This article examines Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), with a particular focus on the fourth section ‘La parte de los crímenes’. This fourth part, of five, weaves together multiple plot lines examining possible causes, perpetrators, and victims of the feminicides that occurred roughly from 1994 onwards in Ciudad Juárez (fictionalised as Santa Teresa). In the novel as a whole, hundreds of plots emerge and fade throughout the narrative. Critics such as Jean Franco, Cathy Fourez, and Grant Farred have convincingly argued that despite there being many other significant stories and characters, the main preoccupation of the novel is the murdered women of ‘La parte de los crímenes’, with references to the feminicides also reverberating in the other sections. Here I contend that questions of gender, broadly defined, are central to Bolaño’s critique of historical and contemporary processes of economic liberalisation – as well as being fundamental to his portrayal of ethical horizons of solidarity that demand we take responsibility for ceasing such instances of violence.

There have been some excellent non-fictional interpretations of the Juárez murders that combine feminist and economic arguments. Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso suggests that the women’s tortured and discarded bodies are a symbol of their status as ‘mercancías fetichizadas sexualmente’ (431), whilst legal scholar Deborah Weissman links violence towards women with the employment policies of the maquiladora sector where many of them work. The word feminicide (subtly different from ‘femicide’) has been productively defined as ‘murders of women and girls founded on a gender power structure’; many of the different factors that contribute to such violence in the Americas have been outlined in the volume Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas edited by Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano, from which this definition is taken (5). These types of analyses have, in turn, been used to illuminate a number of dimensions to the novel by literary scholars such as Franco, Fourez, Sol Peláez, Marius Littschwager, Laura Barberán Reinares, and others.

In the first section of this article, I widen the temporal frame of reference (compared to other studies) in economic terms, arguing that is it not just neoliberalism, the late twentieth century’s ‘successful hegemonic project voicing the interests of financial and/or transnational capital’ that is the target of criticism in 2666, but also historical liberalisation processes such as those associated with the Latin American independence movements. These independence movements tended to play out according to a classically liberal operation, promoting ‘formally free choices of formally free and rational actors who seek to advance their own material or ideal interests in an institutional framework that […] maximizes the scope for formally free choice’ (Jessop 455). I make this claim about Bolaño’s broader postcolonial preoccupations with reference to an, as yet, unexamined passage that implies structural links between instances of gendered violence at different moments in time and space, from colonial Chile to Mexico under NAFTA. The passage speculates about the rape of an indigenous woman by Ambrosio O’Higgins, father of the Chilean independence hero Bernardo O’Higgins. Through fictional montage this is linked to both contemporary labour laws enacted under the Pinochet dictatorship, which plunged Chile into a neoliberal hegemony in the late 1970s, and feminicides in the fictionalised Ciudad Juárez border space, dominated by the maquiladora industry. Such parallels trace a postcolonial critique by drawing attention to the circumstances in which patterns of violence established in the colonial era return and repeat themselves in different forms. In the two anecdotes described, it is subaltern women’s bodies, specifically, that suffer in the struggle over resources. The dense constellation of debates evoked and deployed in this short fragment of a few pages serves to remind us of the rhizomatic nature of 2666 and Bolaño’s oeuvre as a whole, with its multiple possible entry points, making a single, definitive interpretation difficult. However, I posit that my conclusions lend weight to the side of the debate that finds in Bolaño a strong belief in the ongoing productive potential of literature in a politico-ethical sense.1

My argument, therefore, is twofold: first, that Bolaño implicates western liberalism in creating a state of perpetual violence that falls disproportionately on a gender – and racially – determined section of the global population. Second, that his novel demonstrates, through its characters, a politico-ethical response to this that he hopes the reader will mimic. In order to analyse these two aspects of 2666, I bring together analytical categories from Slavoj Žižek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections and Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, two texts that, in many ways, share similar concerns. Both highlight the problematic way in which the media represents violence by making strategic decisions about what to represent and what to ignore or obscure. As I highlight in section two, this is also a concern of Bolaño, and I argue that his decision to represent the murdered women of the fictionalised Ciudad Juárez in the linguistic style of a police/forensic report is an attempt to reverse the ‘visual spectacle that numbs the senses and, like the sublime itself, put out of play the very capacity to think’ that Butler accuses the media of in relation to the Iraq War (148). In a Mexican mediatic landscape, Bolaño’s novel serves to recirculate debates about the murders that were often dismissed or forcibly silenced due to different levels of complicity within elite sectors of society.

Žižek’s work frequently points out the hypocrisies inherent to the ideology of Western liberalism and in this particular text he provides the tools to distinguish between different, but interrelated, forms of violence that operate as a corollary to the ‘smooth functioning of our economic and political systems’ (1). Furthermore, with reference to the notion of ‘symbolic violence’, I demonstrate how Bolaño stresses the role of the discursive construction of the female and the feminine in Mexican society, in further intensifying the effects of ‘systemic’ violence upon them.

‘First World’ [sic] complicity in systemic violence is also the basis for Butler’s proposal of how to move forward ethically. She says that ‘the dislocation from First World privilege, however temporary, offers a chance to start to imagine a world in which that violence might be minimized, in which an inevitable interdependency becomes acknowledged as the basis for a global political community’ (xiii). I argue that in the novel Bolaño seeks to confront his elite characters with their ‘First World privilege’ (Butler), and shows how they then take responsibility for addressing the violence. Butler uses Emmanuel Levinas’ ‘ethics of the face’ to articulate this responsibility, which should be an effect of the recognition of one’s own precarity in the light of the death of the ‘other’. In the final section, I show that it is precisely through the haunting of the character Azucena (a diputada), and other elite women, that Bolaño evokes this precarity and seeks to lay the foundations for a ‘political community’ based on interdependency (Butler xiii).

