Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence & Abuse

Fri, 11/12/2021 - 12:04am

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence & Abuse

Daniel Weisz

Downtown Juarez

Howard Campbell, Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence & Abuse. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. [ISBN: 978-1-4773-2389-2, Hardcover, 245 pages]

The Mexican drug war has produced unprecedented violence. Howard Campbell uses ethnographic descriptions of the places in which violence is widespread in downtown Ciudad Juárez to provide a complex account of violence in Juárez. Campbell seeks to explain how the circumstances of the US-Mexico border have normalized and naturalized particular types of violent and abusive behavior. Overall, the book examines the conditions that lead to violence in central Juárez. Howard Campbell is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is the author of several books, including Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez.[1] Through fieldwork in the US-Mexico border, especially in downtown Juárez, over thirty years, the author constructs a detailed and personal account of how violence is produced in Juarez specifically and Mexico as a whole.

The Structure of the Inquiry

This book contains 17 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion, notes, and an index section. The chapters are divided into five main sections. Chapter 1 discusses the author's synthetic explanation for the causes of violence in Juárez and the fieldwork methodology used to obtain the data for this study. Chapters 2-5 provide descriptions and analyses of the historical and contemporary settings of the author's fieldwork. Chapters 6-12 focus on the streets, downtown bar scene, vice rackets, especially prostitution and drug dealing, that concentrate there. Chapters 13-16 focuses on the lives of human smugglers, drug traffickers, drug dealers, and others who make a living there. Chapter 17 focuses on a downtown sex worker whose life experiences reflect many of this book's main themes.

Chapter 1, Synergistic Violence and the Normalization of Abuse in a Border Context, formulates an alternative explanation to the standard narratives about Juárez crime and violence formed from long-term ethnographic observations, interviews, and exploration in some of Juárez darkest corners. The chapter details a model of violence called "synergistic violence" that is the aggregation of two or more disease clusters, each of which worsens the other(s). The author applies this concept to explain quotidian violence of "epidemic" proportion, as in Juárez and argues that a concentration of interlocking adverse circumstances must occur before violence reaches its highest levels. In the case of Juárez, the oppressive political economy, rampant injustice, and extreme social inequality combine to produce normalized on-the-ground violence.

Chapter 2, The Bridge: Concentrations of power, Economic Exchange, and Transnational Humanity,  describes the border crossing between El Paso and Juárez and those who use the border. The chapter notes how pedestrians' constant movement across the border serves as the perfect cover for those engaged in the contraband trade. The bridge itself that connects Juárez and El Paso has become an informal workplace for hundreds of Juarences. Campbell notes how the environment on the bridge epitomizes the multiple forms of state oppression, the tight overlap of the licit and illicit and of official authority, and the ongoing "normalization" of a way of life that produces so much suffering.

Chapter 3, The Historical Roots of Violence, Crime, and Abuse in Downtown Juárez and Colonia Bellavista), focuses on history to explain how downtown Juárez became a vibrant cosmopolitan “Interzone” that combines the commonplace and every day with a complex underworld that seethes with violence and abuse. The chapter traces how downtown Juárez was shaped by American tourism. It also outlines the rise of La Nacha, the heroin queen in Juárez, and how her empire would lead to the spread of addiction and prostitution in the downtown neighborhoods. Authorities cracked down and applied a curfew to limit hours of operation and imposed an "urban renewal" project that served to destroy one-third of the neighborhood. In Chapter 4, Colonia Bellavista Today,  revisits the area and recounts the violent takeover of the famous Hotel Verde by the Aztecas gang. It describes how the police protect organized criminal groups and even common criminals in exchange for pay-offs. Chapter 45,  Avenida Juárez today, uses ethnographic research to provide insight into contemporary life on the main thoroughfare of Juárez.

Chapter 6, Prostitution and Sex Workers in the Downtown Street Scene, examines the prostitution scene in downtown Juárez. Campbell points out that increasingly restrictive immigration policies restrict the possibilities of poor women to find a better life across the border. The issues associated with the border combined with the viciousness of the Juárez police and the deeply rooted culture of Machismo in families and society further multiply the suffering of sex workers in an intersectional, multidimensional way. The chapter further details the dangers of prostitution in Juárez as well as the ties to organized crime. Chapter 7, Contemporary Gay Pick-Up Scenes and Danger in Downtown Juárez, expands the discussion to the gay commercial sex scene in Juárez. It is structured by the homophobia of Mexican society, which has resulted in over fifty murders of gay men in Juárez as of late September 2019.

