Sergio González Rodríguez - In Ciudad Juarez, a territorial power normalized barbarism. This anomalous ecology mutated into a femicide machine: an apparatus that didn't just create the conditions for the murders of dozens of women and little girls, but developed the institutions that guarantee impunity for those crimes and even legalize them
Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine. Trans. by Michael Parker-Stainback. Semiotext(e), 2012.
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In Ciudad Juarez, a territorial power normalized barbarism. This anomalous ecology mutated into a femicide machine: an apparatus that didn't just create the conditions for the murders of dozens of women and little girls, but developed the institutions that guarantee impunity for those crimes and even legalize them. A lawless city sponsored by a State in crisis. The facts speak for themselves. -- from The Femicide Machine
Best known to American readers for his cameo appearances as The Journalist in Roberto Bolano's 2666 and as a literary detective in Javier Marías's nove l Dark Back of Time, Sergio González Rodríguez is one of Mexico's most important contemporary writers. He is the author of Bones in the Desert, the most definitive work on the murders of women and girls in Juárez, Mexico, as well as The Headless Man, a sharp meditation on the recurrent uses of symbolic violence; Infectious, a novel; and Original Evil, a long essay. The Femicide Machine is the first book by González Rodríguez to appear in English translation.
Written especially for Semiotext(e) Intervention series, The Femicide Machine synthesizes González Rodríguez's documentation of the Juárez crimes, his analysis of the unique urban conditions in which they take place, and a discussion of the terror techniques of narco-warfare that have spread to both sides of the border. The result is a gripping polemic. The Femicide Machine probes the anarchic confluence of global capital with corrupt national politics and displaced, transient labor, and introduces the work of one of Mexico's most eminent writers to American readers.
In this grim analysis of the infamous murders of young women in the Mexican border city of Juárez, Mexican journalist Rodríguez (Bones in the Desert) links this series of grisly, ongoing, unsolved crimes with local, national, and international societal and political malaise. Rodríguez portrays Juárez as “four cities in one”: a border town/U.S. backyard for “those seeking escape from regulation across the border”; a city dominated by the maquila model, where “public space became oriented around the [manufacturing-assembly] plants” and multinational corporations “prosper from urban impoverishment in developing nations”; and a nexus of the war on drugs and organized crime, exacerbated by government corruption. According to Rodríguez, these elements create an environment for “the femicide city,” where women and girls are tortured and murdered with impunity. Despite the book’s straightforward brevity, readers may be put off by the dry, academic tone and stilted translation. However, the epilogue, a mother’s heartbreaking narration of her 17-year-old daughter’s abduction and subsequent rape, torture, and murder, denied by the local police but reported by the El Paso FBI, brings the book’s message to terrifying life. - Publishers Weekly
The bodies began appearing in 1993: girls and young women, often mutilated and raped, discarded in lots and ravines on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. The numbers varied: 370 dead, or maybe 450, or 1,052. Theories abounded: it was all the work of one serial killer, or a Satanist cult, a street gang, organ harvesters. In 2006, Mexico City–based reporter, critic, and novelist Sergio González Rodríguez published what remains the best journalistic account of the Juárez femicides, Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the desert). The serial-killer hypothesis was comforting by comparison. In González’s chilling narrative—which would become the basis for the fictionalized Juárez of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—the region’s political and financial elites were thoroughly implicated in the murders.
That book now reads as a grim preview of the web of violence and complicity that has entangled much of the country. Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderón’s drug war in 2006, at least 50,000 Mexicans have been killed—20 percent of them in Ciudad Juárez. The Femicide Machine, González’s first text to jump the language divide, is an excellent corrective to the cops-versus-narcos fantasy that dominates the US media discourse. González describes beleaguered Juárez as the “ultra-capitalist city” in which the abstract violence of global finance is made horrifically material. The drug trade is just another symptom of the massive dislocations inflicted on Mexico by a decade of neoliberal reforms that forced millions to leave the countryside in search of work in the North. Foreign-owned assembly plants clustered along the border, bringing with them a sinister corporate architecture of surveillance, separation, and control. In Juárez more than elsewhere, González writes, a singular “synergy between people and machines” has been achieved, with predictably catastrophic results. Calderón’s war is less about drugs than the “paramilitarization” of Mexican society, enthusiastically enabled by a US government bent on “domination without direct military occupation.”
One might quibble that González’s analysis is sufficiently devastating that it makes his prescriptions—institutional reform, reestablishment of the “rule of law”—seem feeble. The Femicide Machine, though, begins the painful, necessary work of calling the beast by its name.
The book’s most haunting moments arrive in the epilogue—or in what’s missing from it: a series of captions for nonexistent photographs documenting the murder of 17-year-old Lilia Alejandra García Andrade. “Alejandra resists abduction on Rancho Becerra Street, not far from the plant where she worked,” González writes, and there she is, haunting the white of the page.
— Ben Ehrenreich
In 2005, through a strange set of circumstances, I ended up as an invited guest to the Angers Film Festival in Angers, France. That year’s Grand Prix du Jury was awarded to Le Cauchemar de Darwin (Darwin’s Nightmare), a film by Hupert Sauper that I initially thought was a polemical fake documentary about a set of interlocking horror stories set on the banks of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, each unleashed by globalization. This confusion was attributable in some measure to my poor French, but the larger issue was that I simply couldn’t bring myself to consider that what I was seeing on the screen had actually taken place.
