UTEP professor’s new book looks at root causes of Juárez violence
More than a decade after the most violent years of Juárez’s drug wars, “international attention is not focused on Juárez anymore. Yet the drumbeat of thousands of people killed every year continues,” said UTEP anthropology Professor Howard Campbell.
Campbell’s latest book, “Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence and Abuse,” takes a look back at the root causes of the city’s suffering. In it, he argues for a more holistic explanation of the violence in Juárez — a concept he calls “synergistic violence.”
He also asks readers to complicate their view of victimhood, pointing to ways in which widespread violence and poverty can also cause victims to become victimizers. “Downtown Juárez” pays especially close attention to this dynamic in the lives of Juarense women, who are known the world over as victims of gendered violence.
Spurred by “a sense of outrage” at the continued violence, Campbell offers vivid descriptions of Juárez’s bar scenes and the people who struggle to make a living there, taking a deep dive into the lives of sex workers, drug dealers and hustlers.
El Paso Matters spoke to Campbell about the book, his “wandering research” methods and what El Pasoans can do to help combat violence in their sister city.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
El Paso Matters: Your books “Downtown Juárez” and “Drug War Zone” both take a close look at violence and poverty, involving research that has at times posed risks to your own safety. What has drawn you to these issues over the years?
Campbell: I have to go way, way back. I grew up in Idaho, in a very remote part of the United States, a very beautiful place. I spent a lot of time wandering around the mountains and so I had a certain risk-taking side to begin with. When I graduated from college, I was kind of a hippie. I went to Mexico, I traveled by bicycle down to the border and then hitchhiked and took trains and ended up in Mexico City. I was a penniless English teacher in Mexico City. And there I met a woman from Oaxaca. We got married, and I went to work in Oaxaca and southern Mexico. She was part of the Zapotec indigenous group there. And there’s, at that time, there was a very famous radical leftist group called COCEI that preceded the Zapatistas, which I ended up studying for about 20 years. This was a group opposed to the government, so I got used to situations of conflict, of violence, of danger.
Since I’ve been living in El Paso for 30 years, I’ve spent much of my time in Juárez. I didn’t initially go there because of violence or crime or any other things; I went to have a good time. I fell in love with the city. The reason I switched from research about Oaxaca to Juárez was because so many of my students and people I knew were involved in the drug business. So the reason I chose that topic was not some kind of personal affinity to it, but because it was ever-present here in this community, especially about 15 years ago. The drug thing just exploded in a way that was incredibly personal to me: next door neighbors were deeply involved, close friends, friends murdered in Juárez, people going to prison, students.
We have a mutual responsibility in the United States and in Mexico and Juárez and El Paso to fix the problems of violence in Juárez. And in Mexico generally, because we’re all complicit in this in one way or another. It’s not just rich people in the United States. It’s not just politicians, it’s not just the Border Patrol, or whatever, or people that created the war on drugs. But all of us in El Paso, to some degree live better because people in Juárez are poor. Thousands of people in El Paso have maids from Juárez or gardeners and yard people and people doing the work for them. That’s part of it. But also look at the fact that many of us here love Mexico and feel part of it.
El Paso Matters: What can El Pasoans do to improve the situation in Juárez?
Campbell: Thousands of us consume drugs. Thousands of El Pasoans traffic drugs. The Juárez cartel is actually the Juárez and El Paso cartel. So part of it is accepting our responsibility for the drug trade.
And then, of course, the sale of guns. So the United States is directly responsible for violence in Mexico and extreme violence. So what can we do as Americans? We can try to change our own political system that’s harming Mexico and we can try to change our own personal relationship to Mexico to be more equitable.
If we’re going to enjoy the benefits of Mexico, we need to also somehow push for a better situation. I mean, we really should be outraged. Juárez is the second or third most violent city in the world, we consider it our sister city, and maybe a third to half of El Pasoans have relatives there. Really, I think we accept this too easily as that’s just the way it is. But surely there’s a lot that we can do as people, as citizens, as part of organizations, to try to lessen these problems.
I don’t have any utopian idea that somehow we’re going to overcome all these problems. But I do feel that we have a moral and personal responsibility as citizens of El Paso and residents of Texas in the United States, to see that these are problems we have helped create.
The old way we used to understand the border was (as a place of) creative ferment, which the immigration crackdowns destroy. We need to get back to that: the creative blending hodgepodge of cultures, much more than what’s going on now.
El Paso Matters: You describe your research methodology as “anti-ethnography” and “wandering research.” Can you explain what that means, and how it’s different from other anthropological approaches?