Chapter 8, Border Bar Life: The General Scene and Ambience, provides a general overview of the bar scene and  illicit drug and sex economy. The poor who lack education and opportunities for a better life are easily drawn into the informal world of prostitution and dope dealing and thus become the targets of the brutal and corrupt police, drug cartels, and street gangs. Chapter 9, A Place without Limits: Inebriation and Dehumanization at The Club, focuses on a bar called The Club and describes the normalization of dehumanization and details the payoffs made to municipal police to remain open and allow for drugs and sex to flow with virtually no restrictions. In Chapter 10,  Conviviality, Drug Deals, Sexual Abuse, and a Juárez-Based Philosophy of Masculine Nihilism, Campbell describes how some sex workers sell out their underage children for sex work and, in some cases, produced and sold "kiddie porn."

Chapter 11, Bars as Sites and Languid Staging Areas for Petty Crimes: Hanging Out in the 69 Lounge, Waiting for Something to Happen, and Chapter 12, Downtown Bars as Locations of Both Pleasure and Victimization: Sex, Drugs, and Extortion at El Antro describe the daily vice scene and its interaction with petty crime and violence by describing the complicated reciprocal relationship between victims and their oppressors, Chapter 13, Bars and Criminality: human Smugglers and Cross-Border Drug Smugglers in Central Juárez, focuses on human and drug smugglers.

Chapter 14, Everyday Drug Dealers in Downtown Juárez, seeks to demystify the image of drug dealers in Juárez. Campbell describes how the typical image of an ignorant, Mexican male drug dealer is false. The author also explores how some of these dealers are American, and several are well-educated individuals looking for quick cash or attracted to the world of the illicit for personal reasons such as deportation. The author also notes the pivotal roles women play in the downtown drug trade and, in some cases, even act as enforcers. While Chapter 15, Human Perseverance amidst Recurring "Drug Wars", looks at how Juárez residents find innovative ways to transcend disorder and lawlessness instead of falling prey to cynicism and despair. Chapter 16, The Naturalization of "Drug Violence": Hit Men and Drug Killings, focuses on the process by which violence gradually becomes understood and internalized, if not accepted, as an inevitable (natural) element of life in the city. It traces the paths of young sicarios (assassins) and shows how becoming a hitman over time began to be seen as just another job.

The final chapter, Chapter 17, Paloma Makes a Life in the Downtown Bars: Survival amidst Crime, Violence, Drugs, and Sexual Abuse, shares the story of a woman called Paloma whose life and experiences epitomize the synergistic factors that lead to the "normalization" of violence in people's lives. She would seek work at a maquiladora before eventually becoming a sex worker, where she was mistreated by men and women involved in the downtown rackets as well as the police force tasked with protecting her.

Conclusion: Synergistic violence and the Cycle of Victimization on the Border

Downtown Juárez relies on a thirty-year ethnographic study that can look closer to the ground and analyze how and where criminogenic processes are enacted and play out. The author's writing style transports us to the detailed accounts and experiences he went through in Juárez and brings light to those who have been pushed to the shadows. The numerous accounts presented in the book provide the reader with a clear sense of what is going on in the streets of Juárez from the point of view of those who live and die in Juárez.

In his conclusion, Campbell notes that the political economy of synergistic factors in Juárez has normalized cruelty, violence, and "evil." The book illustrates how victimization becomes a socially naturalized and predictable process in Juárez. Finally, the author uses Hannah Arendt's notion of ordinary people becoming both the executors and the victims during the worst violence in an oppressive setting to explain the complexities of violence and victimization in Juárez.[2] The author notes how the most common form of violence in the ongoing drug war in Juárez today is the murder of low-level drug dealers by other low-level dealers and gangsters. By looking at the detailed accounts of victims and victimizers, Campbell can complicate the line between victimizer and victim and illustrate how in many cases, the victims of violence became the victimizers for someone else. This book is a valuable contribution to the literature as it provides scholars, social workers, and law enforcement officials with a complex understanding of violence in Juárez and the processes of naturalization of violence that continue to perpetuate violence in Mexico.


[1] Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.

[2] See Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the banality of evil in Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.



Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Daniel Weisz Argomedo earned his PhD in Political Science at the University of California Irvine with a focus on International Relations and Comparative Studies. His dissertation focused on the war on drugs and its impact on women’s security in Mexico. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from San Diego State University where he wrote a dissertation on ‘Hacktivism and social movements; and earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Alberta where he wrote a thesis on the Mexican war on drugs. He wrote "Climate Change, Drug Traffickers and La Sierra Tarahumara" for the special issue on climate change and global security at the Journal of Strategic Security. He is a founder and secretary of the Leonora Carrington Foundation. He is fluent in Spanish and his research interests include cyberwarfare, the war on drugs, women’s security and contemporary Latin American politics and history.  He can be reached at



Thu, 11/18/2021 - 2:09pm

Is It Time For International Intervention In Mexico? 

The world has failed Mexico. In a war without mercy to supply the world with drugs of all kinds, the narco-insurgency in Mexico has killed an estimated 300,000 people since 2006. Because of the world’s, mostly the United States and Europe, insatiable demand for drugs, terror and open conflict has gripped Mexico for 15 years on a scale rivaling any other conflict in the world. Today, conservative estimates put 40 percent of Mexico under narco control. Yet, the world looks the other way and has done extraordinarily little to help end the suffering. If countries are not going to legalize drugs to bring the situation under some sort of control, then the world must act under established international doctrines to end the calamity. With no end in sight to the violence destroying Mexico, there are three options for multi-lateral intervention: A Chapter 7 Mandate of the United Nations Charter; or the deployment of forces under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention; or intervention under the concept of Responsibility to Protect.

While drug cartels have operated in Mexico for decades, it was the 2006 attempted crackdown of then Mexican President Felipe Calderon that began Mexico’s descent into what can be described in various terms as a narco-insurgency or even a civil war. Various calculations put the death toll in Mexico at approximately 240,000 plus another 60,000 missing and presumed dead in Mexico since then, and yet the world looks the other way. No matter what calculations are used, the death toll is staggering.

Although the corruption of various politicians and institutions in Mexico require long term changes to the sociological, economic, and political changes to fix, the immediate need is to reduce the violence. The United Nations could intervene to at least to deny the freedom of movement of the cartels; disrupt their source of drugs; and protect the population. While an UN intervention could not hope to completely end the war, intervention could at least reduce the levels of violence and stabilize areas of the country and give the people some hope.

In any other country, the level of brutality and the number of people killed each day would cause outcry throughout the world and calls for intervention. Yet, in Mexico, the world turns a blind eye. In 2020, Mexico recorded 28,328 drug related deaths, reflecting an increase of 21.1 percent from 2019. Over 11,000 of those fatalities occurred in just the first four months of 2020. The statistics in 2021, looks just as grim, with over a thousand killed in the drug war in the state of Chihuahua alone.

Since taking office in 2018, despite Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s efforts to reduce the violence by changing tactics, the war has killed over 53,000. Beheadings, burning people alive, torturing people to death, hanging bodies off bridges, dismemberments, massacres, and disappearances are so common, that they hardly make the news. Cartels have killed many in the most horrific ways possible, even exceeding anything ISIS or Al Qaeda have done.

The people cannot rely on their elected leaders because they, themselves, may not live long enough to even think about how to stop it. Mexican politicians are assassinated every 78 days. This statistic has not changed in years. In any other country, that would be outrageous and a sign of a failed state. In this year’s election, thirty-four candidates were assassinated and 89 politicians were killed between September 2020 and May 2021. Mexican policemen are routinely ambushed and killed en masse. Mexican military forces have been routinely ambushed or their helicopters shot down.

In a country in which fighting now takes place between heavily-armed platoon-sized units armed with everything from .50 caliber sniper rifles to explosive-laden drones to crew-served machine guns mounted on armored trucks, the Mexican government military and police forces are simply out-gunned. Although, the small-time street gang members may only possess limited firepower and can be easily dispatched of by Mexican police, the upper tiers of the cartels control para-military forces that possess the logistics, firepower, command and control, the training, the leadership, and the motivation to engage in sustained combat with Mexican government forces and win.

If Mexico does not have the political will or the capabilities to bring some semblances of security to the country, could the United Nations intervene, as it has done in other countries? In 2009, as the fighting between cartels left Ciudad Juarez in ruins, many business owners and civilians openly called for UN peacekeepers. At the time, there was still misguided hope that the Mexican government could control the situation or that once the inter-cartel fighting was over, things would settle down quickly again. It never did. In 2011, Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the UN General Assembly that the world must do something about both the drugs other nations were consuming and the number of weapons pouring into Mexico, bound for the cartels. “Now, more than ever, countries with the highest levels of drug consumption must take effective action to reduce demand,” Calderon said.

