Charles Bowden has died, but his voice is louder than ever

As one of the original authentic journalists, he trailblazed a path for others to follow

When I heard that he had passed, my eyes welled with tears. I’m of stoic Irish stock, so I don’t shed tears easily, but the news of Charles Bowden’s death (1945-2014) was not an easy thing to bear. He had been a mentor and a friend to me for a decade, and his leaving hurts.

He died peacefully, in his bed at his home in Las Cruces, N.M., after complaining of persistent flu-like symptoms that started in early August, according to his long-time companion and colleague Molly Molloy, a Latin American researcher, writer and librarian at New Mexico State University. A recent EKG also showed he had an irregular heartbeat, and he had an appointment scheduled with a cardiologist, she said.

But he never made that appointment. Molly found him at 5:15 p.m. after returning from work this past Saturday, Aug. 30, his life energy gone from his body.

“He was in bed and seemed sleeping, but I could not wake him.,” Molloy recounted in an email sent on Sunday informing Chuck’s friends and colleagues of his death. “I called 911 and did CPR until the police got here. There was nothing we could do.”

But in my mind and heart, Chuck can’t die, not in the eternal world of ideas. He accomplished what every writer dreams of, even if they are too humble, as he was in this sense, to admit it. His words, his reporting, his truth-telling, lives on, rippling through time on the pages of history. His name belongs among the ranks of the great American writers, certainly those yet to be christened in the 21st Century.

Bowden, 69 at the time of his death, was the author of dozens of books and essays, among them seminal works focused on the drug war, such as “Down by the River,” as well as more experimental projects like the graphic nonfiction “Dreamland: The Way out of Juarez.” To those who knew him, he was a genuine human being, who was loyal to those he trusted and open-hearted to those who demonstrated the same inclination.

For me, that meant he was there when I walked away from my mainstream editor’s job after 20 years when changes in management threatened my integrity. Chuck offered his services as a reference and previously wrote a letter of recommendation when I applied for a journalism fellowship. And he was a supporter of the Narco News project, and a regular reader who behind the scenes helped to inform a number of the stories published by the online newspaper about the drug war. He didn’t have to do that. He was extremely busy with his own projects, and there was no money in it for him. But that’s just the way Chuck was when he believed in something, or someone.

Chuck wielded a fierce weapon against the enemies of justice: The unflinching ability to tell the truth in unadorned, piercing prose. He used words like paint mixed on a master’s brush and no scene was beyond his reach. That talent, coupled with his keen reporting sense, made him a force to be reckoned with in the halls of power and a voice that commanded respect among his journalistic colleagues.

My first introduction to Chuck is marked with irony. I interviewed him by phone 10 years ago in reporting a story about the death of another journalism Bigfoot, Gary Webb (1953-2004). Chuck wrote a story for Esquire magazine in 1998 that supported the findings of Webb’s 1996 San Jose Mercury News exposé on the CIA/Nicaraguan Contra crack-cocaine connection. Chuck was one of the few journalists in Gary’s corner when he was assaulted by a media smear campaign in the wake of his investigative series — a feeding frenzy that ultimately led to Webb being blackballed by the mainstream media and arguably was a contributing factor in his decision to exit this world.

“In a daily newspaper sense, Gary was the best investigative reporter in the country," Bowden said during our phone interview at the time. "And he was unemployable.

"That tells me all I need to know about this business I’m in. You can get a paycheck every two weeks, as long as you don’t draw blood."

Gary Webb’s story will be told in the major motion picture, Killing the Messenger, played by Jeremy Renner, coming to theaters this October.

Chuck and I stayed in contact ever since that interview for the story on Webb via frequent email conversations centered on journalism and the drug war. Chuck would occasionally send me links to news articles, story leads or source contacts, saying I should “save them for my files.” I would return the favor when I could, but his reservoir was far deeper than mine. The best I can do now is to continue to follow the paths he pointed out to me.

