The vast tracts of the Southwest seem to be an irresistible attraction to desperate men. In the 19th century, the Sonoran deserts and Chihuahua villages were the scene of intense small-scale warfare between the Apaches, American scalp hunters, and Mexican soldiers.
In the late 20th century, an equally intense and bloody series of encounters started taking place along the border. The violence stems, in part, from the official American goal of stopping the drug trade. This is also an official Mexican goal.
Both sides are neck-deep in hypocrisy. Not only are Americans the largest users of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in the world, but American banks have a nasty habit of providing transport for tainted drug money. The Mexicans, on the other hand, are in the position of pursuing a trade with low transfer costs that swamps any other export they can produce, a state of things which they officially lament.
In his 15 books, Tucson-based writer Charles Bowden has been consistently attracted to the crime story not only for its sensational aspects, but also for what it says about the human condition.
Starting with the murder of Bruno Jordan, Bowden builds a story with roughly three layers. The primary layer concerns the murder itself, and the way its unresolved edges tear the Jordan family apart. The secondary layer chronicles the rise and fall of drug lord Amado Carillo Fuentes in the context of the history of the "drug war" in Mexico. Bowden's third layer, finally, is more speculative - it records the ominous extension of drug-cartel influence among the Mexican political elite in the 1980s and '90s.
The story of the crime is banal in its details, but baroque in its implications. Bruno Jordan was just doing a favor for a friend, delivering her truck to one of her relatives, when he was shot down in a parking lot in El Paso on the evening of Jan. 20, 1995.
The El Paso police caught the killer, or at least they thought they did. About 20 minutes after the shooting, they picked up a 13-year-old boy, Miguel Flores Angel. He didn't have the gun or the truck, but the police got witness IDs, and Flores allegedly confessed, although not on tape. But then the boy shut up. The government even offered him an incredible deal: immunity, plus relocation in the US for himself and his family, if he would finger his partners. Flores, incredibly, refused. At his first trial, he was convicted, but in two appeals, the jury was hung, so that he was eventually released, in 1999.
Why did the government want Flores to talk? Because the victim's brother was the incoming head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's center in El Paso, Phillip Jordan. And Phillip Jordan was convinced that the murder was aimed at him as a warning.
But unfortunately, the DEA wasn't willing to pursue the investigation. According to "Down by the River," the political hazards associated with alienating Mexico outweighed the benefit of expanding the investigation. And so Phillip put his own money into investigating the events of Jan. 20, desperately looking for links that would tie his brother's murder to the Juarez drug cartel.
In the process, Phillip destroyed his credibility at the agency. When he retired, his obsession with his brother's death and the money it cost him split up his second marriage. The pressure he felt probably jump-started his gambling addiction. To put it bluntly, if Bruno Jordan's killers wanted to destroy his brother, they succeeded.
Bowden uses Phillip's investigation of his brother's murder as a segue to the broader story of Carillo Fuente's career. From his roots in Sinaloa, which is where all the veteran drug merchants come from in Mexico, to his improbable death in a hospital in 1997, while getting plastic surgery done to his face, Fuentes was a man who covered his tracks. All stories about him, up to and including reports of his death, are ambiguous, doubtful, and subject to the exegesis of suspicion. He struck down his opponents, when necessary, with exemplary viciousness, but ran an operation that was way too large to support on mere threats. He obviously had the ability to encourage the trust that holds together all great enterprises. He was known as the "Lord of the Skies" because he shipped so much cocaine from Columbia to Juarez on 727s - he owned several airlines - and then used planes to get the loads into the US. Such entrepreneurship paid off. At its height, the DEA estimated that the Juarez cartel was bringing in $200 million a week, more than Mexico made on its largest legal export, oil.
Bowden puts a cool distance between himself and the usual story about a drug lord. The usual story concentrates on stopping the drug lord - fighting him, capturing him, eliminating him. For Bowden, however, the displacement of one or another player is a surface distraction from the reality of the drug trade: "The key thing about the War on Drugs is that the war never occurs, there are simply skirmishes dictated from time to time by political needs within the United States and Mexico."
Bowden is what used to be called, in the '60s, a New Journalist. That is, he uses novelistic techniques to tell a factual story. In this case, he binds together his three story lines by means of stroboscopic juxtapositions, tearing from topic to topic, interweaving facts and anecdotes about the Jordan family, the drug cartels, Mexican political history, and the atmosphere along the border in such a way that the reader is forced to supply the thread. While this is an excellent thing in fiction, where the task is to suspend disbelief, it's the low road to the truth in nonfiction. One sometimes wishes he were less concerned with the artful arrangement of his elements and more with sourcing his stories. In the end, he finds no smoking gun, but he does provide us with strong grounds for thinking that something is seriously amiss in the ongoing war on drugs.
• Roger Gathman is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.