Book Review – To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War
Here’s a review I wrote recently for Upside Down World.
John Gibler’s new book To Die in Mexico opens with a warning: “You may want to look away.” It is true that the contents are not exactly pleasant, in fact, Gibler’s tales from Mexico will horrify, over and over again.
But To Die in Mexico brings to the table more than just nota roja, a term used to describe sensationalist coverage of violence that dominates Mexico’s newsstands.
Gibler avoids the standard fare and serves up an accessible, multi-faceted analysis of the drug war, complemented by compelling dispatches from journalists and activists based in places like Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state and home of Mexico’s most powerful cartel; Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state’s most notorious city; and Reynosa, the biggest border city in Tamaulipas state, where journalism was declared “dead” last year.
Written in a casual, flowing style, To Die in Mexico opens with unconventional exploration of prohibition, the drug trade and the drug war. Leaning on the excellent work of innovative thinkers like Howard Campbell, author of Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez, and cocaine historian Paul Gootenburg, Gibler weaves a fluid understanding of the complex flows connecting illicit commodities, borders, the US prison system, the Mexican army, politicians on both sides of the border, militarization, and repression.
And then, the real storytelling begins. In a newsroom nicknamed “the bunker,” we meet the team behind Culiacán’s Primera Hora, where journalists open up about the limits on what they can write, and we are taken along with the nota roja photographer for a behind the scenes look at shooting bloody murder scenes. From the desk of Riodoce, an investigative Sinaloa weekly, we’re told that “the narcos control the newsroom,” and exposed to the ins and outs of how fear and terror intermingle with self-censorship and journalism.
Later, Gibler narrates the dramatic story of a journalist named Rafael, who was working in Reynosa when he was kidnapped, beaten, and had his head covered in a hood before being miraculously released. Rafael was one of the lucky ones. Sixty-eight journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, and fifteen more have been disappeared since 2006. His extraordinary tale of survival reveals much about the climate of fear that permeates one of Mexico’s least understood regions.
Off the news beat, we’re invited to enter the homes of activists, into a jail, to workplaces, bars and marches to meet survivors as well as friends and families of the victims of violence. Naming the dead is a key theme in To Die in Mexico.
“Anonymous death needs silence. Names are thus dissolved. Facts vanquished. Times and locations obscured. Who was she? No one says a thing. Why did they kill him? Not a word,” writes Gibler, whose prose shifts easily between hard edged journalism, self conscious note-taking and something closer to poetry.
“The stories and the voices of those who rebel against silence and anonymous death are at the heart of this book,” writes Gibler. Sometimes those voices reflect utter hopelessness, other times despair, yet others struggle in the face of war.