Written by Guillermo Paxton — Seventy per cent of the heroin and 90 per cent of the cocaine in the USA comes in across the country’s border with Mexico. The war on drugs has been fought for over a decade with the American government concentrating on halting the supply and the Mexicans trying to reduce violent crime in their country. Guillermo Paxton, previously an investigative journalist in Mexico, now resident in the States after threats were made against him and his family, tells us in his novel just who is winning.
Prior to the election of President Felipe Calderon, there was an implicit arrangement of non-interference between narco-traffickers and government. Calderon’s decision to send in the army to challenge the cartels changed all that. Since 2006 as many as 40,000 people have died. Leadership vacuums within the cartels have led to increased violence as they fight amongst themselves. Meanwhile, bribery, intimidation and corruption have damaged law enforcement efforts at every turn. Paxton tells a fictional story of several people connected through the drug wars to paint a picture of life in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Felipe is a freelance killer for the cartels. Drunk and paranoid, he trusts no-one, moving from job to job, killing with impunity. However, at night he is haunted by visions of his victims. Forced to choose sides as the war between gangs intensifies, he forms an attachment to the prostitute Ruby, and senses his salvation through her. However Ruby sees the riches that pass through the fingers of gangsters, and doesn’t want to settle for someone so low down the totem pole. Her betrayal of Felipe may lead to both their deaths.
Saul Saavedra is the crime reporter for the Juarez Daily, and despite the risks to his family – no crime reporter has a picture with their byline for fear of reprisal – continues to investigate both the criminal gangs and corrupt law and army personnel. He has struck big with a mafia informant known as The Lic (short for licienciado, or counsellor) and is in possession of a video of soldiers shooting gang members they’ve arrested in cold blood.
Then there’s Juan, who arrives in Juarez having agreed to be deported to Mexico in exchange for early parole from an American prison. He is already an experienced gang member, and his tear-drop tattoos testify to his capacity for violence. It is no surprise his talents are quickly recognised and he begins working for a cartel. For Juan though, violence is not just business but also pleasure, and his sexual sadism quickly spirals out of control.
What Paxton delivers with The Plaza – Mexican slang for gang turf – is partly an action-thriller, and partly heart-felt plea for his own country. His journalism skills help him to dissect the roles that government, army, police and criminals play and he doesn’t shy away from pointing out there is no easy solution. His writing, particularly his descriptions of violence, and the way it has become everyday, even mundane, reminds me of Roger Smith’s novels set in South Africa.
One criticism would be that the author’s story-telling skills are not as sharp as Smith’s. Sometimes I felt the book read more as a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive novel in which developments in one story line bring changes in another. Perhaps Paxton felt that tieing things up like this would have compromised the essential truth of his story but I feel it would have made an already very satisfying read even better.
No Frills Buffalo
CFL Rating: 4 Stars