There are the usual obscure literary critics and lost novelists, and we even briefly meet an elderly African American man who calls himself "the last Communist in Brooklyn." This last communist could speak for all of Bolaño's lost and departed when he explains why he presses on: "Someone has to keep the cell alive."
The book's action, however, centers upon the unsolved serial killings of hundreds of women in the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Teresa during the late 1990s, events based on real-life unsolved killings in Juarez, Mexico. The majority of the women murdered in Juarez were workers at the new factories along the border with the United States, the unregulated maquiladoras that have sprung up in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In the book's longest section, "The Part about the Crimes," we learn the names, one by one, of 111 of these murdered women. In terse, police-blotter language, Bolaño describes the crime scenes the girls' clothing, their disappearances, and the police investigators' attempts to construct the last hours of their lives. Their bodies are discovered slashed, stabbed, bound, gagged, and always raped, in ditches, landfills, alleys, or along the side of the highway. Seen from these vantage points, Bolaño's Santa Teresa is a disjointed place, seemingly patched together from snatches of barely remembered nightmares. Shantytowns and illegal toxic dumps spring up everywhere in "the shadow of the horizon of the maquiladoras." It is a city that is "endless," "growing by the second," a new type of urban zone in a Latin America that has become a laboratory for free trade policy experiments. It is a city made unmappable by globalization.
Bolaño clearly intends the reader to see the disappearances as the inevitable byproduct of the cheapness of life in the maquiladora economy, yet the killings also eerily evoke the disappearances in fascist 1970s Chile and Argentina. These murders are an open secret, virtually ignored by the media. Residents almost superstitiously refer to them only as "the crimes." The Santa Teresa police respond to the killings with a staggering indifference and ineptitude that might suggest complicity. The maquiladoras are ominous, hulking windowless buildings often in the center of town, not unlike the torture cells once hidden in plain sight in Buenos Aires (Bolaño even names one of them EMSA, an obvious play on Argentina's most notorious concentration camp, ESMA), and many of the women's bodies are discovered in an illegal garbage dump called El Chile. 2666 suggests that the unrestrained capitalism of the free-trade era is the ideological descendent of the 1970s South America state repression from which Bolaño fled, and that the killings in Santa Teresa are in part a recreation of the Pinochet-era disappearances.
While the scenes Bolaño describes are grisly, his language is clinical, the cold camera eye of the lone detective gathering evidence. The collective impact of story after story starts to accrue into its own profoundly moral force. By giving name and face to hundreds of disappeared women, Bolaño suggests that literature is a political response, a way to make wrongs right by bearing witness. While it would certainly be a mistake to read 2666 strictly as a political tract, Bolaño explicitly ties writing to justice in a rambling digression about the African slave trade. A Mexican investigator of the killings points out that it was not recorded into history if a slave ship's human cargo perished on the way to Virginia, but that it would be huge news in colonial America if there was even a single killing in white society: "What happened to (the whites) was legible, you could say.