1. Liberalism and Neoliberalism in Chile and Mexicco

In a special edition of Environment and Planning dealing with neoliberalism in Latin America, Thomas Perreault and Patricia Martin state: ‘The contemporary neoliberalisation of Latin America rests on a deep history of colonial and neo-colonial relationships, recalling the region’s earlier position in the world capitalist system as a supplier of raw materials and a consumer of finished goods’ (195). Chile’s colonial and postcolonial relationship with the world market has been no exception to their rule. The reforms of Charles III are often held accountable for pushing the Spanish American Empire towards Independence, due to its desired limitation of the power and freedom of creole elites and increase of taxes to go to the Spanish crown. Nevertheless, each country’s case was different and in Chile the impact of these reforms was limited (Barbier 381). Instead, figures such as Ambrosio O’Higgins, the Captain General (r. 1788–1796), carried out liberal reforms and local public works projects by courting both influential peninsulares and local elite families, circumventing the more reactionary Spanish decision-making forums (Barbier 382–3, 390). Once the independence movement was underway, at the hands of O’Higgins’ son Bernardo, the elites had the backing of the British Empire, which wanted open access to Chilean trade. The liberation wars in this country were some of the shortest in Latin America; Chile stabilised very quickly, gaining an advantage over its neighbours by securing early and profitable trade relations with Britain, which effectively replaced Spain in buying and controlling vital natural resources.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century Chile has been one of the Latin American countries most committed to the neoliberal economic model. It was also one of the earliest Latin American countries to open its markets to the global economy, when most had looked inwards with import substitution industrialisation (ISI) during the 1950s and 1960s. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship led the conversion from ISI and state intervention to laissez-faire neoliberal politics by forcefully submitting the economy to the laws of the market shortly after gaining power in 1973. This line of economic development has been largely carried forward unquestioned throughout the transition period and into democracy. In ‘The Impossible Closing: Death, Neoliberalism, and the Postcolonial in Bolaño’s 2666’, Grant Farred suggests that ‘el secreto del mundo’, which is how 2666’s character Fate describes the murders of women in the north of Mexico, may be a cypher for a structural link between neoliberalism and death, which postcolonial states such as Chile and Mexico have failed to acknowledge and which Bolaño’s work seeks to illuminate (691). My analysis of an internal monologue of the character Amalfitano below, in some ways complements this approach; I note the way instances of violence associated with independence-era liberalisation processes are structurally linked within the novel to the murders of women associated with contemporary neoliberalisation. In Žižek’s schema of violence, outlined in more detail below, this would be called systemic violence: ‘the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems’ (1).

These historical links between liberalisation processes and the contemporary murders are made in 2666 through structural and thematic juxtapositions rather than through a suggested linear cause/effect or cyclical relationship. In the second part, ‘La parte de Amalfitano’, Bolaño creates a link between the independence period of Chile, the violation of a woman, and the implementation of neoliberal policies by Pinochet’s government. These separate moments are all united in the form of a book called O’Higgins es araucano by Lonko Kilapán published in 1978, which the Chilean Professor, Amalfitano, reflects on at length during his delirious internal monologues. It is not only the title and the work’s content but also the date it was published that all point to, and unite, different moments of precarity caused by liberalisation processes.

The suggestion of the book is that Bernardo O’Higgins, the Chilean independence hero, is araucano. This is based on the premise that his mother was araucana and had married Ambrosio O’Higgins, Governor of Chile and Viceroy of Peru, in a traditional indigenous ceremony. In official records, Bernardo is the son of Ambrosio O’Higgins and a prominent local lady, Isabel Riquelme; but this book, claiming otherwise, exists outside of the realms of Bolaño’s fiction. Amalfitano thinks to himself,

Ambrosio O’Higgins casándose con una araucana, pero bajo la legislación del admapu y encima rematándolo con el tradicional gapitun o ceremonia del rapto, le parecía una broma macabra que solo remitía a un abuso, a una violación, a una burla extra usada por el gordezuelo Ambrosio para cogerse tranquilo a la india. (277)

This reflection by Amalfitano proposes the idea that the liberator of Chile was in fact a product of the rape, by a foreign (Irish-born) invader, of an indigenous woman. In symbolic and literal terms, by this logic, Chilean independence is founded on the foreign ‘penetration’ of the territory/body and the ‘kidnapping’ of their resources/woman which, more often than not, proceeded with complete disregard for the wishes or consent of the indigenous population. In line with an analysis attentive to intersectional experiences of oppression, we can note that it is the indigenous woman’s body that suffers most in this particular struggle for free access to trade.

The rape described by Amalfitano structurally recalls the violation of the women in Santa Teresa because they are fresh in the reader’s mind, from a mention just a few pages earlier. This mention was in the form of a protest, witnessed by Amalfitano, against impunity with regard to the crimes. The presence of a reference to the feminicides in this section is notable in terms of the wider structure of the novel; it is one of several instances where they are alluded to outside of ‘La parte de los crímenes’, providing a structural undercurrent to the novel. The new oppressors implicated in the crimes in ‘La parte de los crímenes’, who, by postcolonial logic, structurally replace the colonial ones alluded to above, are potentially still foreign (a German, Klaus Haas has been accused and imprisoned), or mestizo (half Mexican, half North American like the Uribe cousins whom Haas accuses), local to the area, or a combination of all of those; but significantly, there is never a definitive resolution that would enable us to pin the blame on one, or even a few, individuals. Brett Levinson outlines the significance of the ‘case closed without resolution’ status of the feminicidal crimes, in an article that describes the murders as ‘a detached sequence […] one conspiratorial performance, involving police, government, unions, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, tourists, owners of maquiladoras, international companies’ (190). The ‘perpetrator’ for Levinson is likewise structural, as emblematised by the fact that the murders cannot be pinned on one individual or sector of society. In the end, therefore, the dynamic of the two episodes in which (subaltern) women are raped is the same: a local population either complicit or powerless to resist, and bigger political and economic liberalisation forces at work.

