A war about Nothing
Ed Vulliamy’s new book Amexica opens with a description of a headless corpse hanging from a bridge in Ciudad Juárez, on the Texas border. It is rush hour, with cars and buses driving by the dangling body. The scene portends of what’s to come in the following pages: a detailed description of the war between drug cartels and the authorities along the 2,100-mile border between the US and Mexico. Between December 2006 (when President Felipe Caldéron launched a major anti-cartel campaign) and the summer of 2010, over 24,000 people were murdered – many in atrocious ways, with their images posted on the Internet.
‘’What is remarkable about this war,’’ tells me Vulliamy, who writes for The Observer, ‘’is that it’s about nothing.’’ He describes the conflict, which is concentrated in a 50-mile wide border region, as ‘’post-political. Its ideology is materialism.’’ The smugglers measure their rewards in SUVs, the latest techno-toys, trendy labels, and hot girls.
Vulliamy believes in many ways that drug violence ‘’is a direct result of the deprivation and misery caused by the legal globalized economy.’’ The drug cartels are, however, prototypes and pioneers of globalization. Some have higher turnover rates than most multinational corporations. Mexican cartels are responsible for 90 percent of all drugs that enter the United States. The trade is worth $323 billion a year.
Vulliamy makes interesting comparisons between the Italian Mafia and the Mexican cartels. He says that Amexica adopted the Pax Mafiosa business model, in which Mafiosi do considerable business with corrupt politicians.
Also, in the same manner that Cosa Nostra lost power to Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta and Naples’ Camorra, the once-powerful Guadalajara cartel split into three smaller groups in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, international alliances have been forged, such as the one between the paramilitary Zeta cartel and ‘Ndrangheta. These syndicates have diversified their drug products for different markets. Vulliamy writes that the Mafiosi and drug smugglers share a nostalgic image of gangsters, whom they see as ‘’romantic bandits’’ rather than criminals.
Vulliamy worked mostly alone in Mexico, interviewing sources such as sicarios (executioners). I ask him about the dangers involved in this project. He said ‘’in Mexico, you are less likely to get killed than, say, in Iraq. But you are more likely to be tortured. Considering their torture methods, it is preferable to be killed.’’
Vulliamy, who was twice named International Correspondent of the Year, believes that embedding is ‘’bad journalism.’’ In 1991 he discovered the first Serbian concentration camp at Omarska, Bosnia. In March 2003 he was one of the first non-embedded reporters to cover the Iraqi war.
But Vulliamy calls himself ‘’an accidental war reporter.’’ In 1990 he says he was living ‘’la dolce vita’’ as the Rome correspondent for The Guardian when his editor gave him his first Bosnia assignment. Although his marriage failed due to his long absences, he is close to his two daughters. ‘’Look, I hate violence, and this is why I write about it. But I have to be motivated to go to a conflict zone, as I was in Bosnia and in Mexico.’’ He would never embed with the British Army in Afghanistan. The reason: he does not understand that war.
Amexica: War Along the Borderline, by Ed Vulliamy. The Bodley Head, London, 12.99 pounds.