A Good Man Gone

     Chuck Bowden was a great reporter, a terrific writer and a good man.
     He died last week and I will miss him.
     So will most of the writers in Tucson, and anyone who’s written about the Sonoran Desert. He was an inspiration and a generous friend.
     His books on Mexico’s drug wars are the best reporting ever done on it.
     They will scare the hell out of you, and they should.
     In reporting he was absolutely fearless. He’d have to be, to walk into nightclubs in Ciudad Juarez and Matamoros that were run by drug cartels, and ask the boss to tell him about his business.
     But he did that.
     Years ago he told me: “Everything that’s ever been written about the U.S.-Mexico border is a lie.”
     That was before he wrote “Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future” (1998), “Down by the River” (2002,) and “Murder City” (2010).
     Chuck was haunted by death. He wanted to get away from it, but he couldn’t.
     “I don’t know how to be aware of such a slaughter and not report it,” he said.
     Chuck told stories – true stories – that no one wanted to hear:
     – That the North American Free Trade Agreement drove millions of Mexicans into the United States by destroying peasant farming and small industry and helping to set up hundreds of slave labor camps that we call maquiladoras;
     – That the $1.5 billion and more the United States has sent to the Mexican Army feeds serial killers who prey upon their own people;
     – That the U.S. “war on drugs” is a monstrous fraud, which simply feeds the prison industry, federal employees, and corruption on both sides of the border;
     – That there is no war on drugs; it’s a war for drugs, between the Mexican army, Mexican police forces and the cartels, who fight for control of it, and pay kickbacks to members of the U.S. Army and Marines, the Border Patrol and sheriff’s and police departments all along the border, who help move the product;
     – That every illicit drug – heroin, cocaine, meth, marijuana – is more plentiful today, cheaper, and better than when our phony drug war began 40 years ago;
     – And that Mexico doesn’t want to stop the drug trade, because it’s the country’s second-biggest source of income, bringing in $30 billion to $50 billion a year, and that to kill it would be to commit economic suicide.
     Nobody wants to hear that.
     “My dream is to invite a reader into a room and pour a nice cup of tea and then nail the damn door shut,” Chuck said in a 2010 interview with Brooke Gladstone.
     That’s pretty much what he did in this interview with Amy Goodman.
     I met Chuck more than 30 years ago when I lived on the Tohono O’odham reservation west of Tucson. His first nonacademic book, “Killing the Hidden Waters,” had been published. It described what groundwater pumping had done to the reservation – and what it was about to do to the rest of the arid West.
     That book was published 37 years ago. We’re learning now what Chuck knew then.
     Chuck got me the only kill fee I ever got in my life: $500 for a story that Arizona Highways never published. I didn’t ask him to do it. He did it because he saw that I was a freelancer and broke. So he called them up and told them to pay me, and they did.
     Chuck gave me my first computer – a Kaypro II, a “luggable” that weighed 29 lbs. Its screen was as big as a ham sandwich. Chuck had written a couple of books on it, and I wrote one too, before the noble beast died of electro-arthritis.
     I’m glad we have Chuck’s 30 books, but writers come and go. We need more good men.

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