Rothko Chapel organized a magnificent series of lectures about violence in Ciudad Juárez. Our special thanks to them for providing us with the permission to cover Cecilia Balli´s work.
* * *
When I was asked to write about Juárez, I found the concept very intriguing. I took my charge literally. I began thinking over the next weeks about what Juárez is, what it stands for, and I also found myself asking what it means to think about the world in terms of specific cities. Because in cities we find all the levels of our existence in one: our material, social, and human realities. A city is not just a grid of streets and highways; it is not just a collection of buildings or a weave of politics and policy. There is something about cities that is intangible, but perhaps more important than anything else–let’s call it the spirit of a city. And this spirit is produced by the individuals who inhabit that city, but it is also much larger than them. Ciudad Juárez, I can comfortably say, has the most special spirit I’ve encountered in Mexico, and this is why, to me, it’s the City of Hope, though the label may sound counter-intuitive.
But Juárez is also the City of Death. It’s not a title it has chosen for itself, but one that we impose on it from a distance. My own magazine editors gave this title to the first piece I wrote about Juárez back in 2003–they called it, Ciudad de la Muerte. Because at the time, Juárez had become known as a city where young, pretty women disappeared from the streets mysteriously, and their bodies were later found abandoned in the desert. It was chilling to think of a city where death came in such a dark, unexplained way to the most vulnerable of victims. I have a journal entry created on January 4, 2003, titled “First Arrival in Juárez.” I wrote these words then: “The fear is paralyzing. Especially when you read the paper and realize that they were plucked straight off the streets, in the center of town, in broad daylight. That when they were found, their bodies were horribly mutilated, breasts gnawed or amputated, hair cut off, bodies bitten and slashed.” After spending several weeks in Juárez and then returning the following year for 18 months of dissertation research, I learned that the women’s deaths were much more complicated than that; that not all of the victims fit a profile and not all of the murders were carried out by an organized group of killers. Still, it was clear that the city had produced a new kind of violence against women, more brutal–if not always more numerous–than what other regions of Mexico had witnessed. And it was a style of violence that had also claimed its share of male victims, only they weren’t raped and they were presumed to be men involved somehow in the drug business. Their bodies were buried in backyards in the city or in ranch properties on the outskirts; once, when I was living in the area, the local newspaper reported that a young boy had stumbled upon a hand protruding from the ground. Sometimes, it was discovered that the killers were members of the state police.
But in order to understand how Juárez became the City of Death one has to go much further back than this spate of women’s murders or these hands protruding from the ground. In 1964, the United States terminated the Bracero guest-worker program with Mexico and deported many of its laborers, dumping thousands of men along the Mexican side of the border. In an effort to reemploy them, the Mexican government launched the Border Industrialization Program, which encouraged American manufacturers to assemble their products in northern Mexico in order to take advantage of low taxes and cheap labor. The plan succeeded, but its main beneficiaries ended up being women, who, it was concluded, would make better workers for the new factories, or maquiladoras, because of their supposed manual dexterity. Word spread throughout Mexico that thousands of assembly-line jobs were cropping up in Juárez, and the nation’s north quickly became the emblem of modernity and economic opportunity. In the 1970s, factory-sponsored buses rumbled into the heartland and along Mexico’s coasts and came back with thousands more hungry laborers. Among them were some single women who brought their children in tow. They not only took jobs in the maquilas, but they also began to staff the many stores and restaurants that proliferated to satisfy the city’s newfound consumerism.
And so, if the working women of Juárez had once carried the unfair reputation of being prostitutes or bartenders, they now earned paychecks as factory workers, saleswomen, police officers —a few even managed to get an education and became teachers or managers and engineers in the concrete tilt-ups that were constructed all around town to house around four hundred maquiladoras. For anywhere from $4 to $7 a day, they assembled the automotive parts and electronic components and clothing that we consume. Over time, some of the young women who couldn’t afford to go on to college took computer classes so that they could work as secretaries and administrative assistants. Juárez is a city that places a high premium on skills such as navigating the Internet and speaking English; even in its most impoverished neighborhood, I once saw a tiny brick shack with a dozen chairs planted outside and a hand-painted sign that promised “Clases de inglés.”
