Books·Canadian

City of Omens

City of Omens is a book by Dan Werb.

Dan Werb

Despite its reputation as a carnival of vice, Tijuana was, until recently, no more or less violent than neighbouring San Diego, its sister city across the border wall. But then something changed. Over the past 10 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. (From Bloomsbury Publishing)

City of Omens is a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. The winner will be announced on Oct. 29, 2019.

From the book

I stood in the middle of the Jack in the Box parking lot, looking around anxiously, swearing 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 throug 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.


From City of Omens by Dan Werb ©2019. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Why Dan Werb wrote City of Omens

"I started work in Tijuana in 2013. Ostensibly, I was there to study an HIV epidemic among the city's population of people who injected drugs, some of whom were women who worked in the sex trade. Lots of them were living in a canal and injecting drugs in spaces called picaderos, which were crumbling buildings and hidden spaces among the city.

What struck me were that all these different reasons — HIV, overdose, death at the hands of cartels, police enforcement — all of these were aspects of a larger epidemic, which I termed as a femicide.- Dan Werb

"What I discovered was that HIV was disproportionately impacting women, but it wasn't the only epidemic that was impacting women there. There were actually a whole host of reasons why women were so vulnerable to dying in Tijuana. What struck me were that all these different reasons — HIV, overdose, death at the hands of cartels, police enforcement — all of these were aspects of a larger epidemic, which I termed as a femicide."

Read more in his interview with CBC Books.

Interviews with Dan Werb

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