartels are not pastiches of multinational capital—they are pioneers of it, integral to it, and apply its rules and logic (or, rather, lack of rules and logic) to their marketplace just as does any other commercial enterprise.
Vulliamy’s indictment of global capitalism as the root of the narco wars is plain—as is his righteous anger—but Amexica works better when it focuses on character and detail than when Vulliamy tries for targets that are simply too unwieldy. Amexica is at its best when Vulliamy plays tour guide, showing us the people of the border first hand, like the coroner in Tijuana who deciphers bodily mutilations as an Egyptologist might study hieroglyphs, or the bereaved mother of two notorious gangsters, or Julian Cardona, whose photographs of Juárez are charged with pathos, loss, and the traces of violence that plague that center of anarchy.
Indeed, Juárez is the grand, ugly center of both Vulliamy’s journey as well as his book; those who thrilled and suffered in Bolaño’s thinly-fictionalized version in 2666, “Santa Theresa,” will find a similar and equally disturbing beast. Anyone still searching for “the real killers” from Bolaño’s murder mystery are encouraged to read Vulliamy’s chapter on Juárez (short answer: we all did it).
Vulliamy’s journalism has a strong literary vein running through it, and like William T. Vollmann (who also chronicled a slice of the border in Imperial), he makes no pretense toward objectivity or neutrality. While Vulliamy puts his subjects and interviewees front and center, he never tries to hide or obscure his own involvement in the process; nor does he aggrandize his role, which surely must have been tempting given the extreme dangers of his project. And if at times his anger or indignation tips into furious verbosity (he could stand to slice a dependent clause or two), he’s surely earned it.
Amexica should be on the radar and reading list of anyone interested in the narco wars, or anyone who wants to learn more of the “real” story behind the murders explored in 2666. For all Amexica’s violence, there’s also dry, ironic humor, and a bristling current of justice, even optimism, at times. Amexica is not for everyone, to be sure, but those who wish to learn more about this massive war (which gets little or no coverage from major media outlets) will not be disappointed. Recommended.
Amexica is available now in an updated trade paperback edition from Picador.