Dawn Marie Paley

Book Review – To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War

Posted in Mexico, Uncategorized by dawn on 31/07/2011

Here’s a review I wrote recently for Upside Down World.

To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War, John Gibler, City Lights Books, 2011. 218 pages.

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.

Regardless of how closely readers are following what’s going on south of the US border, this book is a worthwhile introduction. It shatters the silence that has become an essential part of the escalating drug war.
“This is what you cannot say: death is a part of the overhead, a business expense in the multibillion-dollar transnational illegal industry; the Mexican army and federal police are on the take, waging a war of extermination against suspected drug dealers and traffickers aligned with organizations that the federal government considers unruly or threatening, principally the Beltrán-Leyva gang and the Zetas,” writes Gibler in the introduction.

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.

Drawing upon interviews from various parts of Mexico, an eclectic reading list, and an array of YouTube videos, To Die in Mexico is a must read for anyone looking for a clear headed overview of Mexico today. No matter how gruesome it may appear, let it be clear: looking away is not an option.

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