SWJ El Centro Book Review – Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence & Abuse
Howard Campbell, Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence & Abuse. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. [ISBN: 978-1-4773-2389-2, Hardcover, 245 pages]
The Mexican drug war has produced unprecedented violence. Howard Campbell uses ethnographic descriptions of the places in which violence is widespread in downtown Ciudad Juárez to provide a complex account of violence in Juárez. Campbell seeks to explain how the circumstances of the US-Mexico border have normalized and naturalized particular types of violent and abusive behavior. Overall, the book examines the conditions that lead to violence in central Juárez. Howard Campbell is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is the author of several books, including Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez. Through fieldwork in the US-Mexico border, especially in downtown Juárez, over thirty years, the author constructs a detailed and personal account of how violence is produced in Juarez specifically and Mexico as a whole.
The Structure of the Inquiry
This book contains 17 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion, notes, and an index section. The chapters are divided into five main sections. Chapter 1 discusses the author's synthetic explanation for the causes of violence in Juárez and the fieldwork methodology used to obtain the data for this study. Chapters 2-5 provide descriptions and analyses of the historical and contemporary settings of the author's fieldwork. Chapters 6-12 focus on the streets, downtown bar scene, vice rackets, especially prostitution and drug dealing, that concentrate there. Chapters 13-16 focuses on the lives of human smugglers, drug traffickers, drug dealers, and others who make a living there. Chapter 17 focuses on a downtown sex worker whose life experiences reflect many of this book's main themes.
Chapter 1, Synergistic Violence and the Normalization of Abuse in a Border Context, formulates an alternative explanation to the standard narratives about Juárez crime and violence formed from long-term ethnographic observations, interviews, and exploration in some of Juárez darkest corners. The chapter details a model of violence called "synergistic violence" that is the aggregation of two or more disease clusters, each of which worsens the other(s). The author applies this concept to explain quotidian violence of "epidemic" proportion, as in Juárez and argues that a concentration of interlocking adverse circumstances must occur before violence reaches its highest levels. In the case of Juárez, the oppressive political economy, rampant injustice, and extreme social inequality combine to produce normalized on-the-ground violence.
Chapter 2, The Bridge: Concentrations of power, Economic Exchange, and Transnational Humanity, describes the border crossing between El Paso and Juárez and those who use the border. The chapter notes how pedestrians' constant movement across the border serves as the perfect cover for those engaged in the contraband trade. The bridge itself that connects Juárez and El Paso has become an informal workplace for hundreds of Juarences. Campbell notes how the environment on the bridge epitomizes the multiple forms of state oppression, the tight overlap of the licit and illicit and of official authority, and the ongoing "normalization" of a way of life that produces so much suffering.
Chapter 3, The Historical Roots of Violence, Crime, and Abuse in Downtown Juárez and Colonia Bellavista), focuses on history to explain how downtown Juárez became a vibrant cosmopolitan “Interzone” that combines the commonplace and every day with a complex underworld that seethes with violence and abuse. The chapter traces how downtown Juárez was shaped by American tourism. It also outlines the rise of La Nacha, the heroin queen in Juárez, and how her empire would lead to the spread of addiction and prostitution in the downtown neighborhoods. Authorities cracked down and applied a curfew to limit hours of operation and imposed an "urban renewal" project that served to destroy one-third of the neighborhood. In Chapter 4, Colonia Bellavista Today, revisits the area and recounts the violent takeover of the famous Hotel Verde by the Aztecas gang. It describes how the police protect organized criminal groups and even common criminals in exchange for pay-offs. Chapter 45, Avenida Juárez today, uses ethnographic research to provide insight into contemporary life on the main thoroughfare of Juárez.
Chapter 6, Prostitution and Sex Workers in the Downtown Street Scene, examines the prostitution scene in downtown Juárez. Campbell points out that increasingly restrictive immigration policies restrict the possibilities of poor women to find a better life across the border. The issues associated with the border combined with the viciousness of the Juárez police and the deeply rooted culture of Machismo in families and society further multiply the suffering of sex workers in an intersectional, multidimensional way. The chapter further details the dangers of prostitution in Juárez as well as the ties to organized crime. Chapter 7, Contemporary Gay Pick-Up Scenes and Danger in Downtown Juárez, expands the discussion to the gay commercial sex scene in Juárez. It is structured by the homophobia of Mexican society, which has resulted in over fifty murders of gay men in Juárez as of late September 2019.
