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More than 38,000 people have been killed in the last 3 years in what Ed Vulliamy argues is an unacknowledged war, on the long border (2,100 miles) between Mexico and the United States. The war is between drug trafficking gangs over control of the lucrative drugs trade from Mexico to the US. In this compelling and disturbing work of reportage Vulliamy travels through the borderlands meeting some of the people affected.
Amexica is organised in chapters travelling eastward along the border from Tijuana, Mexico, south of San Diego, California, to Matomoros, near Brownsville, Texas. A map shows the route and the cities and towns referred to in the book, and reveals how many Mexican border cities have a US counterpart just across the border - in fact, many people regularly travel across to work. Looking at the map really emphasised for me how interconnected life, death and economics on both sides of the border are.
Much of the book is taken up with describing the level of violence and the frightening impact it has on the people in the region. As an experienced reporter he is a gifted storyteller, and he also finds interviewees who are eager to talk about their lives and opinions (despite high personal risk for some in doing so). These chapters are full of personal stories from drug rehab clinics, people who have lost relatives and loved ones. He also meets workers trying to help addicts, prosecutors trying to confront and stem the scale of the problem and politicians.
Perhaps the most chilling chapter, Urban Frankenstein is about Ciudad Juarez, considered the most dangerous city in the Americas and maybe in the world. It is dominated by the narco traficantes (drug traffickers), by maquiladoras, factories making cheap goods primarily intended for US markets, and people hoping to migrate across the border. All these are inextricably intertwined and cannot be separated. A key argument advanced by the author is that Juarez shows very clearly the effects of rampant capitalism and deregulated free trade, and very grim it is too. Vulliamy is very critical of US foreign, trade and immigration policies, and their impact on the people of Mexico.
Another part of the book which stood out for me was Vulliamy's encounter with a group of Mexican truckers. They drive long distances under intense pressure, using various drugs and pills to keep going. US regulations prevent the truckers from continuing to drive across the border. One of them acknowledges that if he were a US trucker, and a member of the Teamsters trade union, he wouldn't want this bunch of Mexican drivers around either, with no union organisation and with very tough, dangerous working conditions and practices.
Vulliamy also highlights an American contribution to the violence of the drugs trade, other than being the primary customers for drugs. Many of the gun shops in US border states sell a significant proportion of their guns to members of Mexican drugs gangs.
This book is very readable but sometimes the content is quite grim. There are brave people trying to organise to improve things for the better, though. The official trade union is very bound up with the government, and is unable and probably unwilling to help workers in the maquiladoras. An organisation called the CFO was formed in 1979 to offer advice and support regarding workers' rights, and to resist the bosses' endless wage cuts and productivity drives. Not surprisingly, employers haven't welcomed this, and CFO activists have faced difficulties keeping their jobs and getting back to work, but I was impressed by the courage and spirit they showed in this book.
The first edition of this book, published in 2010, was based on material collected during trips in 2008 and 2009, and in a foreword and afterword in the new paperback edition (the edition reviewed here), Vulliamy outlines a number of recent developments and changes, also speculating on what may happen in the 2012 elections.
There are a few pages of colour photographs, showing migrants setting off to walk across the border, children foraging for anything potentially useful at the scene of a massacre, some of the people caught up in the war. There are several pages of endnotes, an index and a bibliographical notes with several suggestions for further reading, which I will follow up.
Amexica is a compassionate, intense and political look at this forgotten war, well worth reading.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
The RRP of this book in paperback is £8.99; Amazon sells it for £5.49. There is a Kindle edition for £5.22 - I'm not sure whether this is based on the hardback or the more up to date paperback edition, but this would probably be clear from the free sample.