This morning I woke to see news that New Mexico-based investigative journalist Charles Bowden had passed away.* A longtime researcher of Ciudad Juarez, Bowden focused on the overlapping an intertwined effects of globalization, free trade, and drug cartel-related violence. Deeply critical of NAFTA and the 1990s era economic relationship between Mexico and the U.S., Bowden also offered clear headed analysis of an impossibly complicated city.
A few years ago when I went to Ciudad Juarez for the first time I brought a copy of Bowden’s 1998 photo book Juarez: the laboratory of our future. Bowden was among the first researchers to delve into investigating the evolution of Ciudad Juarez at the outset of NAFTA. He introduced many readers to now common images of border fences, migrants crossing the Rio Grande on rafts and police investigators at homicide scenes. His prose is careful, analytical, thoughtful. He describes Juarez as “part of the Mexican gulag, the place for the people no one wants” but also writes “I’ve eaten in Juarez, drunk in Juarez, been happy in Juarez, and been sad in Juarez…I am not sightless. Juarez has a distinct quality. It is the city wherepeople may dream and f*** and drink and sing, but it is not the city where people hope.”
Deeply pessimistic about the economic development model being implemented in Juarez at the outset of the NAFTA era, Bowden did however provide clear and even-handed analysis of the city’s evolving (or devolving?) security dynamic. In 2010 after publishing Murder City Bowden told The New Yorker’s Meredith Blake that “If you read the newspaper accounts of violence in Juárez, they fail to convey the pain, the fear, and the ruin of the city. I wrote of murders, tortures, and rapes in a spare manner because a flat tone conveys agony better than a herd of adjectives.” Bowden skipped colorful language and focused on hard analysis. “There are five hundred to nine hundred street gangs now of armed, murderous, unschooled and unemployed young people… Nothing can immediately roll back the violence, because it is now part of the fabric of the city, a place where in two years twenty-five per cent of the houses have been abandoned, forty per cent of the business shuttered, at least a hundred thousand jobs lost, and where a hundred and four thousand people have fled,” he said.
Bowden passed away in his sleep at his New Mexico home. He was 69. Journalist and friend Terry Greene Sterling said “What I will always remember him for, beyond his vast talent as a writer, is his generosity with younger writers, writers coming up.” Another friend remembered, “He kept saying that he was proud of his ability to be a witness. He was very proud of the voices he gave to people who didn’t have a voice.” Ray Caroll, another long-time friend said, “He was a journalist’s journalist. The guy drilled deep into every subject matter. Whatever Chuck Bowden did, he did with all his heart.” I didn’t always agree with Bowden’s anti-NAFTA economic viewpoint but I always appreciated his writing. Bowden once said “The way I was trained up, reporters went toward the story, just as firemen rush toward the fire.” He will be missed.