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City of Omens by Dan Werb
Social sciences

City of Omens

by Dan Werb

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Quick take

Hundreds of women die in Tijuana each year. Here's why.


Despite its reputation as a carnival of vice, Tijuana was, until recently, no more or less violent than neighboring San Diego, its sister city across the border wall. But then something changed. Over the past ten years, Mexico’s third-largest city became one of the world’s most dangerous. Tijuana’s murder rate skyrocketed and produced a staggering number of female victims. Hundreds of women are now found dead in the city each year, or bound and mutilated along the highway that lines the Baja coast.

When Dan Werb began to study these murders in 2013, rather than viewing them in isolation, he discovered that they could only be understood as one symptom among many. Environmental toxins, drug overdoses, HIV transmission: all were killing women at overwhelming rates. As an epidemiologist, trained to track epidemics by mining data, Werb sensed the presence of a deeper contagion targeting Tijuana’s women. Not a virus, but some awful wrong buried in the city’s social order, cutting down its most vulnerable inhabitants from multiple directions.

Werb’s search for the ultimate causes of Tijuana’s femicide casts new light on immigration, human trafficking, addiction, and the true cost of American empire-building. It leads Werb all the way from factory slums to drug dens to the corridors of police corruption, as he follows a thread that ultimately leads to a surprising turn back over the border, looking northward.

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City of Omens

Chapter 1

Welcome to El Bordo

I stood in the middle of the Jack in the Box parking lot, looking around anxiously, sweating under the desert sun. I had worn “slum-appropriate” clothing, or at least a facsimile of what I thought that meant: blue button-down shirt, jeans, and cheap sneakers. The plan, I had been told, was to blend in. All around us were slow-moving cars, slow-moving pedestrians, and the sustained clatter and low horn blasts of the trolleys heading in from downtown San Diego, filled with people crossing the border, all with their reasons. Everybody looked at home in the sun, belonged to the space, while the heat beat down on me relentlessly.

Leaning against a Mercedes, Argentina, in pale immaculate makeup, didn’t care whether she blended in or not. In stiletto heels, tight white pants, and a white fur shawl, she scanned the small parking lot, cased me right away, and shook my hand impatiently as we got into the car and then set off for Mexico. She was a young Mexican medical doctor and had been asked to transport me safely across the border and hand me off to those who would take me into the canal. We sat on chestnut leather seats as we sped through the border line and into Tijuana. We were waved through quickly, and as we entered Mexico, hundreds upon hundreds of cars and people came into view, stacked interminably on the other side of the wall, all waiting to be let into the United States of America.

It’s the first thing you see once you pass through the border line: the abandoned Tijuana River Canal, stretching north past the border fence and south through the city until there is no city left. There’s no way to avoid it. If you want to get downtown, you have to cross a bridge to get over it.

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Why I love it

The city of Tijuana may not have the cleanest of reputations, thanks to its decades-long media portrayal as a hotbed of gang activity, drug deals, and sex work. Readers familiar with this Tijuana might be surprised to learn that, until relatively recently, Tijuana was no more dangerous or unsavory than its American neighbor, San Diego. So what changed? Who suffered as a result of those changes? And who profited?

A work of incisive journalism, City of Omens holds a microscope up to political maneuverings, sociological phenomena, and public health crises to answer these questions. Dan Werb’s conclusions take him into the gritty world of a struggling city, and the web of closely-related problems—toxins in the drinking water, rampant drug use, violent crime, to name a few—that plague it. Most tragically, he finds that these problems disproportionately affect women. In fact, the deeper Werb digs, the more his epidemiological study begins to feel like a true crime search for thousands of dead, or missing, women.

An investigative whirlwind as well as a gripping narrative of a city reckoning with its sins, City of Omens will engage, surprise, and even haunt readers.

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