Unfortunately, like Webb — a supporter of Narco News who also was a mentor to me — I never got the chance to meet Chuck in person, despite several attempts. Our schedules just didn’t line up when I was in his neck of the woods along the border. He was often on the move, chasing the story.

I will miss Chuck greatly. He’s not replaceable in my world, or the world at large. And I will always owe a great debt to him for what he taught me about journalism and life. In that sense, the best tribute I can make to Chuck is to let him speak one more time to you, to tell his truth.

Following are some excerpts from the many emails Chuck has sent me over the past 10 years. For those who know his work, you’ll recognize many of the themes, but his words are still to be cherished and lessons learned from them.

There are many things I can’t share now, because those stories are yet to be finished. Like I said, Chuck lives on in that sense and others.

But for now, take in what can be savored. Chuck would expect nothing less.

The Drug War

One last bit of worthless advice from me: Things in Mexico … make more sense if you realize no one can wear a white hat and survive.

***

Frankly I wish Mrs. Clinton and her fucking squeeze had inhaled. I suppose my anger comes from thirty thousand new corpses in Mexico but listening to this policy jargon bullshit is more than I can or will tolerate. Our policies are a death machine in Mexico, period.

***

Every time in a speech I explain that border security is a system for recruiting small town Americans and corrupting them by placing them in a hopeless situation where tidal waves of money wash over their lives, I am met with blank faces.

***

One of the realities of Mexico is that there a very few facts one can believe, except maybe one’s own death. Juarez now is well past seven hundred dead on the year [2008], and the pace is not slackening. 146 murdered in July, and a torrent of death so far this August….

***

You are right about shifting cards, etc., in the drug world. The Federation thing is an invention of DEA. We have a need for our enemies to be like us and so we create charts on the border….

In the case of Mexico, the structure is affinity groups constantly joining on deals and then shifting into other arrangements. … Actually, the structure DEA imagines was never that solid, but since the death of [“Juarez Cartel” leader] Amado Carrillo Fuentes, it has been a lot looser, just as the destruction of the Cali and Medellin cartels in Colombia led to sowing dragon's teeth as many smaller outfits were able then to emerge.

… At any given moment, things happen based on internal shifts that are not readily apparent. The House of Death I think is best seen as a window into a criminal culture where cops, lawyers and members of the Juarez Cartel come into view and then vanish, but at any given moment in the house it is not clear whose deal is going down and for what reason. … So I guess I'm saying here is what I learned from listening to DEA: The organization of life in the drug world is never as clean and tidy as DEA thinks, and the people in the drug world are never as dumb as DEA imagines. I think the largest failure of DEA is racism — they could not imagine any ignorant brown guy ever being as sharp as Amado Carrillo. And this weakness persists to this day. When I was hanging around EPIC [the El Paso Intelligence Center] and looking at their giant computer, I told [then-DEA supervisory agent] Phil Jordan, "You know, none of this can see a thirteen-year-old boy crossing a K-Mart parking lot with a gun."

***

I think I must smell the roses or something before I go toxic on my government. I was charmed to hear Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton use the word insurgency today in discussing Mexico. This is like lighting a match in a powder room. I can hear the boys in the Pentagon planning their new playground for a war game.

***

Mexican history is corruption (see Paul J. Vanderwoods work, especially “Disorder and Progress”) and US history is intervention in Mexico. What matters now I think is we are at a boiling point in Mexico. NAFTA failed. Shipping surplus humans to the US has hit a wall. And drugs keep creating and owning more of the infrastructure of the economy and of the state. Last weekend, I watched La Ley de Herodes on YouTube. It’s there in thirteen parts with subtitles. It was a massive hit in Mexico in ’99, and I think captures the mindset that is still Mexico.