But the migration was too fast and too disorganized. The offi cial population shot up to 1.2 million by the year 2000. Gone was the charm that Juárez had claimed in the 1930s, when its valley had produced succulent grapes, or in the ‘40s, when the music of Glenn Miller and Agustín Lara never stopped playing on Juárez Avenue, even as the United States went to war. Men eventually also worked their way into the maquilas, but the cost of living in Juárez had grown much higher than back home, which meant that both parents now had to work and there was no one to care for the children beyond an older sibling – often no more than eight, nine, or ten years old. It was one of Mexico’s biggest blunders to have planted its largest industrial experiment in the desert, in a city separated from the rest of the country not just symbolically, by its distinctly North American feel, but also physically, by the stunning but unforgiving Juárez Mountains. Cardboard shanties began dotting the landscape. Sewage spilled onto the streets in the poorest of places. Electricity was stolen from neighbors and power lines were reproduced like parasites. When I arrived in Juárez seven years ago, it was not uncommon to hear radio talk-show hosts rambling on about the ways in which the immigrants from the south had ruined their community.
Today, the city’s social problems are immense and complex. Even though the American recession has led some factories to close or relocate to Asia, the allure of a maquiladora job remains, and many young people quit studying after middle school and do nothing between the ages of 12 and 15, as they wait to legally qualify for employment. With their parents working, they spend long hours unsupervised, and many young men end up getting into trouble. It is estimated that there are more than 500 neighborhood gangs in Juárez, of which at least 80 are represented in the local prison–where their members serve time for murder, theft, or for selling drugs. Meanwhile in the home, women have joined their husbands as breadwinners but men haven’t necessarily joined their wives as housekeepers or caretakers. There is a high degree of physical and emotional abuse–sometimes resulting in death, which can make the home even more dangerous to women than the street. Mothers in turn pass on their stress to their children; it’s estimated that anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of Juárez women hit their children and are psychologically abusive.
* * *
In 2008, violence in Juárez reached a level never before seen or that any of us had imagined was possible. It began with a killing spree of policemen shortly after the new year started; by mid-February, 26 municipal agents had been gunned down. Shortly thereafter, the killers left a note at a public monument that named the dead and read, “for those who did not believe.” Then, “for those who continue not believing,” followed by a list of seventeen men who were presumably next. Nobody could explain this sudden rash of violence, although the mayor of Juárez, José Reyes Ferriz, would later say that he had gotten word that a rival drug organization had declared war on the powerful Juárez Cartel–though he didn’t explain how exactly he’d found this out. This new group was trying to kill off all those municipal and state police who were on the take of the Juárez group, the theory went.
By then, Mexico was already embroiled in what President Felipe Calderón had declared a “war”. The previous year had been a bloody one for other regions of the country, as drug trafficking alliances and territories shattered and shifted and cartels battled it out with each other. The stakes were raised to an alarming new level, and grotesque flourishes were adopted as a way of sending messages and sowing public terror. Bodies were beheaded and hung from highway overpasses; hands were cut off. In the state of Michoacán, armed commandos slaughtered twelve federal police who had been sent to investigate and left their bodies piled up on a roadside. With time, however, Ciudad Juárez would take the fighting and theater to another level. One victim there was crucified to a tree; the head of another victim was found wearing a Santa Claus hat. People would forget about the women’s murders and Juárez would become known as “the epicenter of Mexican drug violence,” or “the most deadly city in the world.”
Unlike other drug-plagued Mexican cities, Juárez did not have a formal federal government intervention when the killings started, so Mayor Reyes Ferriz and the governor of Chihuahua huddled together to find a response. It was assumed that the police was too dirty to be able to contain the killings, many of which were directed at them. Afraid that the power of the criminals had surpassed their ability to keep Juárez safe, the mayor and governor appealed to President Calderón for help. By March, they received 2,000 troops and ceremoniously launched “Joint Operation Chihuahua,” a multi-government initiative that was expected to serve as a model for the rest of the country. But despite their presence, by the end of 2008, the city’s murder rate had grown five times.