A veiled link between liberalisation processes, vulnerability, and death, is revealed in the significance of the date of publication of the book about O’Higgins signalled by Bolaño: 1978 saw the introduction of an infamous labour law by the Pinochet regime which allowed employers to fire workers without just cause (El Decreto Ley 2.200). If, as Fredric Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious, ‘our readings of the past are vitally dependent on our experience of the present’ (xi), then the investigation into the shady origins of Chilean independence by Lonko Kilapán in the 1970s may also shed light on the dynamics contributing to – and consequences of – legal changes enforced in 1978. In other words, whilst writing about a moment in which the vulnerability of the local population is illuminated, Kilapán may have observed parallels with the oppressive labour laws being implemented at the time – links that, in turn, Bolaño may expect a discerning reader to reflect upon. A more explicit focus on regressive labour laws in ‘La parte de los crimenes’ holds them responsible for the precarity of many of the murdered women. Deborah Weissman has drawn attention to this phenomenon in the north of Mexico: ‘The disciplining of independent labor unions and the rise of government-sponsored labor organizations, while not new strategies, are often used by the Mexican government at the behest of maquila owners to accomplish flexibilization as a means to control wages and working conditions’ (20). In 2666 the flatmate of a murdered woman is fired for trying to start a union, intensifying her own precarious situation.

2. The Murders as ‘Un retrato del mundo industrial en el Tercer Mundo’ (373)

The anonymity with which women are hired and fired in the maquiladoras is frequently underlined in the novel. This is one factor that leads to a difficulty in investigating the crimes properly, another being the general anonymity caused by high a migrant turnover in the area: ‘La primera muerta de mayo no fue jamás identificada, por lo que supuso que era una emigrante de algún estado del centro o del sur que paró en Santa Teresa antes de seguir viaje rumbo a los Estados Unidos’ (450). In another case, a woman goes missing after being turned away from the maquiladora for arriving two minutes late, a common phenomenon, and one that leaves women vulnerable and isolated, often in dangerous areas of the city: ‘aquella zona era solitaria y peligrosa, apta para ser transitada en coche y no en autobus y luego a pie, al menos un kilómetro y medio desde la última parada del autobus’ (451). The links between details such as the year of the implementation of Pinochet’s labour laws (alluded to by the publication date of O’Higgins es araucano) and the murders of women in the north of Mexico may appear distant, but there are numerous other textual strategies that juxtapose the two contexts, allowing them to shed light on each other. Chile is kept at the back of the reader’s mind throughout ‘la parte de los crímenes’ due to the denomination ‘basurero El Chile’ given to ‘el mayor basurero clandestino de Santa Teresa, más grande que el basurero municipal’, and one where many of the murdered corpses are uncovered. It is, moreover, said to ‘huele a muerto’ from ten minutes’ drive away (752–3).

In 2666 Bolaño reveals some of the ways in which the systemic violence inherent to the functioning of the maquiladoras is justified or mystified through economic arguments. He leads us to question whether these ‘benefits’ are worth the cost to women and society. One of the arguments for attracting maquiladoras to the frontier is job creation. Correspondingly, in 2666 the woman in charge of the department of sexual crimes asks Sergio González, ‘¿Sabes cuál es la ciudad con el índice de desempleo femenino más bajo en México? […] ¿Santa Teresa?, dijo. Pues sí, Santa Teresa […] Un trabajo mal pagado y explotado, con horarios de miedo y sin garantías sindicales, pero trabajo al fin y al cabo’ (710). She mentions that the murder ratio of women to men is four times higher in Santa Teresa than the rest of the republic. Bolaño juxtaposes these two statistics to make sure it is understood that the city with the highest female employment in Mexico also has four times the average female homicide rate, a fact he believes not to be incidental. He is also explicit about many other elements of the negative sides of the maquiladoras and their effect on society: ‘Sólo una de las maquiladoras tenía cantina para los trabajadores. En las otras los obreros comían junto a sus máquinas o formando corillos en cualquier rincón […] La mayoría eran mujeres. En el basurero donde se encontró a la muerta no sólo se acumulaban los restos de los habitantes de las casuchas sino también los desperdicios de cada maquiladora’ (449). This quotation alone illustrates the poor working conditions (for instance, they have no facilities for lunch), the inequality they provoke (the casuchas or temporary homes build up around them as migrants arrive with nowhere to live), and their environmental impact (the pollution they release). The maquiladora presence in ‘La parte de los crímenes’ looms over the section as they crop up time and time again, listed as the workplace of women who are found murdered. When some executives from a maquiladora – two of them Mexican, one North American – are informed about the discovery of a corpse on their land, instead of showing shock or concern, they are merely keen to have it removed as soon as possible and bribe the policeman to ‘take care of everything’ (450).

Another related argument put forward in a number of sociological studies – including that by Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso examined below – is that a change in the power dynamics between genders accounts for the crimes against women. These are not incompatible with, but rather reinforce, the wider argument that liberalisation processes are responsible for increased vulnerability. In and around Ciudad Juárez, not only have women gained more freedom from entering the labour market, but they are also chosen in preference to men in the maquiladora sector. In all these cases, the murders seem to achieve – as Josefine Ludmer predicts, in relation to Argentine crime novels – ‘un cambio violento […] un borradura de un espacio, y un cambio de lugar para el delincuente’; they both assert domination over the women and eliminate them from the competitive market for jobs, in which they have the advantage in that particular region of Mexico (464).

The operation described by Ludmer as ‘un borradura de un espacio’, a violent act of erasure specifically deployed in cases where women gain an advantage over men, can be observed in the first four murders described in the novel. These involve the unresolved strangling and sexual violation of a schoolgirl, a woman whose lover confesses to killing her out of jealousy when she will not leave her boyfriend for him, an unidentified woman carrying cigarettes, make-up and a packet of condoms who is stabbed, and a radio show host who is shot next to her car after offering a ride home to the radio show technician. The only thing these women have in common is that they have challenged the patriarchal order in some way. The schoolgirl has the simple (deserved) benefit of an education; the second woman has had enough freedom to sustain an affair; the third seems sexually active and in control of her sexuality, as denoted by the condoms; the fourth has earned enough money to attain the status symbol of a car, whereas the technician has not. In the next section, I further examine the symbolic violence that works to reinforce the justification for such violence against women.