***

Bill, I am not sure. I have a hunch there is no machine at the moment but many competing machines. As for price, well, the drug flow to the US by all reports (see yet one more story in the LA Times this morning) has not been impeded, nor is production under control. In short, no real cartel function is apparent. But I agree it is a new day in Mexico. It was about three years ago that [Mexican photographer] Julian Cardona told me what had changed: There was no one to call and there always had been. And he did not mean the mayor. I think everyone should back off from explaining the violence and first look at a few missing facts. We don’t know who is dying. We don’t know how many are dying. And we will never know because it is clear that Mexican agencies putting out the numbers keep no records, zero. What we do know is that each day the federal government controls less of the country.

***

I am weary of people confusing the income flow of a drug organization with the idea that it is organized like a US corporation. It is a kind of set of affinity cells …  and his point about the poor (meaning independents rushing in to make money) I think is in part behind the rise in US home invasions and the violence in Juarez (and also the forbidden subject: the massive increase in Mexican consumption of drugs). The independents lack the reputation and muscle to insure payment and so must make a show of force. Of course, home invasions will always be part of the business since you cannot go to court for recovery.

***

Thanks for the kind words about “Down by the River,” but we both know it describes a kind of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Mexico, one that now looks safe and sound compared to the present…. The very idea that the Mexican Army was a clean element thrust into the drug war was foolish, but I think now in a bid to centralize power and establish his dominance [Mexican President] Felipe Calderon has functionally decentralized power. The army becomes a set of regional gangs, the cartels continue to splinter (a fact that began with Carrillo's death in July 1997) and violence grows.

But I have a hunch there no longer is an army in the old sense. It was always run as a set of baronies, but now I think the barons are rising. And also the units under their command are doing more and more freelancing.

***

I think it is in “Siren's of Titan” [a Kurt Vonnegut novel] that much of human history results from a broken spaceship sending messages home and using the Earth as blank paper — think Great Wall of China, for example. ...Sometimes, late at night, I think I am trying to understand a charade. Ah, well, the sun is out. And the day promises to get warm.

Ciudad Juarez

The email-conversation excerpts in this section took place, for the most part, around 2007 and 2008, just as the killings in Juarez were ramping up, the Mexican military then sent in, and as the US mainstream media was suddenly discovering the city.

You have wonder about a cartel war that does not kill cartel people, or about a war between the army and the cartel in which neither cartel people or army people die. If you go over the dead this year in Juarez, they are almost all nobodies. Clearly this is a war for drugs. ...

***

I understand the problem and I share it, and I think it is this: What we are seeing in Juarez does not fit our old models (for one example, the model of cartels in “Down by the River”). It is something new and what makes us blind to it and what makes us terrified of it is simply that no one is really in control. Think Baghdad where all sides flounder in explaining the killing, including Al Qaeda with its vision of restoring an older world.

***

In the case of Juarez, one has to be struck by what the press says is a cartel war and yet one that does not touch federal and state police, one that kills hundreds in a few months and yet leaves the army unscathed while city cops die and flee.

***

One of the fantasies of Juarez is that the killings come and go. I don't think they do. Bodies in public come and go. The death houses … operate all the time. But I did go over the dead list up to about 180, and it was striking who most of these people were…. They were local folk, guys with corner and little stores. The government estimates sixty percent of this killing spree is narco related. I don't know, but there are a helluva lot of head-shot executions and the like.

But somehow I think something has changed, that the feel of the city under an Amado Carrillo is gone and that a new kind of order, one without a center, is emerging — a place where government pretends to govern at the same time it erodes. And what is emerging is ignored since it fails to sustain early notions of power and structure.

The gangs, the corners, all that, well hell, that is in New Orleans right now, and many other places. But something is changing in Juarez and thinking about the cartels is almost a barrier to seeing this change. And I don't see how or why this uptick in violence will end. It seems a condition of a drug market without a real center. You know a recent study estimated 20,000 retail outlets in Tijuana for drugs. Juarez I think has more.

I was looking at murders in poor barrios where all the people were Maquila workers, and there were guys selling coke all around. Heroin, according the Azteca [gang member] I had a long lunch with, is now twenty-five pesos a hit.