At the same time, he also said the UN “must continue to drive forward negotiations for the International Convention on Trade in Arms so as to avoid their diversion to activities that are forbidden under international rules.”

Ten years later, the problem has only grown worse. With large tracts of Mexico completely under cartel control and drugs flowing freely between Mexico the rest of the world, it is past time to consider the deployment of an armed United Nations peacekeeping force to Mexico or a Humanitarian Intervention under the concept of Responsibility To Protect. The mission, under either scenario, would be to disrupt the wholesale slaughter of the population and disrupt the unfettered distribution of drugs. There is no doubt that the violence perpetuated by the cartels are a crime against humanity and the mass quantities of drugs leaving Mexico constitute a threat to global security.

The United Nations Charter, of which Mexico signed on June 26, 1945, spells out the conditions for armed intervention by member states in Chapter VII: Action with Respect to Threats to The Peace, Breaches of The Peace, And Acts Of Aggression. Article 39 of Chapter VII allows The Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of pace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Article 41 measures may include economic and diplomatic initiatives, but if these do not work, then Article 42 allows the Security Council to “take such action by air, sea, or land forces as maybe necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”

In this capacity, the United Nations could lay the groundwork for the deployment of armed peacekeepers with Mexico’s consent. While the Mexican government may not fully consent to the deployment out of national pride, a concerted diplomatic effort may persuade the government otherwise. To put it simply, Mexico has nothing to lose by allowing external forces to assist in disrupting the violence and narcotics trade in Mexico. Entire swaths of the country are currently under control of narco-trafficking organizations and corruption permeates every level of government, military, and security forces. By allowing a limited intervention by UN backed forces, Mexico could regain control of its national sovereignty.

All members of the UN Security Council have vested interest in disrupting cartel activity in Mexico, as the drugs coming out of Mexico have been disruptive to their own societies. China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States are all directly affected by the cartel violence in Mexico, none more than the United States, of course. For example, in June, the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated four Chinese individuals and one entity as under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for “facilitating payments for the purchase of fentanyl analogs or other controlled substances, including synthetic cannabinoids or cathinones, for the Zhenge Drug Trafficking Organization. In June, a Chinese national pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with more than $4 million in drug proceeds generated by large-scale cocaine trafficking. The extent of cartels operating in Europe led to an alarming report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Eurpol which stated “Mexican cartels are believed to have intensified their cooperation with other criminal groups to orchestrate cocaine trafficking into the EU.”

Furthermore, the report concluded that a 2019 operation disrupting three large centers of crystal meth production uncovered Mexican cartel involvement stoked fears the European Union itself could become a major meth producer and market. “The know-how has been transferred to Europe and the EU needs to assess the threats linked to Mexican organized crime groups to develop answers.”

Mexico’s role on the Security Council as an Elected Member for 2021-2022 is problematic for consideration. While it does not possess the veto power to keep the United Nations from intervening, it is position on the Security Council gives it a significant platform from which to oppose intervention. The historical phobia of external interference in Mexico notwithstanding, Mexico’s constitution, as established in Article 89 (X), established that its guiding principles in Foreign Policy are, among others, the self-determination of peoples; nonintervention; peaceful settlement of disputes; and elimination of the threat or use of force in international relations. Although at first glance, this may preclude Mexico from enthusiastically supporting any external force on Mexican soil, the Mexican ambassador to the UN also emphasizes that the UN needs to work to prevent and combat illicit trade in small arms and light weapons; the protection of vulnerable group; and respect for the rule of law. Mexico

Short of a UN authorized peacekeeping force, the UN could sanction an armed intervention force for humanitarian reasons under the widely accepted doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Since it is endorsement by the United Nations 2005 summit on the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, R2P interventions have taken place in several countries. The three pillars of R2P are Pillar 1: The protection responsibilities of the state; Pillar 2: International assistance and capacity-building; and Pillar 3: Timely and decisive response. If a state is unable or too weak to protect its population under Pillar 1, the international community may intervene under Pillar 2. Even if Mexico was opposed to R2P intervention because it would violate Mexico’s sovereignty, the UN and the R2P doctrine says that sovereignty cannot be looked at merely as a government being in control of the population, but the government has a responsibility to its population and the international community. With the Mexican cartels firmly in control or at war in large swaths of Mexico and their drugs flowing throughout the world, the R2P doctrine is necessary.