At the center of the film are the devastating ecological consequences to Lake Victoria following the introduction of Nile perch, a fish coveted by European consumers. As the film traces this out into the social, economic, and political realms things go from bad to unimaginable. We learn that the planes exporting Nile perch fillets to Europe are importing weapons that fuel sectarian conflicts in the region. Factory owners exploit this political instability by overworking their employees in inhumane conditions (the legal economy), while the Russian and Ukrainian pilots pass their time doing drugs and often abusing local prostitutes (the quasi-legal economy). Add to this a spiraling AIDS epidemic, gangs of homeless and drug-addicted youth, and a food crisis at the heart of a thriving export market, and what you are left with is the condensation of our darkest suspicions about globalization. Darwin’s Nightmare happened to find one of those sites where these are unambiguously confirmed.
Sergio Gonzáles Rodríguez bravely documents a similar terrain in The Femicide Machine, but with one key difference that I’ll get to in a moment. Gonzáles Rodríguez is known by many as a columnist for the Mexican journal Reforma and as the inspiration for the character Sergio Gonzales in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The Femicide Machine, published as part of Semiotext(e)’s Intervention Series, attests to years of investigating the unsolved murders of hundreds of women in and around Ciudad Juárez, along with the institutionalized political, economic, and moral corruption that assures these crimes are committed with impunity.
Anyone who has read 2666 or is even marginally aware of the rampant violence in the state of Chihuahua understands that the scale of the problems are staggering. Since 1993 at least 400 women and girls have been killed, with roughly a quarter of the murders accompanied by evidence of sexual violence. However, Gonzáles Rodríguez’s own work uncovering the collusion between the police, government, the judiciary, and drug cartels probably means that the real figures are much higher and the brutality is much more extreme. The crisis of local authority runs so deep that the newspaper El Diario de Juárez ran a front page editorial in 2010 asking the various drug gangs “What do you want from us?”, meaning, What are the permissible stories which we can cover without fear of further journalists being murdered? Such are the demonstrations of “a lawless city sponsored by a State in crisis.” Lest we search for other explanations, Gonzáles Rodríguez reminds us, “the facts speak for themselves.”
The ambitions of The Femicide Machine are much broader than mere reportage. The book advances two intertwining theses that speak to the context of unrestrained violence. The first concerns Ciudad Juárez itself, where the placement of the maquilla (assembling plants) at the U.S. border rendered it a “city-machine whose tensions entwined Mexico, the United States, the global economy and the underworld of organized crime.” The second chapter, “Assembly/Global City,” describes this operation in great detail, including the city’s alienation from a functional and protective nation, as well as the a-socialization of any forms of civil society that might resist violence and disorder.
After establishing this urban and global context, Gonzáles Rodríguez advances his second thesis concerning the murders themselves. “Impunity is the murderer’s greatest stimulant,” he writes, and “the femicide machine, whose functioning has evolved over time, [has incorporated] judicial and political systems to such an extent that Mexican authorities have sidetracked or blocked the investigations . . . They seek to discount systematic and peculiar violence against women, a violence wherein organized crime and Juárez’s political and economic powers converge.” If we were to ask to whom Gonzáles Rodríguez’s many condemnations are aimed, it is primarily to these figures who cynically perform the failure of their own authority (police chiefs, judges, agents of the drug war, politicians, global capitalists). He caustically adds that as “authorities manipulated facts in order to avoid responsibilities; women were revictimized.”
Early in the book Gonzáles Rodríguez ominously wonders whether other femicide machines are gestating in Mexico and abroad. If we read Darwin’s Nightmare in a certain way, then the answer is, lamentably, yes — either work should be enough to shock our consciences. However, a tension emerges when we ask which metaphor is more appropriate: the one dealing with ecology and mutation or the one dealing with technology and the systemization of effects. The ecological metaphor speaks to the environing conditions that support certain forms of life while making others precarious. This might fit Ciudad Juárez, were it not “an ultra-contemporary technological enclave in the midst of a degraded environment.” If this is the case then even the grotesque mutations limning Lake Victoria definitively drift away from any self-correcting evolutionary mechanisms.
The tension between these metaphors will determine where we are likely to invest both our hopes and our indignation when we read a book like The Femicide Machine. There is also a question of which image fixes our attention in the first place. In the 20th century Theodor Adorno famously wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” More recently the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has written about “the camp,” where “law and life” become indiscernible so that neither can produce legitimate restraints on the other. The Femicide Machine suggests that perhaps the referent for a new generation of writers (e.g. Roberto Bolaño, Valerie Martinez, Keston Sutherland) will be the slum, or the kind of urban conglomeration like Ciudad Juárez that systematically produces violence and misery at levels that Dickens would never have been able to imagine. That even biology cannot save us now is the gloomy possibility that The Femicide Machine places on the contemporary horizon. - Michael Schapira
Feeding the Femicide Machine in Mexico by Vanessa Perez
Bookforum talks with Sergio González Rodríguez by Margie Cook