Here is what I decided in February: If you had an explanation for what I was seeing, then you were likely to blind yourself to events and facts that did not fit that explanation, because none of the explanations seemed to cover a lot of the territory. But the reality is of violence woven into the fabric of a city. It is a comfort to think someone is in control, however evil they might be. But I lack the confidence to believe that at the moment.

Look into the schoolteacher woman wacked the other day. She is easy to explain away given her family (a couple killed in the last year or two, in executions) but somehow that explanation does not solve the questions in my head. As I understand here, her husband was taken from the car and children survived with these new memories.

Well, I am tired. Keep the faith. The New York Times does not seem to, or the El Paso Times and on and on.

***

Just as it is essential for major media for drug lords, etc., to be controlling this violence, the notion that the violence can come from many groups and have no real on-and-off button is, well, not conceivable to them. But it is to me. And what no one seems to talk about is the domestic drug consumption in Mexico. It is now large and worth a lot, and it hardly concerns major players since whoever sells on the corner is buying their product anyway. And the Mexican Army has been terrorizing cops in Juarez — they were in court I think two weeks ago asking the judge to stop the army from torturing them. But in the end, I don't think the violence in Juarez can be understood unless it is seen as two-pronged — a battle for market share, and at least on the army's part, it is also a demo, a piece of theater for the US in order to get that billion and a half of Plan Mexico.

But I don't think any of it is about ending the drug business nor is it a threat to the cartels. As for cartels fighting for turf, I'm sure that happens, but it is difficult to go down the lists of dead in Juarez since January one and see much indication of such a battle. After all, when the Arellano Felix brother [from the Tijuana Cartel] was released this winter and crossed the bridge, he did not seem to be worried about a cartel war.

***

Does anyone go to Juarez? I doubt we will ever know the reason for the murders. We will get statements from people who claim they have secret materials they will not share and be expected to repeat agency claims.

***

I am stunned by how every time a body falls in Juarez all the authorities (including US academics) know who killed the person and why. There are so many ways to die in Juarez and so many groups willing to do the work. 

***

Lately in Juarez, over the past several months, two things have become obvious: The Mexican Army is a killing machine as it fights for its share of the spoils, and the crimes increasingly have an economic color as the city breaks down into robbers of gas stations, cars, banks, everything, including Maquilas and their workers being robbed. Also, murder has moved into the light of day as the need for death houses declines in the general chaos.

The CIA

DEA, for example, has a need to demonize opponents. Also, they loathe the CIA because intelligence work means having useful relationships with criminals.

***

I do know that DEA agents have talked to me about the CIA penetration and control of their agency. …Basically, the drug industry is too connected to American foreign policy needs for it to be left to the cowboys of DEA. So they are often overruled. And all of the DEA agents seem to have stories of busts that were erased because of intervention by fellow DEA agents who were really CIA people.

***

I am roasting a chicken on a 9/11 afternoon. But keep it alive. We both know [Sinaloa drug-organization leader] Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla is hitting a real nerve with his statements, and we both know he had a relationship with the CIA. And we both know they will win and he will lose. There have been few in our government who do not bend over when the sacred words “national security” are mentioned.

***

I remember when this case [the murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena in 1985] began because it prompted [then-DEA supervisory agent] Phil Jordan to explain to me that DEA had been penetrated by the CIA and such agents watched people like him. For example, he told me of a DEA agent in … Texas who had a habit of disappearing cases and so was avoided by other agents. He said everyone knew the guy was really CIA.

***

Of course, I am the convinced reader since I neither think the CIA can be reformed nor that it has ever been functional. Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes” gives for me the opposite conclusion than the one he reaches. He thinks the agency must be reformed and saved from politics. I think the agency has always tailored intelligence for the executive branch and always will.

…But I also have a sense of the one ability of the CIA — cover-ups. I agree with the guy quoted, that they fuck up covert operations. That's why [investigative journalist] Gary Webb had his series [on the CIA’s connection to the drug trade]. But they did do a fine job on destroying Gary.

