:: Article

Out Here on the Perimeter

By Max Dunbar.


Amexica: War Along the Borderline, Ed Vulliamy, The Bodley Head 2010

It could be said that all religions are cults of death, but surely none have incorporated death into daily life and ritual as much as the Mexican santa muerta, a strange eighteenth-century hybrid of Catholicism and pre-Columbian faiths. It centres around La Santísima Meurte, the Goddess of Death, Lady of Shadows, who appears as a female Grim Reaper holding a scythe and a globe. This image appears in roadside shrines and as personal accroutement or affectation, like the crucifix or furry dice. (The borderland proliferates with household gods, even the narcotraffickers have a household god; Miami-based journalist Carl Hiaasen reported that little santeria shrines and offerings of fruits and candies begin turning up next to courthouses and lockups whenever a big drug case hits the courts.) On the Day of the Dead, November 1, feasts are held in cemeteries, great meals baked for the dead, musicians serenade the dead, toys are bought for dead children. To propogate such awareness of death as a concept could be the healthiest way of dealing with it – the Goddess gets us all, of course. But on the borderlands they know this anyway. On the border stretching thousands of miles in fence and wire through desert and city they walk with the goddess from Tijuana to Brownsville.

A forensic pathologist tells Ed Vulliamy that the final hours of great civilisations are marked by ‘the terrible nature of public execution in its final phase’. The borderlands where America meets Mexico are witnessing a recent phase of gaudy and mutilated bodies left hanging from freeway bridges and the most exclusive suburbs as examples and statements. The cartels do this in a professional manner and have doctors on the payroll to keep victims alive and conscious throughout their ordeal. Vulliamy has a para on reading the messages the killers have left on the dead – a twisted version of the sign tracking skills that Native Americans and settlers used and still use. If your tongue has been cut out, you were a grass or a gossip. Castration means you have slept with or looked at a gangster’s woman. If your body turns up without arms, you must have been stealing or skimming from the package.

The ostentatious murders are the most obvious manifestation of cartel power over Mexican society. The Zeta cartel has the power to seal off entire districts, close highway bridges, and participate in four-hour military standoffs. Journalists don’t write about the Zetas – ‘the press has been bludgeoned into silence’ – and people refer to the gang to it as ‘the Z word’ or some other euphemism charged with superstitious dread: Vulliamy only meets one person, a journalist of unbelievable courage, who dares to call the demon by its name. The cartels have police officers and soldiers on the payroll, even drug czars. Dr Muñoz, Vulliamy’s pathologist, guessed the conviction rate for murder as around one per cent. An idealistic Nuevo Laredo police chief was assassinated within seven hours of taking office. The necessity of money laundering means that drug money saturates every aspect of borderland cities. In Cuidad Juarez – run more or less by the Juarez cartel – people refer to public and private architecture as ‘early narco’ or ‘mid narco’.

Illegal exploitation couldn’t function without legal exploitation – the cartels welcomed NAFTA because it gave cover to their smuggling of hard drugs and migrant workers – and Vulliamy also tours the maquiladora sweatshop factories. Rural workers are bused in to great behemoths in city centres where they contend with yellow unions, industrial accidents and strict monitoring of breaks, including toilet time limits and limits on the resting of fingers and eyes. Women reported being sexually harrassed by managers in a manner so widespread it might as well be policy. It’s a depressing landscape, and probably what the UK will look like in a hundred years or so.

Yet it’s here that Vulliamy finds hope. One worker saved for shares, went to a shareholder’s meeting and humiliated the CEO by exposing the conditions of factories the boss boasted were so good that workers could ‘eat off the floor’. Union organising hammered down shifts from twelve hours to nine or ten. Management threatened one collective with unemployment – ‘there’s nothing we can do, the company will relocate to Honduras’ – but the union called its bluff and there was no move. One former worker told Vulliamy that ‘I’d work all day, come off a shift at 2am, dance all night, and sleep all the next day. It was heaven.’

On the border Vulliamy meets migrants who are travelling for days across desert where the wrong choice of guide can mean the difference between life and death. A patch of mesh where settled workers reunite with their families through chickenwire shows us the tragic absurdity of border controls. We come across a borderland asylum of drug casualties. Morning walks are organised along the highway by the team leader and trusty ‘Crazy Baby Becky’ who bangs a tambourine along the hard shoulder as she leads 113 patients in varying states of erratic psychosis. There are people in nappies, people who need to be kept in cages, one guy plagued by specific demons telling him to kill: a rapper called ‘Mr Bone’ and four blonde gringa witches. But there’s also a sense of security and comfort. ‘This is the human junkyard,’ the pastor says. ‘We’re crazy here, but we have love’.

Amexica is a wonderful road movie of a book, told with a reporter’s exact eye, a novelist’s ability to create sense of place in a paragraph, and a mystic’s sense of wonder. There are passages here that go beyond reportage, beyond travelogue – that remind you of Hemingway. The checkpoints, vigilantes and hundred-foot barbed wire constitute America’s most visible border, but the borders between crime and commerce and life and death are more porous here than anywhere else on earth.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 18th, 2010.