Random House, 2023
read in December 2023
I came across this book after seeing it written up in The New Yorker's "Briefly Noted" section back towards the end of November, and was so taken with that brief mention that I knew I had to have it. Before the book even arrived, I found myself doing a bit of research on Miriam Rodríguez, the woman at the center of it all, and came across a post on X (what used to be Twitter) that linked to another post by author Gary Shteyngart who described the book to a perfect T. He called it a work
"about a personal tragedy set against the canvas of a societal one,"
and after finishing Fear Is Just a Word, I can't think of a better, more eloquent phrase to sum up this book.
On January 4th, 2014, Miriam received a 4 a.m. phone call that would quite literally dictate the direction of the rest of her life. She wasn't at her home at the time in the small town of San Fernando in Tamaulipas state of Mexico, but rather in McAllen Texas, where she had gone to put some distance between herself and her troubled relationship with her husband Luis. Two hours later she was in Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande, catching a bus to take her back to San Fernando, where she was picked up by her daughter Azalea. The news was the worst any mother could hear -- Miriam's twenty-one year old daughter Karen had been kidnapped, and her captors, members of the Zetas cartel, had demanded a ransom. Luis had taken out a loan from the bank to pay off the kidnappers, made the money drop, and was told to be in the cemetery twenty minutes later. The day passed, no Karen. Another day passed, same thing. Sunday another call came, demanding more money; a week went by, no word. Finally, after an agonizing two weeks, another call came in, saying that after Miriam paid "a small payment" in exchange for her daughter, her release was, according to the caller, now ready to happen. After a month, Miriam realized that "they are not going to bring her back to me," vowing that she would "find the people who did this" to her daughter and "make them pay." In Fear is Just a Word, author and New York Times investigative journalist/bureau chief Azam Ahmed follows Miriam's "quest for vengeance" and in doing so, examines the wider "societal" tragedy, exploring how Mexico became a country where the rule of law is so dysfunctional that it ceases to function, leaving families of the disappeared with neither recourse nor justice from a government that is supposedly there to help and protect them.
As Miriam had said years earlier during a violent assault by the Zetas on her town in 2010,
"How can they just let something like this happen? ... What is the government doing? Why aren't they stopping this?"
The author takes on those very same questions, and he also explores how things in Mexico have come to the point where the country has become, for lack of a better word, broken. The book moves through present and past to reveal how and why this has happened, offering a look at how the cartels have built and maintained their power over the decades. He looks at the rise of government corruption and institutional failures that have allowed these groups to carry out their business with impunity, which was also helped by the long-term dominance of a single political party in the highest offices of the government. The end of that long reign brought a new party to power, with a new government finding itself in a position of holding less power than the cartels, ultimately using militarized violence as a solution. As if things weren't bad enough, the declaration of a "war on drugs" in 2006 by Mexico's president did nothing except to lead to a major expansion of that violence, unchecked, leaving ordinary people displaced, dead, or often left to suffer a worse fate for numbers of families -- having loved ones who have been disappeared. What it all comes down to, really, is a frightening portrait of a nation in serious decline, where human lives have little value, and there is very little in the way of help coming from the government when it is needed most.
It is important to realize that Fear is Just a Word is not just another book about Mexican cartels. Ahmed keeps Miriam's story front and center as she searches for her daughter's kidnappers (and ultimately her murderers), tracking them down using whatever means she could muster. Talk about a badass woman -- oh my god, some of the things she did in her quest absolutely blew me away. As of October 2023, the number of disappeared people as recorded on the nation's interior ministry's "official database" stood at 111, 896, and the reality is that there are probably more. While many of their families may go as far as searching for their lost loved ones or speaking out publicly, Miriam felt the need to take things even further and do the impossible: fight back. She would not rest until she found some sort of justice for Karen, despite the fact that she knew she likely had a target on her back; her rage, pain and sorrow became channeled into something meaningful, not just for herself, but for other families whose loved ones had vanished.
My brief encapsulation here does not do the book or the author the justice both deserve but it is a must read, for sure. It is beyond timely and relevant especially now, and it is clear that the author must have put in years of research in putting this book together. Fear is Just Another Word is an outstanding example of great investigative journalism that puts a very human face on tragedy, revealing exactly what people are capable of in the face of utter indifference and hopelessness. It is one of the very best books I read in all of 2023, and I can't recommend it highly enough.