***

One factor I think never seems to make the press — the fear many former players have of the CIA. They will talk, but only up to a point, and often then they refuse to go public. I have had this experience ever since I did the piece on Gary Webb, and with some of them this game has been going on now for ten years. So you get frustrated. And frankly, if you are a freelancer such as myself, you eventually get starved off the story. Also, there is the fact your reputation is attacked. I will always remember the putdown by [the media] of [then-US Sen.] John Kerry and his committee. If you have ever been around those guys you see on cable news giving opinions, and I have, you realize they think they are part of the government, and sometimes I have felt in a dark way that they are. …Actually, my advice to Obama would be to simply close the CIA since I find their intelligence track record abysmal and vastly overrated. They have been politicized since genesis. Weiner's book “Legacy of Ashes” wants to reform the agency when it is clear from his own research that since the late forties the agency has always doctored intelligence to fit presidential agendas.

***

I have been chewing on the most recent installment of Narco News’ Mayan Jaguar series, and I like the idea of one of your informants that it all may be about nothing more than gathering intel for intel for intel, with no end game beyond perpetuating the bureaucracy — an idea worthy of Kurt Vonnegut. I think it helps to look at Fast and Furious with the same understanding.

The Media

I don't really know how to explain US media. I simply hold them in contempt….

***

I know that after Esquire ran the story [on Gary Webb], the editors there had qualms because they were getting dissed in the media bars of Gotham. They told me this. I failed to express the proper sympathy.

***

I have been appalled at the reaction of the US press to [NSA whistleblower] Edward Snowden. I expect my government to be staffed by traitors, but I held out some faint hope that some of the press would realize Snowden — and [US Army Private] Bradley Manning — were doing what the press failed to do. One of my hopes is they share a joint Nobel Peace Prize. It will be chance for the Scandinavians to cleanse themselves of having given one to Henry Kissinger.

***

The collusion between the press and the authorities is nothing new. What is stunning now is that it continues without the excuse of The Cold War…. I am always heartened by things like Yo Soy 132 [a Mexican social movement organized in 2012, in part, against the mainstream media] since the emperor never has clothes, and this needs to be pointed out.

But here, [in the US] I have less hope. Twice in the last year I have spoken at communication schools, the new name for journalism schools. The real frightening thing was not the students, but the ignorance of the faculty. At one school, the guy sitting next to me at lunch told me he taught social media. Turns out he was paid to teach journalism students how to use Facebook and Twitter. I told him when I was their age such feats were restricted to washroom walls, and no one taught us. He never spoke to me again during the two days I was there.

***

I am off to Patagonia, AZ, to scribble, look at birds and somehow shut down the noise. I glanced this morning at a piece Molly Molloy and I wrote and noticed almost every comment was from a troll and almost every comment had nothing to do with the piece we wrote or the argument we made — which was rather simple, that what we are seeing in Mexico is state terrorism. That’s what I mean by the noise.

On the other hand, I was walking the river here late yesterday and saw ibis, a green heron, two orchard orioles, great egrets and blue grosbeak, which puts me way ahead of the paid liars….

***

As for the New York Times and other major media, they use templates, and the template is cartels/drug lords, etc., and this mindset is not open to new information….

***

Don Henry Ford sent me your interview on, I think, Canadian Broadcasting. It was very nice, though I was struck by how the interviewer almost instantly misstated your numbers. I guess I noticed this because I have had it happen to me constantly over the years. I have also decided to kill the next interviewer who uses the word “narrative” in my presence. It seems to me a way to evade reality, as if the murders in Mexico were a narrative, a kind of tale with many choices open to the writer.

***

I am constantly instructed by people who cite the motives of cartels and do not speak to cartel members, but repeat what both governments say about cartels, two nations who have accomplished nothing in their war against cartels but are taken as wizards on the cartels. But I was happy to see Narco News cited by the mainstream press. Who knows, maybe they will eventually leave the office and report.