3. Symbolic and Systemic Violence

Weissman argues that economic liberalisation processes, which accommodate market forces at the expense of Mexican workers, have directly contributed to the production of gender violence because these policies ‘have insinuated themselves into the realm of the private spaces of household and affected the social order of communities as factors contributing to violence against women’ (4–5). Both this, and the way in which Bolaño seems to allude to this point in 2666, can be usefully understood in terms of Žižek’s classifications of violence. In Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, he distinguishes between subjective violence ‘directly visible […] performed by a clearly identifiable agent’ and objective violence – both of which are explored in the novel. Within objective violence, Žižek further identifies two categories: symbolic violence, ‘embodied in language and its forms […] the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms’, and systemic violence, mentioned previously, associated with the smooth operation of our political and economic systems (1).

The violence that Weissman suggests is at work is systemic violence, which feeds into symbolic violence, which, in turn, reinforces the original systemic violence. Weissman shows that despite often complicated technological demands, women’s jobs are classified as unskilled in order to keep wages low (21). Real wages in Ciudad Juárez have declined steadily since 1995 and are often not enough to cover basic household needs, which forces some women to make up the deficit through prostitution (Weissman 21–5). In terms of symbolic violence, time and time again in the police reports of ‘La parte de los crímenes’ there are comments about the characteristics of the women or their dress, followed by the casual supposition that they must have been prostitutes: ‘El cadáver tenía las uñas pintadas de rojo, lo que llevó a pensar a los primeros policías que acudieron al lugar del hallazgo que se trataba de una puta’ (650). The implication is that if the women were prostitutes it is somehow less troubling that they were murdered, or worse, that their end was somehow justified. This alludes to the problematically unbalanced allocation of grief to different bodies that Judith Butler denounces in Precarious Life: ‘the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and what kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death’ (xv). This attitude is drawn attention to when the accused German, Haas Klaus, recounts a conversation that he had with another inmate: ‘Le pregunté qué pensaba de las mujeres muertas, de las muchachitas muertas. Me miró y me dijo que eran unas putas. ¿O sea, se merecían la muerte?, dije. No, dijo el preso. Se merecían ser cogidas cuantas veces tuviera uno ganas de cogerlas, pero no la muerte’ (613). The symbolic violence inherent in the difference between referring to the girls as ‘muchachitas’, on the one hand, or as ‘putas’, on the other establishes a ‘relation of social domination’ (Žižek 1) which contributes to the abuse of women being tolerated by the police, as well as other sectors of society, as suggested by Bolaño.

Studies of the gender culture in the maquiladoras reveal that neoliberal practices are also to blame for the sexualisation of women in these regions:

sexual competition is encouraged both as a device to control labor and as a means to increase productivity. Maquila managers seek to hire women considered to be attractive and sexy. Women are encouraged to dress suggestively, to wear lipstick, and to flirt as a means of securing their employment. (Weissman 27)

Furthermore, in order to keep wages low,

Women are portrayed in ways that subject them to disrepute […] new stereotypes have developed related to the characteristics of women on the assembly line. Women workers are now represented as inherently unsuitable for training and unworthy of investment […] they are denounced as flighty, irresponsible [people] who […] “just come to meet friends, boys, have fun”. (Weissman 39)

This calls to mind the argument of Argentinian intellectual David Viñas, who highlights the way in which both classic liberalism and military authoritarianism used a state-based ‘theory of difference’ in Argentina to justify the domination of ‘Others’; in this case it is the gender-based theory of ‘loose women’ that excuses the casual attitude to these ‘disappearances’ in Mexico (Viñas 11).

This negative scenario is presented in Sergio González Rodríguez’s non-fiction book Huesos en el Desierto, with which an intertextual relationship is established in 2666. One of the women that González Rodríguez speaks to recounts that when she arrived with her family in Ciudad Juárez, ‘nos dimos cuenta de que las propias autoridades, o la gente, difunden la idea de que a las mujeres les pasa aquello porque se lo buscan’ (151). The way in which this becomes a widely accepted attitude is illustrated in 2666 when the fictional Sergio González Rodríguez (explicitly named Sergio González) is talking with a prostitute in Mexico City about the murders:

exasperado le dijo que en Santa Teresa estaban matando putas, que por lo menos demostrara un poco de solidaridad gremial, a lo que la puta le contesta que no, que tal como él le había contado la historia las que estaban muriendo eran obreras, no putas. Obreras, obreras, dijo. Y entonces Sergio le pidió perdón y como tocado por un rayo vio un aspecto de la situación que hasta ese momento había pasado por alto. (583)

This suggests that attempts by the authorities to lessen the political impact of the deaths have been subliminally incorporated into language and ways of understanding, constituting a form of symbolic violence that even Sergio is not aware of at first.

Despite tying the violence against women to wider processes of liberalisation in other places and at other times, Bolaño’s fictional case study of Ciudad Juárez also fulfils a local denunciatory role due to its intertextual relationship with Huesos en el Desierto. By fictionalising many elements of this sensational but sincere non-fictional investigation into the Ciudad Juárez murders, Bolaño’s novel is able to counteract the ‘sheen of apparent neutrality’ that regimes such as the Mexican state use to veil contradictions and dissident positions like González Rodriguez’s for the sake of neoliberalism’s smooth perpetuation (Masiello 3). Discussed in Butler’s terms, the work fulfils the function of restoring the status of the murdered women as lives worth grieving (Butler 20). The graphic detail of the physical mutilation experienced by the women serves to create a ‘truer image’, to ‘convey the full horror and reality of the suffering’ and counteract the ‘media’s evacuation of the human’ that Butler discusses in relation to the Iraq War. This notion of the ‘evacuation of the human’ could easily describe the partial or absent coverage of the feminicides in the real media in Mexico. Bolaño’s work, on the other hand, functions to visibilise the murders, ‘disrupting the hegemonic field of representation’ which has sought to bury these images (Butler 150).

