Book review: UTEP professor offers a historical investigation into life in Ciudad Juárez

By Mark Lusky

Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, has spent three decades doing field research in the sprawling frontier city. Juarez, Mexico. No social scientist has a better and more direct understanding of that apocalyptic urban space and its complex web of violence, exploitation and victimization. His latest book is “Downtown Juárez: Underworld of Violence and Abuse.”

Mark Lusky

Professor Campbell chooses not to simplify the intricacies of urban life in a frontier town by opting for orthodox models such as structural violence, but instead looks at the full complexity of the city’s underworld through a multifactorial lens. leading to the normalization of abuse and humiliation. Using a street anthropology of ‘deliberate wandering’, he meets his informants on their own terms in their immediate environment, where they are confronted with limited opportunities and brutal exploitation.

He summons Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi, among others, and sees the junkies, prostitutes, cops, mobsters, hitmen, bartenders, beggars, dealers and barflies as both victims and perpetrators caught in a banal circle of violence and evil with no way out.

Written in accessible prose, but deeply informed by science and theory, the book flows in a literary style akin to the fluency of noted anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss (“Tristes Tropiques”) and Napoleon Chagnon (“Yanomamö: The Fierce People”).

It’s the opposite of dry and annoying. Indeed, the descriptions of life on the street jump off the page in vivid images.

The cover of the latest book by UTEP Professor Howard Campbell.

A strong point of the work is the author’s way of capturing life in the central district and Colonia Bellavista through pin-sharp observation of unfolding scenes in hotels, clubs, canteens, parks and alleys. His interviews with urban dwellers of all kinds do not romanticize their lives, but document the extraordinary horror and misery that many residents encounter in a border region where standard social norms and rules are relaxed or do not apply. Many of the scenes he describes are filthy and horrific, as the violence and victimization erode people to the level of normlessness where abuse and violence are normal and expected.

This is a masterpiece of urban anthropology and one of the most important studies of life in Ciudad Juárez in recent history. It is a formidable work of scholarship that resonates far beyond academia.
Mark Lusk is Professor Emeritus of Social Work at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Read more: ​​​​The UTEP professor’s new book looks at the root causes of violence in Juárez

Cover photo: Posters of missing and murdered girls hang on the walls of Club Verde in downtown Juárez. Authorities closed the nightclub hotel in 2011 after two federal police officers were killed there and identified it as a human trafficking center where at least 11 girls and young women were detained and killed. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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