Campbell: Sometimes anthropologists explain our methodology as “deep hanging out,” which is what I’ve been doing for 30 years in Juárez. If my methodology is any different from “deep hanging out” it’s that it involves a lot of serendipity. That is, before I even started writing, I spent about 10 or 15 years literally wandering the streets of Juárez, just exploring without any plan or purpose. I feel like there’s a way in which that nonscientific methodology actually is helpful for science because you get to know a lot of things that otherwise do not become apparent. Sometimes when your focus is too narrow and too scientific, too planned in advance, it kind of excludes the possibility for this mysterious or creative or unpredictable aspect. I’m encouraging random things to happen.
El Paso Matters: When you’re surrounded by so much trauma and danger as part of your research, how do you take care of yourself?
Campbell: I had this anthropological tendency to want to push it, the deep hanging out, farther and farther, which led to problems for me. Strangely enough, it was a woman that robbed me and threatened me with violence. It just happened to work out that way. I was locked into a room. She had a hammer and a sharp piece of metal and just said, “You’re gonna give me your money, and if not….” I had no choice. It was a pretty ugly situation. But once I was out of that, I kind of thought, “wow, you know, this is kind of exciting.” But then I was in Colombia and I almost got killed doing the same thing. And so then I decided, no more. I’m too old for this. It’s too risky. It’s not worth it.
But I think this took a toll on me in a sense that I was probably more angry and confrontational than I would be otherwise. Because I had to be tough to do this work. Some of the situations I worked in were pretty dangerous. But at the time, to be honest, I loved it. I’m not saying it was this fantasy of, you know, I’m gonna be a superhero. It was more like, in order to understand this I have to take some risks on my part. I’m not trying to glorify violence; I think it’s horrible. That’s what the book has to say: what’s going on?
El Paso Matters: What are some of the main points you make in the book?
Campbell: A lot of the research tends to be one dimensional. People blame the maquiladora industry. They blame the U.S. war on drugs. They blame Mexican government corruption or U.S. immigration policies that make it harder to cross. I’m saying all of these things are interconnected. I’m trying to take it above the personal level to the systemic level.
This is one problem I have with femicide literature. Obviously, we need to condemn all those killings. And there were systematic serial killings. But I think the bulk of the murders of women were as a result of these general problems that I’ve described, which men also face.
Certain literatures that describe the problems of women, it’s too black and white. It’s as if women are always victimized at every level by men, and that’s the fundamental problem. But one of the main arguments in the book is that people who are victimized become victimizers. They in turn oppress others just like themselves, which is the main cause of the daily homicide toll, which is petty drug dealers killing other petty drug dealers just like themselves. And in some cases, it’s women, because women do deal drugs, and they also sometimes engage in violence. Some women become criminals — I mean violent criminals. Women were victims of violence. But I also talk about women who victimize other women.
El Paso Matters: “Downtown Juárez” also references a lot of works of fiction.
Campbell: I’ve always been obsessed with Mexican literature and Mexican art. I read an awful lot of Mexican novels, and I was involved with a Oaxacan Zapotec artistic movement of painters, writers and so on. When I read Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives,” a beautiful book about starving artists and poets in Mexico City, I recognized exactly what he was talking about from my experience.
To some extent I’ve been influenced by the American Beatnik movement, which was like being attracted to not mainstream commercial middle-class culture, but going to the roots of poverty and hanging out in the worst bars and the situations of really disastrous living conditions. And so I felt like Bukowski actually applies very well to many of the bars I was writing about (in Juárez). But also Nelson Algren writing about Chicago in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s. And about immigrants, Eastern European immigrants living in Chicago who had very hard lives with a lot of alcoholism and drug addiction and violence. The United States has exactly the same history as what’s going on in Juárez. It still does in places like Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore.
El Paso Matters: How has your thinking about violence evolved over the years?
Campbell: I was really a true blue, fire-breathing, politically correct radical leftist when I worked in Oaxaca. And when I came here, my views started to shift a bit because the left won in Oaxaca, but sold out. I think sometimes you get these kind of true believer explanations from the left that aren’t helpful.
I feel like we need to avoid simplistic interpretations whether it’s from the left or the right. So yeah, I’ve become more conservative over time in my views, in part because all I want to see is the violence end and why I don’t care how it’s stopped.
El Paso Matters: What’s next for you?
Campbell: I guess I would like to channel my energies into something that would involve practical solutions to problems on the border, even if it’s not very academic. I’d like to go work for a homeless shelter or a migrant shelter or something. Because sometimes all this shouting about stuff or even writing a book about it doesn’t make much difference. And what really helps is just working with people and trying to make positive change, even if it’s minuscule.
Cover photo: A vendor runs through traffic on Avenida Juárez as a poster asks for the public’s help in locating missing men. Juárez’s historic downtown is its most touristic area, but is also known among Juarenses as an area of crime, prostitution and human trafficking. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)