Chapter 8, Border Bar Life: The General Scene and Ambience, provides a general overview of the bar scene and illicit drug and sex economy. The poor who lack education and opportunities for a better life are easily drawn into the informal world of prostitution and dope dealing and thus become the targets of the brutal and corrupt police, drug cartels, and street gangs. Chapter 9, A Place without Limits: Inebriation and Dehumanization at The Club, focuses on a bar called The Club and describes the normalization of dehumanization and details the payoffs made to municipal police to remain open and allow for drugs and sex to flow with virtually no restrictions. In Chapter 10, Conviviality, Drug Deals, Sexual Abuse, and a Juárez-Based Philosophy of Masculine Nihilism, Campbell describes how some sex workers sell out their underage children for sex work and, in some cases, produced and sold "kiddie porn."
Chapter 11, Bars as Sites and Languid Staging Areas for Petty Crimes: Hanging Out in the 69 Lounge, Waiting for Something to Happen, and Chapter 12, Downtown Bars as Locations of Both Pleasure and Victimization: Sex, Drugs, and Extortion at El Antro describe the daily vice scene and its interaction with petty crime and violence by describing the complicated reciprocal relationship between victims and their oppressors, Chapter 13, Bars and Criminality: human Smugglers and Cross-Border Drug Smugglers in Central Juárez, focuses on human and drug smugglers.
Chapter 14, Everyday Drug Dealers in Downtown Juárez, seeks to demystify the image of drug dealers in Juárez. Campbell describes how the typical image of an ignorant, Mexican male drug dealer is false. The author also explores how some of these dealers are American, and several are well-educated individuals looking for quick cash or attracted to the world of the illicit for personal reasons such as deportation. The author also notes the pivotal roles women play in the downtown drug trade and, in some cases, even act as enforcers. While Chapter 15, Human Perseverance amidst Recurring "Drug Wars", looks at how Juárez residents find innovative ways to transcend disorder and lawlessness instead of falling prey to cynicism and despair. Chapter 16, The Naturalization of "Drug Violence": Hit Men and Drug Killings, focuses on the process by which violence gradually becomes understood and internalized, if not accepted, as an inevitable (natural) element of life in the city. It traces the paths of young sicarios (assassins) and shows how becoming a hitman over time began to be seen as just another job.
The final chapter, Chapter 17, Paloma Makes a Life in the Downtown Bars: Survival amidst Crime, Violence, Drugs, and Sexual Abuse, shares the story of a woman called Paloma whose life and experiences epitomize the synergistic factors that lead to the "normalization" of violence in people's lives. She would seek work at a maquiladora before eventually becoming a sex worker, where she was mistreated by men and women involved in the downtown rackets as well as the police force tasked with protecting her.
Conclusion: Synergistic violence and the Cycle of Victimization on the Border
Downtown Juárez relies on a thirty-year ethnographic study that can look closer to the ground and analyze how and where criminogenic processes are enacted and play out. The author's writing style transports us to the detailed accounts and experiences he went through in Juárez and brings light to those who have been pushed to the shadows. The numerous accounts presented in the book provide the reader with a clear sense of what is going on in the streets of Juárez from the point of view of those who live and die in Juárez.
In his conclusion, Campbell notes that the political economy of synergistic factors in Juárez has normalized cruelty, violence, and "evil." The book illustrates how victimization becomes a socially naturalized and predictable process in Juárez. Finally, the author uses Hannah Arendt's notion of ordinary people becoming both the executors and the victims during the worst violence in an oppressive setting to explain the complexities of violence and victimization in Juárez. The author notes how the most common form of violence in the ongoing drug war in Juárez today is the murder of low-level drug dealers by other low-level dealers and gangsters. By looking at the detailed accounts of victims and victimizers, Campbell can complicate the line between victimizer and victim and illustrate how in many cases, the victims of violence became the victimizers for someone else. This book is a valuable contribution to the literature as it provides scholars, social workers, and law enforcement officials with a complex understanding of violence in Juárez and the processes of naturalization of violence that continue to perpetuate violence in Mexico.
 Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
 See Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the banality of evil in Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.