Journeys in space and time with The Atlantic. Today: A trip to the U.S.-Mexico border—before all hell broke loose.


Workers place an unidentified body into a grave on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. Reuters/Gael Gonzalez.

"There is no way to count the dead," writes the anonymous author. These words, from an article published in 2009 in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra and later reprinted in English in n+1 and Harper's, offer as good a description as any of the violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Add illegal immigration into the mix, and the border, so hard to visualize or define in the first place, seems less like a real place and more like a stage where dramas emerge and fill the collective imagination.

All of which raises some questions. How did we get here? What was the border like before? One source of at least a few answers is "The Border," a two-part article by William Langewiesche that appeared in the May and June 1992 issues of The Atlantic Monthly. "The border is transient," he writes. "The border is dangerous. The border is crass. The food is bad, the prices are high, and there are no good bookstores. It is not the place to visit on your next vacation."

Still, as Langewiesche captures his meanderings in old-school, Hemingway-esque prose, one gets the impression that he's describing a very different world from the border of today. Now it's almost impossible to hear about Ciudad Juárez without also hearing the phrase "murder capital of the world." But Langewiesche calls it "the cradle of the maquiladoras," foreign-owned factories that import materials from the U.S. and export the finished products back north. The city is not only a place that is safe enough to visit. It is also a place of commerce, and things are looking up:

CIUDAD Juárez is the cradle of the maquiladoras. At a North American Philips plant the personnel director led me onto the production floor, where nine hundred young women in white T-shirts sat on stools along semi-automated assembly lines. The personnel director was a middle-aged American, a company man with a neutral face, easily forgotten. He said, "I ask you, does this look like a sweatshop?" The hall was cool, bright, pristine.

I answered, "Impressive." With no standard by which to judge television assembly, what I meant was the presence of so many young women -- white shirts, red lips, combed black hair, erect backs, quick eyes, row upon row. They perched their feet on the rungs of the stools in a dazzling display of footwear.

"Seven thousand sets a day," the man said. "Vertical integration. Sylvania, Magnavox, Philips. Top quality."

The women worked in silence, shielding their thoughts as we walked among them. Their fingers flew nimbly through the repetitive motions. The machines hissed and clanked. My host explained the details of production.

I interrupted him. "Why women?"

"Concentration and dexterity."

He was not unaffected by them. He said proudly, "The white shirts were my idea." He stopped behind one worker and, in a fatherly gesture, laid his hands on her shoulders. "Our plant beauty queen." She was about eighteen, and had delicate features coarsened by makeup. She turned to smile. We walked on. He said, "Juárez has developed a skilled labor force. The changes in just the last five years are incredible. People who think the Mexicans don't do good work are out of date. Productivity is as high here as anywhere in the world."

Well, almost. Productivity is about 80 percent as high as in the United States. But the labor costs are less than a tenth as much. (The "fully loaded" wage of the Philips workers is $1.88 an hour, including taxes, social services, one hot meal a day, and transportation from the slums.) This combination of low wages and big results is what worries the U.S. labor unions. They disagree with the theory that only low-skilled jobs go to Mexico. They say free trade will add fuel to the fire.

The Mexicans are counting on it. By their most optimistic model, the border industrialization will slowly spread south, bringing development and wealth with it. Mexican companies will be invigorated by competition. The pioneering enterprises will reshape Mexico around themselves, improving the roads and telephones, training the work force, and raising the standard of living. They will bootstrap Mexico out of the Third World.

Read the full version of William Langewiesche's article "The Border."

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