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Amexica: War Along the Borderline

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 October, 2010, 12:00am

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Amexica: War Along the Borderline
by Ed Vulliamy
Bodley Head HK$247

The saga opens with a horrific description that sets the mood.

'As dawn breaks over the vast desert, the body is hanging from a concrete overpass known as the Bridge of Dreams,' writes veteran reporter Ed Vulliamy.

'It has been there for two hours, decapitated and dangling by a rope tied around the armpits. The sun begins to throw its rays across the busy intersection, with its rush-hour traffic and former American school buses carrying workers to sweatshops. It is still there an hour later, this grotesque, headless thing - swaying, hands cuffed behind its back - in the cold early morning wind that kicks up dust and cuts through the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in the world.'

Fearlessly, Vulliamy embarks on a journey into the city's sick heart, drawing heavily on his experience. In 2009, after reporting from the border for years, he travelled the frontier from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico, exploring a grey area known as Amexica, which is neither truly the US nor Mexico.

His expose documents how the narco gangs work, appraising the smuggling of people and weapons, police corruption, middle-class flight and the celebrity culture that, disgustingly, fuels the violence.

'For all the concern, however laudable, with the lives ruined to make cheap clothes or an unethical cappuccino, few ever stop to ask how many lives just went up a supermodel's nose - the opposite, indeed: the same media that pontificates about ethical consumerism treats celebrity drug-taking as fodder for tittle-tattle gossip, laced with a giggly - only slightly disapproving - waggle of the forefinger.'

Quite. Amexica is laced with passages of equally searing sarcasm. But the alleged sublimity that the blurb on the sleeve notes points to is just not there in the text.

True, religion plays a cameo role in the shape of a quasi-Catholic cult called Sant?ssima Muerte (holiest death). True, Vulliamy tracks down some artists doing fascinating work that depicts the devastation from striking angles. Yes, the wretched sing and worship vociferously.

But evil appears to be fully in control. Forget the fact that Juarez has the world's highest murder rate: 120 in every 100,000, according to Nationmaster.com. The big story - the obscenity - is the way the killings are conducted.

Driven by a toxic mix of 'belligerent hyper-materialism' and sadism, narcos routinely torture men and women to death in the nastiest manner imaginable. The grisly sex murders that pepper the pages make unnerving reading.

So too does the sense of moral decay and collapse. Tijuana-based forensic autopsy team member Dr Hiram Munoz captures the narcos' vileness crisply. First, he describes them as 'drama queens' then shifts up a gear. 'They think what they do makes them powerful, masters of the universe. But they're not. Ultimately, what they do is pathetic. We have to remember that. They keep saying they're poor people - well, they're poor in culture, that's what they are. They have no culture.''

Vulliamy gets the story of them and their victims with aplomb. Previously responsible for a book reflecting his 1992-1993 coverage of the Bosnian war, Seasons in Hell, Vulliamy has penned another non-fiction classic that will cement his reputation for keen observation and nerves of steel.