Finally, without the explicit approval of the United Nations under Chapter VII or R2P, the international community could deploy forces into Mexico under the principle of humanitarian intervention. Because of the UN Charter’s strict guidelines for Security Council resolutions to pass with any one of the five permanent members being able to veto a resolution, members often delay or outrightly reject the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Yet, the situation in Mexico is at the point where it precludes the requirement for tacit Security Council approval. In looking at the crimes against humanity ongoing in Mexico, humanitarian intervention and the deployment of international forces, may technically be in violation of the explicit rules of the UN Charter but intervention may be necessary for moral reasons. In this case the brutality of the war in Mexico calls for intervention faster than an authorization resolution could work its way through the UN. Although unauthorized intervention may pull at two competing values – strict adherence to the UN Charter versus the immediate need to protect a population – the failure of the UN to intervene in the Rwandan genocide until it was too late, has shaped world’s view, making it easier to call for humanitarian intervention.

No matter the final justification for intervention to disrupt the bloodshed, contributing nations must carefully think through the force structure and mission. A failure to establish a clearly defined mission will doom the mission to failure or malaise. Many of the UN peacekeeping or interventions around the world fall into this trap. Without a clear purpose with explicit missions, once the initial euphoria or excitement fades, international forces will end up expending great sums of treasure and quickly sleepwalk into an endless presence. They will be torn between whether their mission is to observe and report on the violence, to protect civilians if they come under fire, or to actively engage cartel forces. Additionally, a clear mission is necessary to solicit assistance from potentially contributing countries. Countries deploying forces need to know their role and how their forces fit into the bigger mission.

To win support for intervention, one unmistakable fact must be reckoned with. That is, the drug war cannot be won by military or law enforcement forces. Simply put, a sizable portion of the world’s population, for whatever reason, wants to consume drugs and are willing to pay any price for them. At the same time, the allure of riches makes getting into the drug business is too enticing for enterprising individuals or employment with the cartels, no matter how dangerous, still provides a source of income to impoverished communities. It is a difficult proposition to call for intervention when the likely outcome is known at the outset.

What the international community can do, however, is to disrupt cartel activities enough that they cannot wage unrestricted warfare and commit crimes against humanity throughout Mexico without fear of being stopped. Intervention with the intent to disrupt cartel operations can buy time for Mexican government forces to consolidate their gains and prepare for a resumption of a high tempo of operations without the international community. A disruption would also allow the international community to get a handle on their drug problems and give them the space to set up new treatment programs and train their forces to counter the trafficking of illicit drugs into their countries. A disruption would allow the Mexican people to recover from the psychological trauma of the war, rebuild their shattered economies, and provide them the breathing space to establish their own defense networks. Finally, a disruption of cartel activity, might generate just enough breathing room for the warring cartels to negotiate their own cease-fires and eventually stabilizing the situation. Nobody should be under the illusion a clear-cut victory in the so-called war on drugs is possible but a disruption is possible.

If the international community decides that it is time for intervention in Mexico, there is one model the community could replicate in Mexico. In 2013, in response to continued rebel activity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations, under Resolution 2098, authorized the first Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). The UN specifically ordered the FIB to carry out targeted offensive operations to “neutralize and disarm” armed groups considered a threat to civilians and the Congolese government. The main group at the time was the M23 fighters which the FIB easily defeated in 2013. M23 did not disappear completely, but their ability to ever launch a significant offensive again evaporated. A Mexico FIB (MFIB) could accomplish something similar against one or more designated cartels.

A MFIB could accomplish this through several means including direct military action; crop interdiction; establishing checkpoints; surveillance and electronic detection of cartel communications; and transportation and logistics for Mexican government forces; or a combination of all strategies.

However, the MFIB is comprised and what its final strategy is, it will be better than maintaining the status quo. The international community has turned a blind eye to the suffering of Mexico and the horrific crimes against humanity going on there now. The drugs are pouring into every corner of the world from Mexico and the international community can no longer say the drug war in Mexico is not their problem. The international community has a choice: Maintain the status quo and watch the death toll in Mexico continue on its apocalyptic path or intervene to disrupt the flow of drugs and help the people of Mexico regain some measure of peace.