4. Post-Political Media Spectacle

The media, in a perfect world, could be expected to fulfil a social role: holding authorities to account, giving a voice to marginalised groups, and denouncing crimes or failures in the justice system. Instead we are presented a situation where the media too has become accustomed, and indifferent, to the violence. It is corrupt and thus serves as an obstruction to investigation. It forms part of the landscape of symbolic violence through the perpetuation of inappropriate jokes about the murders of women: ‘Lo cierto es que la violación “por los tres conductos” se popularizó en la policía de Santa Teresa, adquirió un prestigio semioficial que en ocasiones se vio reflejado en los informes redactados por los policías, en los interrogatorios, en las charlas off the record con la prensa’ (577). When Haas Klaus tries to denounce the fact that people are being murdered in prison, his lawyer tells him that people already know. When he asks why they do not denounce it if they know, she replies that it is because they are discreet: ‘¿Los periodistas también?, dijo Haas. Éstos son los más discretos de todos, dijo la abogada. En ellos la discreción equivale a dinero’ (655). This highlights the media’s complicity in helping maintain the neoliberal consensus, which has replaced strategies of confrontation and debate in society (Masiello 37) and failed to render the lives of the murdered women as publicly ‘grievable’ (Butler xx–xxi).

Furthermore, in many areas of Latin America there has been a shift since the 1980s and 1990s to a strongly ‘market-powerful media’, increasingly ‘integrated into economically powerful multimedia conglomerates, often with strong transnational operations’, which reduces, if not removes, the hope of media representation for marginal groups (Hallin 47). The media’s indifference to giving a voice to marginal groups in 2666 is also made clear in the following:

En enero […] la filial santateresiana del grupo Mujeres de Sonora por la Democracia y la Paz (MSDP) hizo una rueda de prensa, a la que asistieron únicamente dos periódicos de Santa Teresa, en la cual expusieron los tratos vejatorios y desconsiderados que sufrían los familiares de las mujeres muertas y enseñaron las cartas sobre esta cuestión pensaban enviar al gobernador del estado […] y a la Procuraduría del Estado. Cartas que nunca fueron contestadas. (626)

This draws attention to the lack of interest from both the press and the government.

In another passage, Bolaño constructs a clever parody of the way in which these women’s groups are presented by the press and viewed by wider society. In the first instance, when the MSDP appear on the popular talk show with Reinaldo they are presented thus:

Florita Almada dijo que ella estaba allí solo para presentar a esas mujeres que tenían algo importante que decir. Acto seguido las activistas del MSDP hablaron de la impunidad que se vivía en Santa Teresa, de la desidia policial, de la corrupción y del número de mujeres que crecía sin parar desde el año 1993. Luego dieron las gracias al amable público y a nuestra amiga Florita Almada y se despidieron no sin antes emplazar al gobernados del estado […] a poner remedio a esta situación insostenible en un país donde dizque se respetaban los derechos humanos y la ley. (631–2)

This group is arguably the first in the context of the novel to frankly address the most important issues to do with the murders. However, the narrative tone and form take away from the seriousness of the content, allowing Bolaño to show how women’s activist groups are often received. The style of paraphrasing serves to minimise the important elements of their discourse by putting it on the same level as the giving of thanks and the signing off. Putting all the individual points they make into a single list takes away the weight that each issue carries by itself. The most fundamental part – calling on the authorities to take responsibility for the human rights of its citizens – is tagged on as an afterthought, barely worth mentioning. The attitude towards the group and the ineffectiveness of the media in representing them is made clear in the reaction by the head of the TV channel to this outpouring of frank truth: panic and the suspension of Reinaldo’s show.

In another encounter with a metropolitan feminist group, this time from the supposedly modern and forward-thinking capital city of Mexico, a similar situation occurs. The tone with which the women are reported, once again, makes them sound sarcastic and conflictive. They appear ‘en un programa de la tele denunciando el goteo incesante de muertes en Santa Teresa y pidiendo al gobierno el envío de policías del DF para resolver la situación, ya que la policía de Sonora era incapaz, cuando no cómplice, para enfrentarse a un problema que a todas luces la excedía’ (630). Their phrases are similarly presented in a clichéd way, which makes it difficult to take seriously the plausible suggestions that they make: ‘Las Mujeres en Acción dijeron que Haas, probablemente, era un chivo expiatorio y retaron al conductor del programa a que mencionara una sola prueba contra él. También hablaron del MSDP, las feministas de Sonora, unas compañeras cuyo trabajo se hacía en las condiciones más adversas’ (640). They are presented as aggressive, rather than necessarily emphatic ‘retaron al conductor […] a que mencionara una sola prueba contra él’ (as above). The group finishes by criticising Florita Almada, who despite her unconventional methods (clairvoyance), is one of the women who has arguably achieved the most in terms of diffusing information about the case of the murdered women in the mass media. This highlights the lack of unity amongst groups working for the same cause.

When Albert Kessler – North American ex-FBI agent-turned criminal expert – arrives in Santa Teresa and becomes part of a political spectacle of pseudo-action that, despite his own seemingly genuine attempts at investigation – and lucid criticism of the state failure to provide basic security measures – serves more as a tool for distraction than a platform for change. This spectacle can be likened to Beatriz Sarlo’s description of ‘Post-Politics’ in her article ‘Aesthetics and Post-Politics: From Fujimori to the Gulf War’ when she remarks: ‘The symbols of the public sphere, along with its discursive genres, are replaced with a scenography that is no longer even a stage but rather stage-craft, constructed by and, above all, for the mirror of the mass media’ (183). This kind of scenario is illustrated, in 2666, by the flurry of interrogation from the press on Kessler’s arrival about who he was being paid by, how much he was being paid, whether his presence indicates an acknowledgement of failure on the part of the local authorities in solving the crimes, and ‘¿No hubiera sido más patriótico encargarle un asunto mexicano a un mexicano que a un norteamericano?’ (719–20). Despite the fact that Kessler’s presence provokes debate and a questioning of state decisions on the part of the media, the preoccupation is largely money related and otherwise focuses on the unproductive issue of national sovereignty, rather than who is the most appropriate person to attempt to shed light on the vulnerability of women in Santa Teresa.

