A rusting seesaw is sinking even further into the marsh on the edge of the world’s most dangerous city. A year ago, only a few of the relentlessly identical brick houses in the area were abandoned, burned out or turned into crack dens. Now, whole swaths of them are empty—or converted into lairs for the drug-dealing street gangs that control the terrain and tag it: PFK, WEST SIDE. The MK 18 gang has apparently taken over a row of houses leading down to an open sewer. The stench of excreta and trash wafts on the breeze. Two men with walkie-talkies are sitting on deck chairs, keeping watch at their post. "This is ours," grunts one of them. "If you stay here, we’ll see you’re not harmed. But once you’ve been here, don’t cross to the other side of the sewer." Up one street, every house is an incinerated shell apart from the one belonging to a man called Mario, who returns wearily home with his children pushing buggies full of scrap foraged from the empty homes to sell.
These are the desolate remains of Riberas del Bravo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. The city, opposite El Paso, Texas, is the fulcrum of the US-Mexico borderline and the kernel of the war that rages throughout Mexico. Some 28,000 people have been killed—many of them with perverse cruelty—since President Felipe Calderón mobilized the Mexican military in December 2006.
The conflict is usually described in shorthand as a war among narco-trafficking cartels for control of smuggling routes into the United States, and this was indeed one of its initial causes. But much of the killing in Juárez bears less resemblance to warfare between cartels than to criminal anarchy. The city has seen 2,926 murders so far this year, and about 7,303 since January 2008. During my most recent visit, in October, thirteen people were killed in a single day, and early the following morning a bus carrying workers to one of the hundreds of maquiladoras that encircle the city was attacked by gunmen. That same week two corpses were found decapitated in a car, their heads placed on the hood. On October 22, in a massacre that illustrated the senselessness of the violence here, thirteen teenagers with apparently nothing to do with the drug trade were summarily executed at a birthday party.
Mexican authorities often talk about the need for the "Tijuanafication" of Juárez. That is because in recent years a relative containment of the cartel violence has held firm in Tijuana under the iron hands of Alfonso Duarte Mújica, the army general in charge of the region comprising Baja California and Sonora, and the city’s army-appointed police chief, Col. Julián Leyzaola. But suddenly the specter is being raised of the reverse: the "Juárezification" of Tijuana. On October 24, within days of the biggest marijuana haul by Mexican authorities since Calderón declared war on the cartels, thirteen people in Tijuana were slaughtered at a rehabilitation center. A message from the killers hacked its way onto the police radio band, warning that the executions were "a taste of Juárez."
As conditions deteriorate across the country, signs of "Juárezification" can be seen in embryonic form elsewhere, as well—in desperately poor, rural Sinaloa and Michoacan, where peasants have lost their collective land, and even in ultramodern Monterrey, which thought itself immune from the ravages, only to become a target city and fertile recruiting ground for the terrifying "Zetas" narco militia. Even the tourist havens of Acapulco and Cancún have not been spared.
"This is not some breakdown of the social order," writes Charles Bowden in Murder City, his recent book on Juárez. "This is the new order."
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Juárez is nothing if not a temple to the unfettered marketplace, a city where drug cartels operated as an embryonic NAFTA long before NAFTA, not as pastiches of the global corporations that arrived later in the city but as pioneers of them. And Riberas del Bravo is a monument to what Julián Cardona, a photographer who has chronicled the collapse of Juárez, calls the Urban Frankenstein—the monstrous spawn not of the drug war but of the maquiladoras.