Beyond the Atrocities

The words of Charles Bowden and the art of Alice Leora Briggs chronicle the horrors of Ciudad Juárez

Charles Bowden has long chronicled death and destruction along the borderlands, but the atrocities coming out of Ciudad Juárez are so horrifying, he says, that he has struggled to find the words to write about them.

"I must find a new language, one that avoids empty words like justice and crime and punishment and problems and solution," he writes in the opening pages of Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez. He can barely stomach using official titles like "El Paso" and "Juarez" and "The United States" and "Mexico": "I find it harder and harder to use these names because they imply order and boundaries, and both are breaking down."

And it's almost too late for journalism, for the meticulous gathering of facts and numbers and names and dates. In the past, he says, he's written "magazine stories ... heralding new horrors to savor. I've moved into someplace beyond that."

Luckily for Bowden, Alice Leora Briggs has stepped in. If his words can no longer adequately tell the story of the torture and slaughter along the border, her pictures can. A prodigiously talented artist out of Texas, Briggs has made Dreamland as much her book as Bowden's. Her wrenching black-and-white drawings crawl along the edges of the text and even cover whole pages; not a single leaf is without at least one grimacing Briggs skull.

This unusual new book looks a little like a graphic novel, but it's nonfiction, and the artwork only occasionally illustrates the exact incidents recounted in Bowden's text. The publisher is billing it as a modern-day illuminated manuscript, an appropriately old-fashioned term given Briggs' historical bent. Her sgraffito drawings—white lines sliced into black board—range across time and art history to conjure up the worst that humans can do to each other.

Bosch, Dürer and Brueghel haunt her skulls lined up in rows and her skeletons half-buried in the desert, all of them victims of drug cartels and their tangle of collaborators and enablers on both sides of the border. Contemporary migrants fleeing fatal accidents on the highways of the Southwest or making the death march across the blazing desert are re-envisioned in Briggs' drawings as naked souls doomed to enact the dance of death so often seen in medieval paintings.

Briggs had a Border Art Residency that propelled her into dangerous Juárez. The coroner routinely let her into the morgue and allowed her to draw the bodies of the newly dead. She reproduces naked corpses under sheets and freshly murdered new arrivals still wearing their clothes. In one image, a head with half-rotted flesh falling from the bones is placed side by side with a skull further along on its journey toward annihilation.

The artist also roamed the city, conjuring up its bars and cafés, and the fast food joints where, Bowden tells us, the drogueras casually gather to plot their routine murders. A drawing of a bag of fries in a Whataburger paper bag commemorates the location of one of the killings.

Despite his protestations, Bowden does indeed find his tongue, and manages to keep up an apocalyptic dirge for 162 pages. Leaving journalism behind, he's moved into poetic lamentation. His text is a howl of despair loosely organized around the true story of a "death house" in Juarez where a dozen murder victims were tortured and killed, their mutilated bodies buried in the yard.

At least one of the murderers was a shadowy figure named Lalo, an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Bowden charges that the DEA knew about the murder and failed to stop him. Likewise, Bowden says, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) "knew about the killings and did nothing."

In the shadowy border netherworld Bowden calls Dreamland, nothing is what it seems: Governments turn a blind eye to murder, and police become assassins—and only the dead know the truth.

"The power of the drug industry has exceeded the power of the State," he writes.

Bowden relates that when he first heard about Lalo and the death house and his U.S. connections, he tried with some reluctance to report the stories using his longtime journalism skills. But he found his sources were so terrified that they refused to allow their names to be used, or their quotes, or even their gender. They have good reason to fear: One woman who began asking questions about the infamous murders of young women in Juarez was first warned to stop, and then meted out a devastating punishment: Her 14-year-old daughter was taken and raped.

Bowden relies primarily on the reporting of Alfredo Corchado of The Dallas Morning News and Bill Conroy's (the links are included in an author's note), but he did do some snooping around on his own. He went and found the house of death—in a nice middle-class neighborhood in Juarez—peered through the windows and reflected on the deaths. Noting that the drug cartels have now added the human-smuggling trade as a lucrative sideline, he went out on perilous migrant trails. He took a gander at Sasabe, Sonora, where he reports the flood of smuggling money now has school kids driving their own SUVs.

But his main task was to meditate on the horrors. (The book might have more accurately, if less elegantly, been called Nightmareland.) Much of his writing has a hard beauty. The book begins:

"The room was painted a very light green and the blinds were shut. The air felt stale and fear rolled off the man's body. He turned on a lamp and held a color slide to the light: A black hand reached out of the sand dune just beyond the city. Of course, I knew about bodies coming out of the sand, often with money in their mouths. Everyone knew about the bodies."

The text is divided into short fragments, most of them mini-stories a few pages long, interspersed with transcripts of an interview another reporter did with Lalo. He returns often to the same refrain: Nothing will change, no one will ever tell the truth and "the dead fall silent again." The repetition is meant to build up into a powerful crescendo, but sometimes it just feels repetitive. His text could easily have been 20 or 30 pages shorter and been a better book for it.

But a shorter text would have meant less of Briggs' art, and that loss would have been too much to bear.

Charles Bowden and Alice Leora Briggs will do a free book reading and signing of Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez from 2 to 5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 25, at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave.; 624-7370; website. The reading begins at 2:30 p.m.

Briggs' artwork from the book, along with some of her other work, will be on display at Etherton through Nov. 6. The show, Ojos Bien Abiertos/Eyes Wide Open, also includes photographs by Luis Gonzalez Palma of Guatemala and Rodrigo Moya of Mexico. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.