Kessler, as a criminologist and psychological profiler, represents to the local authorities who hire him, a ‘technical’ solution, which Sarlo proposes as replacing ‘politics’ in the ‘Post-Political’ era: ‘If political choices are increasingly more complex and, consequently, difficult to communicate to public opinion, technology pretends to dispense with the need for public opinion because it presents its reasons as the only viable ones’ (185). Kessler sets to work with other agents of the Mexican police and engages in a silent mapping process in which those in his company are not privy to his thoughts. When it comes to the ‘big revelation’ that might be expected in a classic detective tale, however, the map does not serve to identify a geographical pattern to the murders which would enable him to accurately predict the next one. Instead, he comes up with an explanation that involves the geographical distribution of neglect and insecurity which is due to the lack of provision of basic services such as street-lighting in all but the most prominent avenues: ‘De noche para una mujer, dijo Kessler, es un peligro. También: es una temeridad. La mayoría de las calles, si exceptuamos las arterias mayores por donde pasan los autobuses, tiene una iluminación deficiente o carece totalmente de iluminación. En algunos barrios no entra la policía, le dijo al presidente municipal’ (756). Rather than identifying a criminological explanation for the crimes or shedding light on the internal workings of a psychopathic killer or group, as we may have expected, we are afforded a political, economic, and sociological reason for the vulnerability of women which points to the lack of action of the state to provide even minimal infrastructure for the protection of its citizens.

Despite the fact that this is a valuable and pertinent observation, voiced in the public sphere at a press conference held for Kessler, the political actors merely engage in a symbolic show of ‘understanding’. The presidente municipal, ‘puso cara de infinita tristeza y de infinita comprensión’, and then the blame is handed on to the municipal police (756). As Sarlo says, ‘the truth is indifferent, not because it recognizes truth as a construction but rather because truth is simply superfluous in the face of the hyperrealism of broadcast news or the audiovisual simulation of discourses’ (183). Bolaño mimics the effect of this audiovisual stimulation through fast-paced reported media language and the use of a polyphonic form setting Kessler’s conclusion amongst the proliferation of other discourses displayed at the event, as with the feminists’ media coverage analysed previously. However, due to the integrated fictional medium in which Bolaño stages this media show he is, nonetheless, able to draw the reader’s attention to some of the key issues that he seeks to emphasise throughout 2666, such as the failure of the local government to provide safe conditions for the maquiladora workers.

Although Bolaño presents multiple possible factors for the precarity of women, the lack of state provision of safe streets and illumination is one that is given particular weight since it closes ‘La parte de los crímenes’. The final sentence of that section of the novel reads, ‘Algunas de estas calles eran totalmente oscuras, similares a agujeros negros, y las risas que salían de no se sabía dónde eran la única señal, la única información que tenían los vecinos y los extraños para no perderse’ (791). The lack of ‘light’, in a symbolic sense, may allude to the failure of the enlightenment project. Jean-Jacques Rousseau sought to marshal enlightenment ideals by proposing a social contract securing the liberty of citizens under the protection of the law – a contract that has clearly broken down in Ciudad Juárez/Santa Teresa. Neoliberal political policy has led to the shrinking back of the state in almost every way. The lack of provision of lighting on residential streets contrasts with the bright illumination of the industrial parks which Kessler visits: ‘la iluminacion que caía de los grandes postes de luz lo inundaba todo con un halo incierto de premura, de evento importante, lo que no era cierto, pues sólo se trataba de un día más de trabajo’ (737). This quotation directly questions the ‘enlightened’ nature of the current economic system by implying that in reality it has just condemned people to ‘un día más de trabajo’ – a day-to-day life of exploitative work. Žižek likewise argues that the functioning of the liberal order since the Enlightenment has been based on the illusion that we have freedom of choice, but this is a choice that ‘effectively functions as a mere formal gesture of consent to our own oppression and exploitation’ (25). This is the reality for many of the women who came to Santa Teresa, having made a rational economic judgement given the high chance of employment but who find themselves, at best, demeaned and precariously employed or, at worst, violently tortured and murdered.

5. Solidarity through Precarity

Whilst highlighting the flaws in simplistic gender-based solidarity through representing in the media conflicts played out by different factions, as well as denouncing the media and society’s general tendency to ‘evacuate the human’ (Butler) in the representation and public discussion of the murdered women, Bolaño begins to invoke ethical responsibility, condensing resistance around the figure of the diputada, Azucena. The diputada is sexually, economically, and politically threatening to the established order, since on all those counts she is one of the only characters who begins to reverse the paradigms of the novel. She is constructed as a female sexual predator: ‘Mi leyenda sexual es conocido por todo México, pero las leyendas nunca son ciertas y menos que en ninguna otra parte en México’ (749). Despite claiming that this image is wrong, Azucena runs against the grain of ‘La parte de los crímenes’ by objectifying, and toying with, her male lovers, using them for her own gratification, rather than the other way around: ‘Los amantes que vinieron después los tuve porque me gustaban en la cama o porque me aburría y ellos eran ocurrentes o divertidos o tan raros, tan infinitamente raros, que sólo a mí me hacían reír’ (750). The men, by this account, become pitiable, or worthy of ridicule.

In terms of her family status, Azucena also attempts to overturn hundreds of years of snobbery and to reverse the decadence of a family estate: ‘Les dije que se había acabado el tiempo de las baterías y del chingaqueditismo. Les dije que no iba a tolerar más maricones en la familia’ (751). As we can see, the diputada is not a perfect role-model: her speech is littered with the symbolic violence of homophobic references and she should perhaps not be excused for treating the men in her life poorly, but she nevertheless stands out in terms of her defiance of the received social order. Finally, with reference to politics, she refuses to tolerate the corruption of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Rather than setting herself up in comfortable inaction on a state salary, she has a desire to enact real change: ‘Quería poder, eso no se lo discutiré a nadie. Quería las manos libres para cambiar algunas cosas en este país’ (761).

