Tom Russell On Tex-Mex Carnage - HeadCount



Don't miss "Where God and the Devil Wheel Like Vultures: Report from El Paso," an amazing essay by artist-musician Tom Russell in The Rumpus. Russell has spent much of his life in Texas border towns, and his writing documents a deterioration from the nostalgic film-noir evoked in movies like Orson Welles's Touch of Evil to the new deal, a time when thousands are murdered each year in Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande. "So what should America do," asks the Economist, comparing Mexico to Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Should we deploy troops to northern Mexico, employing an extensive counterinsurgency strategy to hunt down drug gangs and protect local populations, and send thousands of aid workers to establish jobs programmes and reduce corruption in the Mexican government?" Obviously not, is the answer. Because Mexico is right next door, it is less of an abstraction and more of a reality than those two countries halfway around the globe. And writing like Russell's should make us all the more eager to help it out:


2900 bodies in 20 months. Welcome to the frontier, where “God and the Devil wheel like vultures, and a loose fences separates the good man from the bad.” (Nicholas Shakespeare on Graham Greene.) We are walking the streets between doubt and clarity; savage reality and indifference. Shooting re-enactments and World War Three. This is El Paso-Juarez, an extreme western edge of Texas that no Texan east of Sierra Blanca would lay claim to. The wild, non-fictional Mexican West. Hollywood and a million dime novels never quite got it right. Sam Peckinpah wasn’t even close. El Paso-Juarez is the American frontier in every sense: the land or territory which forms the furthest extent of a country’s settled or inhabited regions. The outer limit. (Webster’s Unabridged.)

And now, September 4, 2009, as I was trying to put this essay to rest, the biggest shoot-out in the history of Juarez took place in a Juarez drug clinic. 17 people slaughtered. The carnage hit the front page of the New York Times and, even weirder, the front page of the El Paso Times: Juarez in Shock: Attack Considered City’s Worst Multiple Shooting. The New York Times coverage sounded as if it were lifted from a James Ellroy novel: a thick layer of blood covered the concrete floor…a chained dog had been shot…the smell of death hung in the air.” God and the Devil, wheeling like vultures.

And finally, it’s September 11, 2009, and while the world is remembering 9/11 and the twin towers going down, there’s a little item on page 9A of the El Paso Times: “It is not uncommon for U.S. citizens to be part of Mexican drug cartels because cartels have placed cells in more than 200 cities across the United States. According to the Department of Justice, Mexican cartels…pose the greatest organized-crime threat to the United States and it’s people.”

Incomprehensible? You have to understand the full contextual layout: cultural, geographic, historic. Then dim the lights and listen to the music: either Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” or Marty Robbin’s “El Paso,” or one of a thousand narco-corrido songs where the bad guy is the good guy, and behind every lyrical gravestone is buried a lost verse to “The Streets of Laredo.” This is gunfighter country.