DOWN BY THE RIVER

Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family

By Charles Bowden

Simon & Schuster. 417 pp. $27

We're in denial, says Charles Bowden. Americans can't seem to understand our illegal drug industry as anything other than a problem happening on the other side of town or across the border in Mexico. The real scope and impact of the drug business go unacknowledged, he writes in his latest montage of a book, and as a result "we are left with a history unwritten, one almost erased as soon as it happens to hit the page. This unwritten history takes place down by the river, on the fabled banks where two nations meet."

In Down By the River, Bowden fills us in on some of this history, presenting it not as a single story but as "strands weaving together to form a tapestry." By "tapestry," it seems, he doesn't mean an artwork hanging safely on a wall, but something more like one of the blankets with tiger images on them that, as he records in his book, have been found wrapped around murder victims in the border city of El Paso/Jua{acute}rez, the place at which many of his strands, the hundreds of short sections that make up his narrative, intersect. Chief among these strands are the tale of the 1995 murder of 27-year-old Lionel Bruno Jordan, a salesman and the brother of a high-ranking DEA agent, and an account of the rise of Amado Carillo, a Mexican drug cartel leader who died (or was reported to have died) in the wake of a botched liposuction in 1997.

Before continuing, let's get one thing straight: Charles Bowden knows more than you do. He has seen the dark side that you refuse to see, that the media don't cover. He has entered the black hole. "Here is the problem: once you enter this black hole and truly live in it and taste it, then you understand," he writes. "And this understanding does not matter at all. It becomes a curse and the curse never lifts." This book hews closer to straight reporting than some of Bowden's more meditative previous works, such as Blood Orchid and Blues for Cannibals, and so his portentous desert-Cassandra tone surfaces less often. But he still knows more than you do.

That said, much of what he knows makes for compelling reading. Bowden sought out Phil Jordan, head of the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), shortly after Jordan's younger brother, Bruno, was killed. Gradually, Bowden came to know the extended Jordan family, whose history and various brushes with the drug business he relates in considerable detail. Of the five Jordan siblings, Bruno seemed the most innocent, the least likely to fall victim to drug-related violence. So when he was shot by a 13-year-old Mexican boy in a senseless carjacking, Phil Jordan immediately suspected that one of his drug-world nemeses in Mexico was to blame. His ensuing efforts to investigate his brother's death met with stonewalling from the Mexican authorities and disapproval from his superiors.

Reconstructing Phil Jordan's career as a narcotics agent, Bowden marches us through the recent history of U.S. anti-drug enforcement, as seen from ground level. He divides the age of modern drug enforcement into two periods: one period of relative innocence, lasting until the 1985 murder of Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, a DEA agent who had been investigating links between the illegal drug trade and the Mexican government; and the years since, which have been marked by increases in the volume of drugs flowing into the United States from Mexico, in the wealth and power of drug cartel leaders and in the number of brutal murders apparently linked to the drug business. Enforcement is hobbled not only by Mexican politicians and police in bed with the cartels, but also by U.S. Customs agents who have been bribed, by a culture of secrecy and suspicion within the DEA and by U.S. officials who don't want drug politics to interfere with free trade and neighborly relations with Mexico.

Meanwhile, in recounting Amado Carillo's career as a Mexican narcotics tycoon, Bowden presents the flip side of the drug-trafficking equation, from the suppliers' point of view. He recounts how drug merchants fanned out across Mexico from the state of Sinaloa in the wake of a U.S.-abetted Mexican anti-drug operation in the 1970s; and how Mexico's economic crisis in the 1980s led its officials to agree (albeit tacitly) to lay off the drug cartels -- provided they kept their money in Mexican banks. Bowden also shows us how the U.S. crackdown on Colombian cartels led to an enormous increase in the quantities of drugs flowing through Mexico. Ultimately, men like Carillo have remained two steps ahead of the DEA. And what's more, Bowden argues, the U.S. agency's efforts to take down leading drug kingpins leave much of the underlying industry intact. After all, would the arrest of a CEO in the over-ground economy eliminate a legal business sector?

The book reminds us again and again of how violent a city Jua{acute}rez is. "In Jua{acute}rez . . . the world has been reduced to this: between 1993 and 2001, at least 2,800 people were either murdered or raped or kidnapped or simply vanished," Bowden writes. He came to know Jua{acute}rez by following around the city's crime photographers (whom he wrote about for Harper's some years back), and as with other subjects he takes up, he reduces the city to its darkest corners. Illuminating those corners is a valuable, difficult undertaking -- and yet one might wish for it to be accompanied by less melodrama. It is unfortunately not a singular phenomenon for 2,800 people to be murdered or raped in a nine-year span, in a city of between 1 and 2 million people (estimating the population is notoriously difficult because of the continual waves of immigrants from the country's interior). This is not the book to turn to for an in-depth portrait of Jua{acute}rez or of Mexico. Bowden weighs the narrative down with snapshots of Mexico in the 1990s; his retellings of the crimes of Raul Salinas (brother of former president Carlos Salinas) and of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Colosio will seem familiar to anyone who followed these stories at the time, while his impressionistic, true-crime style of rehashing them is unlikely to satisfy the person seeking an introduction to recent Mexican history.

Bowden may be after the big picture, but the small pieces -- the treks through dusty Jua{acute}rez colonias, the conversations with drug-enforcement veterans or the moments spent with Phil Jordan as his investigation eats away at him -- are the strength of Down by the River. *

Karen Olsson is a journalist based in Austin.

United States Border Patrol agents at the El Paso to Juarez border crossing