Azucena begins to investigate the crimes for personal reasons, as her friend Kelly disappears in Santa Teresa in mysterious circumstances, but her purpose soon becomes collective: ‘como política y feminista, además de como amiga, no iba a cejar en mi empeño hasta el descubrimiento de la verdad’ (776). Her account of the reasons for the crimes seems to make the most sense in light of the rest of the ‘evidence’ that we are presented with and it is significant that she bequeaths the dissemination of the information to Sergio González, the fictionalised Sergio González Rodríguez who carried out his indispensable personal investigation into the Ciudad Juárez murders. His book, Huesos en el Desierto, points to a similar explanation to that put forward by the diputada.2

The findings of the diputada’s private detective tell of Kelly organising parties for wealthy businesspeople in Mexico to which she would persuade or hire models or celebrities to attend. As her finances tightened, she began to use local girls rather than models, dressing them up in fashionable clothes for the occasions: ‘Así que allí está Kelly, sin modelos, trabajando con muchachas de extracción social baja o ya de plano con putas, en narcorranchos abandonados a la buena de Dios, y en sus fiesta tenemos a un banquero […] a un empresario […] a un millionario […] y si no a Campuzano [narco-trafficker], al menos a dos de sus hombres más notorios […] además de otras personalidades de la sociedad, del crimen y de la política’ (786). This sentence, by listing all the actors involved, evokes the resolution of a detective novel, but instead of it presenting the victims, murderer, and motive we are painted a picture of strong class differentials and a widespread web of involvement and complicity.

Bolaño implicates almost all of the wealthy and political classes, meaning that the blame cannot be pinned on any one group in particular. The fact that Kelly, a woman, is the agent in facilitating the abuse of the women complicates a reading in which the fault simply lies with the male gender or the patriarchal order. The class dimension does seem to be markedly delineated in the quotation above. The men implicated here all possess money, whilst the majority of the women are young, poor, and ‘morena’. The great socioeconomic divide in Mexican society, as well as the abundance of women seeking jobs in the area, have seemingly led to a situation where the latter have become viewed as disposable goods, not just in terms of labour but also in terms of their function for the sexual pleasure of others. Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso has discussed the symbolic dimension of the fact that many of the Ciudad Juárez bodies were found in rubbish dumps around the city, a preoccupation echoed in 2666: ‘El cuerpo se localizó a la entrada del basurero clandestino llamado El Chile’ (580). The women’s lives are symbolically reduced to rubbish, which reflects ‘su poco valor humano, de ser menos mujeres, de ser mercancías fetichizadas sexualmente’ (Monárrez Fragoso 431). Monárrez Fragoso deploys Karl Marx’s concept that the labouring body is an appendix to capital and invested with a matrix of socially designated value: ‘las mujeres representan mercancías que tiene un valor de uso y un calor de cambio de acuerdo con las construcciones culturales y la vida material en que están insertas’ (438). As Jean Franco points out, ‘Bolaño recognizes that the killing of women is one aspect of an entire culture and that waste disposal is its purpose’ (Cruel 239).

In 2666 there is no escaping complicity in the global system of exploitation that sees over half of the world living in undignified conditions, while many of the other half appear to be so under-stimulated that they seek ever-more extreme forms of experience through drugs, increasingly hardcore pornography (including snuff movies), and, ultimately, sexual violence. It is not just members of the ‘global South’ who are affected by this system; this is when it becomes pertinent to examine the ethical injunction that is contained in the spectre-like apparitions of the murdered women, for its message to other ‘First-World’ women throughout the novel. Take, for example, the following extract: ‘Una noche Mary-Sue Bravo sonó que una mujer estaba sentada a los pies de su cama. Sintió el peso de un cuerpo aplastando el colchón pero cuando se estiró no tocó nada […] Cuando Mary-Sue despertó la sensación de que había otra mujer en la habitación no se fue del todo hasta que se levantó de la cama y se bebió un vaso de agua en la cocina’ (780). The fact that Mary-Sue Bravo is unable to shake the feeling of a woman in her room, even when she has woken up, testifies to how insistent these sensations are. Her name is, curiously, a portmanteau of two women’s names, and her surname ‘Bravo’ seems to call on this need to be brave and confront the significance of the apparition.

In the following two anecdotes, the women appear in the forms of faces and voices, which lend themselves to Levinisian analysis. In the final chapter of Precarious Life, Judith Butler engages at length with Emmanuel Levinas’ notion of the ‘face’. She quotes passages from Face to Face with Levinas that explain the basic principles of Levinas’ formulation and of the ethical challenges contained in the ‘face’.

The approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility […] it is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. Secondly, the face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: you shall not kill. In the relation to the face I am exposed as a usurper of the place of the other. The celebrated “right of existence” that Spinoza called the conatus essendi and defined as the basic principle of all intelligibility is challenged by the relation to the face. Accordingly, my duty to respond to the other suspends my natural right to self-survival, le droit vitale […] To expose myself to the vulnerability of the face is to put my ontological right to existence into question. In ethics, the other’s right to exist has primacy over my own, a primacy epitomized in the ethical edict: you shall not kill, you shall not jeopardize the life of the other. (Levinas 23–24, qtd in Butler 132)

Therefore, Levinas’ formulation relies in part upon the biblical command ‘Thou shalt not kill’, but it also appeals to a ‘duty to respond’ given that everyone has an equal ‘right to existence’: these women’s lives have been prematurely taken away, whilst ours have not. The identification with the dead Other is explicit in the following from 2666, whereby near the start of the novel the British female critic Norton has a frightening dream in which she sees a woman in the mirror: ‘Es igual a mí, se dijo, pero ella está muerta’ (154–5). The desire not to die alone, underpinned by the accusation of complicity – should this call not be answered – is portrayed in the dead woman’s facial expressions, which alternate smiling with negative expressions: ‘volvió a soreírle y su rostro se hizo ansioso y luego inexpresivo y luego nervioso y luego resignado y luego pasó por todas las expresiones de la locura y siempre volvía a sonreírle’ (155). The haunting thus functions as a cry for empathy and solidarity, whereby Norton’s face takes on the expressions and emotions of many other women at once, returning each time between to a smile – a symbol of friendship.

