Charles Bowden, a Southwestern writer who composed probing, poetic accounts of the social effects of poverty, the drug trade and rampant killings along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, died Aug. 30 in Las Cruces, N.M. He was 69.
His partner, Molly Molloy, said she found him unresponsive at their home. She did not know the exact cause of death, and results of an autopsy were not complete.
Based for most of his career in Tucson, Mr. Bowden (pronounced BOH-den) led a peripatetic life before being drawn to writing in his 30s. He published more than 20 books, which ranged from lyrical accounts of the desert landscape to hard-edged investigations of political corruption, Mexican drug cartels and professional assassins.
Mr. Bowden focused much of his attention on Juarez, Mexico, a city across the Rio Grande from El Paso. He cultivated sources among the police and in the drug trade, often at great risk, while compiling dramatic tales that explored the ways in which the narcotics industry was subverting the civic life of Mexico.
“There are some things that if learned change a person forever,” Mr. Bowden wrote in perhaps his most powerful book, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields” (2010). “You cannot know of the slaughter running along the border and remain the same person. You cannot know of the hopeless poverty of Mexicans who are fully employed in U.S. factories and remain the same person. And you cannot listen to a [hired killer] — who functioned for years as a state policeman — tell of kidnappings, tortures, and murders and remain the same person.”
Mr. Bowden was often regarded as a cult writer, something of a charismatic maverick who was extravagantly admired by many, unknown to most. He wrote in an impressionistic, first-person style that evoked comparisons to Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, the New Journalists of the 1960s and writers of the Beat generation.
Critic David Rieff, reviewing Mr. Bowden’s 1989 book “Red Line” in the Los Angeles Times, described his writing as “an original synthesis of Peter Matthiessen and William Burroughs.”
Novelist Ron Hansen, writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1991, called Mr. Bowden “a thrillingly good writer whose grandness of vision is only heightened by the bleak originality of his voice.”
The older he got, the more chances Mr. Bowden seemed to take as a reporter and as a prose stylist. His gritty books about the borderlands, such as “Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future” (1998), “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family” (2002) and “Murder City,” were compelling and personal, even without a clear narrative framework. Tension and a dark sense of terror emerge through the accretion of facts and from Mr. Bowden’s observations and sensibility.
“When I cross from El Paso to Juarez in January,” he wrote in “Murder City,” “the river is dry. Nine thousand jobs have vanished in the past few months as the economy sinks. It is thirty-three degrees and very still. Air presses down like Jell-O and has a gunmetal blue cast from the wood fires of the poor.”
Mr. Bowden often waded into a murky underworld, where violence, corruption and amorality were the norm. Drug Enforcement Administration authorities warned him that drug lords had put out contracts on his life. For a time, he had bodyguards and kept a gun in every room of his house.
He described himself as “a coward” who “would rather write about a bird or a tree,” but he knew that the victims of the drug wars had no other voice.
“The way I was trained up,” he told the Arizona Republic newspaper in 2010, “reporters went toward the story, just as firemen rush toward the fire. It is a duty.”
For “Murder City” and “El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin” (2011), Mr. Bowden spent hours interviewing a hired killer whose official job was as a Mexican police commander.
“We are both trying to return to some person we imagine that we once were, the person before the killings, before the tortures, before the fear,” Mr. Bowden wrote in “Murder City” of his encounters with the assassin.
“He wants to live without the power of life and death and wonders if he can endure being with the money. I want . . . to be in a world where I do not know of sicarios, where I do not think of fresh corpses decorating the calles. We have followed the different paths and wound up in the same plaza, and now we sit and talk and wonder how we will ever get home.”
Charles Clyde Bowden was born July 20, 1945, in Joliet, Ill., and grew up in Chicago before moving to Tucson with his family when he was 12.
He graduated from the University of Arizona in less than three years in the 1960s and received a master’s degree in American intellectual history from the University of Wisconsin. He spent the late 1960s in California, working in a variety of jobs, before teaching for a short time at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Bowden settled in Tucson, determined to live in the desert and write nonfiction chronicles of his times. He had $14 and no experience in journalism when he talked his way into a job with the now-defunct Tucson Citizen newspaper in 1981. He wrote about sex-abuse crimes and topics that few other reporters wanted to touch and, in 1984, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
He later co-founded a short-lived magazine in Tucson, where he reported on the fraudulent financial dealings of Charles H. Keating Jr., who went to prison after the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s and 1990s.
For the past 25 years, Mr. Bowden wrote books and contributed to such magazines as Mother Jones, Harper’s and Esquire.
In Arizona, he befriended the gadfly environmental author and activist Edward Abbey and became a well-known figure in his own right, a 6-foot-4 “morph of Neil Young and Robert Mitchum,” in the words of the Phoenix New Times weekly. Mr. Bowden was long considered a hard drinker and heavy smoker who nevertheless rose most days at 3 a.m. to work at his writing desk.
His marriages to Zada Edgar Soto and Kathy Dannreuther ended in divorce.
Survivors include his partner of more than five years, Molly Molloy of Las Cruces; a son from another relationship; a brother; and a sister.
Mr. Bowden, who had lived in Las Cruces since 2009, wrote the text of several books of nature photography. After his grueling reporting expeditions, he found solace in bird-watching and long walks in the desert.
“I have spent my life in cities and am intoxicated by the fierceness of such places,” he wrote in his 1989 book “Mezcal.” “And I have always felt something missing that led me back to empty, wild places. I have been told that this is a romantic flaw in my character and in the character of my countrymen. I disagree.
“I think this is our character.”