I returned to Juárez in time to witness the last death of the year– victim number 1,651 (to give you an idea of how much worse things have grown since then, so far this year there have been roughly 2,450 murders, or nearly 7,000 in the past three years). But I arrived at the start of 2009 looking for patterns in the seemingly random bloodshed, which the Mexican Army had failed to halt so miserably, even as tanks and Humvees rolled throughout the city. What I witnessed was what the people of Juárez already knew–that the violence there had defied any simple explanation of a cartel war. Males who held no sway in the leadership of the drug trafficking organizations were being slaughtered; men in masks were breaking into drug rehabilitation centers and massacring eight, seventeen, twenty people at once. The vast majority of the city’s victims were poor men between the ages of 18 and 25. Their bodies piled up in the morgue and their killings went uninvestigated. Their deaths spoke of a city in which a turf battle between criminal groups had simply served as the detonator of a much farther-reaching and brutal form of social extermination. Life in Juárez had become cheap./p>
But perhaps the most disturbing thing I learned on that trip was that the Mexican government had some hand in all this. Most people were too terrified to speak about this, but interviews and many conversations held in confidence revealed that the Army was kidnapping young men and disappearing them for days, submitting them to vicious forms of torture in an effort to extract information about the city’s internal drug market. No one was looking for a big capo to bust; this was very low-level information that soldiers sought to acquire after being sent to Juárez with no intelligence of their own to work from. Sometimes the victims were petty criminals, and other times they were picked at random simply because they lived in poor neighborhoods suspected of being dirty. El Diario de Juárez had reported a number of these stories of “human rights abuses,” as they were called, but what struck me was how widespread and systematic they were. These were not a few bad apples acting out of line; it appeared that it became the soldiers’ very strategy, whether sanctioned by their commander or not. Some of the victims died from the beatings or never reappeared, while many others were subsequently sent to the local prison with drugs and weapons charged, presumably to boost the success figures of the operation. And everyone quietly knew this –the Army’s medical examiners, the local and state prosecutors, the public defense attorneys, the staff at the hospitals where some of the victims were taken to prevent them from dying. The doctor at the state prison–who generously treated me for a stomach virus I’d picked up from eating bad fish–told me that all of the detainees who were brought in by the Army came black and blue. And yet nobody would speak up for them, with the exception of a firebrand civil rights attorney named Gustavo De La Rosa and a few of the victims’ families, who held protests in front of the military camp. In March of this year Juárez Mayor Reyes Ferriz visited the University of Texas at Austin campus, and when I asked him why he wouldn’t speak up against the abuses, he insisted that all of the people who were claiming torture at the hands of the Army were, quote, unquote, “hardened criminals.”
* * *
Several years ago, a team of social scientists from Juárez released a comprehensive diagnostic of the city’s complex social reality, offering ideas for intervention. Interestingly, they concluded that while social programs were vastly underfunded, the biggest need in their view was psychological and affective. The people of Juárez have a withering spirit, but at some point they need support. The authors of the study essentially asked, is it enough for a person in this world to have access to a job? Aren’t there other things that matter even more, such as social, cultural, and emotional well-being?
This is why it frustrates me when Juárez today is painted in popular writings as the apocalypse. Because Juárez is not hell on earth, a place where only the bravest of souls step foot–Juárez is a wounded city. Juárez is the example of what happened when people were robbed of their citizenship and forgotten by both the Mexican and U.S. governments. Can we afford to let Juárez explode–or even worse, repeat itself elsewhere? What are the important lessons that Juárez, the City of Death, but also the City of Hope, teaches us about the nature of democracy and global economies and human vulnerability and resilience? Each person has to answer this question for him or herself.
I know that in my case, the city has given me so much more than I have given it. At a recent forum on border violence in Marfa, Texas, writer Charles Bowden was asked by a moderator why he even goes back to Juárez. I thought of how lucky it was that she could even ask that question–and that her panelist could respond. One million people in Juárez–and tens of millions of Mexican citizens–do not have this luxury. But I slept with that question, knowing that the answer went far beyond my sense of journalistic responsibility. And this is what I concluded: The reason I concluded–the reason I go back to Juárez is because the city of death gives me a sense of life.