In the second case, the diputada, like many of the other rich female characters, starts to hear voices. In ‘Peace and Proximity’ (1984) Levinas makes it understood that the face can also be figured as, in Butler’s words, ‘a scene of agonized vocalization’ (133). The diputada comments that ‘creo que me estaba volviendo loca. Esas voces que escuchaba (voces, nunca rostros ni bultos) provenían del desierto. En el desierto yo vagaba con un cuchillo en la mano. En la hoja del cuchillo se reflejaba mi rostro’ (783). The reflection of her own face in the knife leaves us in no doubt as to her implied complicity, like everyone else’s, in the murders. Her experience of being called upon by the voices of the women moves her to solidarity with the Santa Teresa dead: ‘mi rabia se hizo colectiva o expresión de algo a, cuando se dejaba contemplar, se veía a sí misma como el brazo vengador de miles de victimas’ (782). Here, her voice becomes collective. In her position of political power, she can and should take responsibility for representing the voiceless victims who, in Jacques Derrida’s words, comprise ‘the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead’ (xviii). All the encounters that the living women have with the ghosts of the murdered women represent a multiplicity of muted voices crying out for sympathetic hosts to take responsibility for the injustices they faced and that women continue to face.

There are multiple ethical tasks presented by Butler in Precarious Life which are likewise invoked in Bolaño’s novel. First, as we have seen, there is the need for acknowledgement of the complicity of all those who have the opportunity to play out their natural lives, for not putting before their own those other lives that were cut short, according to the status of ‘usurper of the place of the other’ (Levinas as above). The diputada responds to this ethical demand by taking on the collective struggle, at her own risk, in order to attempt to expose the perpetrators (via Sergio González) and change the political status quo in Mexico, with a view to preventing future deaths.

The second task is one of grieving, whereby the murdered figure ‘asks me not to let him [her] die alone’ (as above). Butler draws on this notion in order to highlight the systems of representation that construct some lives as ‘grievable’ and others as not so. As Butler posits: ‘The task at hand is to establish modes of public seeing and hearing that might well respond to the cry of the human within the sphere of appearance […] because politics – and power – work in part through regulating what can appear, what can be heard’ (147). We have already seen the way in which the media and government manage to control ‘what can appear’ and ‘what can be heard’ as represented in 2666. Bolaño’s novel is critical of the allocation of media interest and space, and the way groups who sought to denounce the crimes were represented when they did at last manage to gain a shred of attention.

Finally, in 2666 there is a tension between the humanisation and dehumanisation of the murdered women by means of their forensic representation in the text, which can also usefully be explained through Butler’s reading of Levinas. According to Butler, ‘personification does not always humanize. For Levinas it may well evacuate the face that does humanize’ (141). Butler gives the example of the images of Afghan girls who threw off their Burkas to reveal their faces as a symbol of an American military victory. Aside from the cultural politics at work here, the important factor is that such imagery conceals the other instances of loss and grief that were also suffered in the waging of this war – in short, the images fail to truly give a ‘sense of the precariousness of life’ (142). By describing the women in their tortured and murdered state, Bolaño challenges the ‘cultural means through which the paradigmatically human is established’ and forces us to confront and acknowledge the precariousness that has been part of the human experience in our lifetime (143).

For Levinas, it is not the ‘face’ in itself that represents the human, but rather, in Butler’s words, ‘the human is indirectly affirmed in that very disjunction that makes representation impossible […] For representation to convey the human, then, representation must not only fail, but it must show its failure’ (144). In personifying the tortured women, revealing the ‘lives’ that were behind the tortured and mutilated bodies, Bolaño seems to imply that the human could be ‘captured’ or ‘rescued’ in its representation, whereas for Levinas ‘some loss of the human takes place when it is “captured” by the image’ (Butler 145). Likewise, if one single killer had been determined, that ‘face’ would have served as a metonym for ‘evil’ (in the style, for example, of Osama bin Laden) which would also have masked ‘the sounds of human suffering and the proximity we might have to the precariousness of life itself’ (145). The ghostly apparitions, these faces and voices that are not strictly human, nor can be rationally explained, cement Bolaño’s acknowledgement of the failure of representation (as above) and this, in conjunction with the representation of the tortured corpses, creates a ‘truer image […] more images […] images that convey the full horror and reality of the suffering’ (Butler 146).

6. Conclusion

In this article, I have traced structural links between the process of economic liberalisation and forms of violence that fall disproportionally on a gendered and racialised population in Bolaño’s 2666. I began by highlighting some of the recurring structures of oppression suggested in a passage that draws parallels between Chilean liberalism and Mexican neoliberalism, implicating both in accentuating the precarity of subaltern women. The lack of basic infrastructure to light the streets, stressed at the close of ‘La parte de los crímenes’, symbolically implies that the liberal movement founded upon Enlightenment principles of ‘freedom’ and ‘rationality’, as well as its subsequent iteration in the form of neoliberalism, has failed to protect the fundamental right of (wo)man, to life, let alone a dignified one. I have argued that the fictional form allows for the identification of such patterns of exploitation across generations, patterns that are otherwise obscured by the proliferation of stories conveyed (or ignored) in the media and other discourses that we encounter in our day-to-day lives.

I further demonstrate that in order to push back against both capital’s systemic violence, as well as the media’s complicity in the mystification of such violence, the novel creates cross-class, cross-gender alliances in which figures like the diputada lend their power to the political cause of the murdered women, creating new forms of solidarity that have been broken down elsewhere. I assert that Bolaño’s political work straddles the boundary between a call to remember and a call to action. In line with Judith Butler’s task in Precarious Life, Bolaño seeks to reimagine ‘the possibility of community on the basis of vulnerability and loss’ (20). By forging an intertextual relationship between the novel and Sergio González Rodríguez’s non-fictional account, Bolaño recirculates the memory of the women’s brutal murders and restores their status as ‘grievable lives’, the term used by Butler, within the sphere of his fiction. He makes the corporeal vulnerability of the murdered women in the north of Mexico the central focus of his narrative, whilst building bridges between these subaltern women who are fully ‘subjected to violence’ with those who are merely ‘exposed to its possibility’ – highlighting the fact that ‘each of us is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies’ (Butler 20). Thus, by creating a ‘truer image’ of precariousness and suffering, and modelling the commitment to action and change, he calls upon on the reader’s own ethical responsibility in whichever sphere of globalised neoliberal capitalism’s development they find themselves.