***

The advertorial world has been growing for years. What strikes me is how people in the business so often deny it. Neither Esquire nor GQ has had a cover story in twenty years that was not controlled by the celebrity featured. They will say this does not matter. I remember mentioning to [Editor] David Granger at Esquire,“If it does not matter, why not print that fact with the cover story?” He was not amused.

***

Of course the Internet has gutted the market for serious stuff by destroying the advertising base. This is simply a reality. And blogging is not the answer. …What I would like is some kind of group buy on the Internet, so that I could plunk down my bucks and have access to a lot of newspapers. …Anyway, take a walk and enjoy the sunshine.

Life

I am at heart an optimist. Aleksandr Soltzenitzen wrote books that outlasted the empire trying to kill him.

***

I don't know what to say beyond the obvious: This thing is broken. The migration is unstoppable and so is the reaction to it. The ground is beaten. And the drug industry hums along and bodies show up each morning. And no one seems to say hardly a word. In a week, I pray, I will flee here with my sleeping bag and clear my head in the desert.

***

I am sitting by a creek in Arizona and trying to imagine birds are the center of the universe.

***

I had lunch a month or so ago with a guy in Juarez who has probably executed two or three dozen, and I gotta tell you he was not an especially warm human being. I suppose this is where one rolls out the word psychopath, but I’m not clinically equipped. But he was barely human. He also ate about thirty dollars worth of carnitas.

***

As for discussions: Yes, for me, all good things sharpen questions rather than deliver pat answers.

***

You know life is odd. He asked me to get something nice for his wife, perfume, in Europe, because since he left the killing ground in Mexico he has never been able to buy her anything nice. So I brought back a hundred-euro bottle of Chanel from Venice. I don’t know what that means, but I liked him asking me for it for his wife.

***

I am in Patagonia, AZ, at the moment working on last years taxes — yes, I am a bit late, my apologies to the war machine. But the birds are everywhere and there is a soft rain on the land feeding the last green throbs of summer.

***

It is a charming piece and obviously having heard my blather on that radio station he knows I am grateful for it. Tell him he made my day, and he had heavy competition since I finally paid off my credit card.

***

Well, such is fame. But real life is the fact I've been sitting in a loaned house near the border since April 30th writing a book. I think in a week I'll finish the draft.

***

I am now, for my mental health, reading a two-volume collection of George Orwell's essays (Harcourt, 2008, compiled by George Packer) and it is a tonic. Like so many other writers, I find Orwell a touchstone because of his sometimes cranky but always endearing effort to clear out the brush and get to the reality of things.

***

Ah, well, back to my prep work. I’m kind of making up the recipe based off dining at tiny osterias on the back lanes in Venice. The city is actually noted for mediocre food but its saving grace are dishes prepared from fresh fish and shrimp, etc., taken directly from the lagoon. …I intend now to make a sauce with small shrimp; scallops; fresh, tiny tomatoes; a little white wine and a dash of clam juice, and toss with pasta. 

***

When I was twenty-one and on the beach at Mazatlan, I had a similar experience. I was swept out to sea at night by the undertow and dragged along the bottom. It took me an hour to regain the shore, and I still remember coming onto the beach in the dark, falling to my knees and vomiting. No one in my party noticed I had been gone.

***

I've been living a kind of blur. The guy I wrote about in my last book had his son die suddenly in October and that ate up a chunk of my life and continues to consume some part of me. I knew the son, a healthy, strapping lad of twenty-four suddenly mowed down by meningitis. Then I had to hit the road, and then well, it simply continued. I have finally come to rest for a spell — well, got a funeral Saturday, but that is part of living a life.

***

There are fifteen bird feeders up here and lots of flowers. I am puzzled by people who dread the future and cannot smell the roses in their face.

***

It is eighty and very nice and all the flowers are blooming. This matters.

***

Now, as it happens, I just got an email from my cop about his dead son, so I go back to that terrain. And I agree with you. I don't think you can live a full and happy life until you realize it is a tragedy. And then have that glass of wine and smile at the baby in the woman's arms.

…. Charles Bowden, ¡Presente!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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