Horrors unfold in this book like a revenger's tragedy, as lines in the Mexican gangster's codebook are constantly crossed. It becomes acceptable to target the spouses and children of a murdered rival in the drugs trade. Then the guests who attend the funeral; then the police investigating the case; then their families in turn. The ripples of violence spread out inexorably. Bodies are left hanging from traffic bridges for dawn commuters to see, often with a warning message displayed beside them. Those are the bodies that have not been dissolved in the acid baths.
Some 25,000 people have been killed in the hostilities since President Calderó* of Mexico declared his war on drugs in 2006. Ed Vulliamy provides a brilliant, rigorous analysis to explain quite how this escalation has occurred. One contributory factor was the earlier arming of the Contras by the Reagan administration, using cocaine to barter for weapons and opening up Central America to Colombian trade. At the same time, traditional drug routes into the US, such as Miami, were closed, so trafficking increased along the long Mexican border which is, in Vulliamy's fine phrase, as porous as it is harsh.
The length of the border explains much of the violence. So large is the smuggling territory that it is impossible for any single gang to control, the resulting war between the various cartels now exacerbated by further confrontations with the army and police.
It had always puzzled me that so much of the violence centres on Ciudad Juárez, which I remember from my own travels as one of the most placid and least venal of the border towns. Based on its murder rate, it is now the most dangerous city in the world. This is partly because, as Vulliamy details, it lies halfway between the rival coasts and gangs of the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. So it is controlled by neither and fought for by all, with 10,000 troops failing to keep the peace.
The collateral damage from the drug trafficking has been deep. Like in Afghanistan, another country where we forget that they are not just exporting drugs, but battling a major epidemic of their own, "where the river runs through, people will drink". Northern Mexico is ravaged by crack and methamphetamine addiction. The subsequent corruption and degradation has led to the brutal serial killing of young women working at the maquiladoras, the sweatshop factories set up just over the border by American companies.
Vulliamy is the ideal foreign correspondent to analyse the phenomenon. He knows the border well and was one of the first to report on the murdered women of Ciudad Juárez. He also refuses to find easy answers to difficult questions. While some commentators have made glib assumptions about the Mexican propensity for brutality, Amexica shows that the crushing power of the multinationals in a low-wage economy is a key factor. The Lear Company's only response to the murder of their 17-year-old employee Claudia Ivette Gonsaléz was that "the murder did not happen on Lear property".
In his journey across Mexico, Vulliamy also still manages to find a lyricism amid the violence. It would be too much to ask a journalist not to say that "this is no country for old men," but he also quotes (and meets) the great balladeer of the El Paso badlands, Tom Russell. He sings an epitaph for his beloved borderland : "everything's gone straight to hell / since Sinatra played Juárez".
Hugh Thomson's 'Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico' is published by Phoenix