By Mark Lusk
Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, has spent three decades doing field research in the sprawling border city of Juárez, Mexico. No social scientist has a closer and more direct understanding of that apocalyptic urban space and its complex web of violence, exploitation, and victimization. His latest book is “Downtown Juárez: Underworld of Violence and Abuse.”
Professor Campbell chooses not to simplify the intricacies of inner-city life in a border town by opting for orthodox models such as structural violence, but instead views the full complexity of the city’s underworld through a lens that accounts for multiple factors that lead to the normalization of abuse and degradation. Using a street anthropology of “purposeful wandering,” he encounters his informants on their terms in their immediate lived environment where they face limited options and brutal exploitation.
Invoking Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi, among others, he sees the junkies, prostitutes, cops, gang members, hitmen, bartenders, beggars, dealers, and barflies as both victims and victimizers caught in a banal circle of violence and evil with no way out.
Written in accessible prose, yet deeply informed by scholarship and theory, the book flows with a literary style akin to the fluency of noted anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss (“Tristes Tropiques”) and Napoleon Chagnon (“Yanomamö: The Fierce People”).
It is the opposite of dry and tedious. Indeed, the descriptions of life on the streets jump off the page in vivid imagery.
A strength of the work is the way the author captures life in the central district and Colonia Bellavista through acutely sharp observation of unfolding scenes in hotels, clubs, cantinas, parks and alleys. His interviews with all manner of city dwellers do not romanticize their lives, but document the extraordinarily awfulness and misery that many residents encounter in a border region where the standard social norms and rules are loosened or do not apply. Many of the scenes he describes are sordid and appalling as the violence and victimization erodes people to the level where a normlessness prevails in which abuse and violence is normal and expected.
This is a masterpiece of urban anthropology and one of the most significant studies of life in Ciudad Juárez in recent memory. It is a formidable work of scholarship that resonates far beyond academe.
Mark Lusk is professor emeritus of social work at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Cover photo: Posters of missing and murdered girls cover the walls of Club Verde in downtown Juárez. Authorities closed the nightclub-hotel in 2011 after two federal police were killed there and it was identified as a human-trafficking hub where at least 11 girls and young women were held and murdered. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)