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.
When the neighborhood was established some fifteen years ago, it housed—in cardboard shacks—tens of thousands of Mexicans who came from the country’s desperately poor interior to work the assembly lines in these plants. Riberas del Bravo had no logical claim to be the site for this influx of migrant workers. But according to Hugo Almada Mireles, a professor at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez who has studied this history, lucrative agreements between landowners and politicians dictated how and where the workers would be housed—even if it meant building a town on a marsh where cotton once grew in paddy fields. No infrastructure was built to accommodate the arrivals. Utilities came slowly, if at all; transport, apart from that to work, is almost nonexistent; and schooling is impossible, even if children can face the two-hour crosstown journey each way.
Particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the global market, the maquiladoras have not fared well in recent years. According to the Asocación de Maquiladoras in Juárez, there are at least fifty more of them in town than there were ten years ago but 68,400 employees have been laid off since November 2007. First, US corporations made the simple calculation that wages in Asia were so much lower that it was worth their while to leave and cover the costs incurred by the distances across which goods would have to travel. Then came the recessions of 2001 and 2008, which dealt further blows to the already weakened maquila economy.
As a result, the proportion of empty houses is high, even for Juárez. A report by the Colegio de la Frontera del Norte published in January found that there are 116,000 vacant houses across the city, out of a total stock of 416,000 units. According to the report, "the depopulation has increased greatly in the past two years because of the violence and insecurity. Many migrants who came from southern Mexico to work in the maquiladora industry have decided to return to their places of origin. Others have migrated to the United States." In addition, the report notes, more than 10,670 businesses have closed since 2008, leaving many factory buildings vacant but, given the current conditions, unable to be sold at any price.
The arrival and now the steady departure of work from the maquilas feeds a social carnage that, in turn, brings physical carnage. Alfredo Aguilar, a former streetfighter who now works with a local priest to provide shelter for sexual assault victims, has seen the fallout firsthand. "There’s so much violence, so many drugs—five to ten people living in a tiny house, on top of one another, with abuse, violence against the children, no privacy and no one able to sleep," Aguilar says. "When the maquila spits you out, drug-dealing becomes a way of staying, a way of living. You stay and survive the best you can, or you leave and your house becomes a crack den."
This, then, is the stage set for Mexico’s narco war—at least as it plays out in Juárez. "Narco-migration-maquiladoras, that’s the triangle," says Cardona as we drive in his maroon Toyota truck. "These three worlds entwine, they’re inseparable," he explains. "Young families come north, the girl gets a job in the maquiladora and the man is economically impotent but sexually potent. If the man has no income, he can earn money working for the narcos. And if he has a habit himself, which he probably does, he turns to crime and drug-dealing to maintain it, so that his addiction becomes an economic activity in the marketplace. If you keep things separate," counsels Cardona, "you will not understand what is happening in this city."
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One of Juárez’s darkest, most fearsome mysteries is the regularity of mass murders in rehabilitation centers. Cardona and I visited one of these centers, the Anexo de Vida in Barrio Azul, thirteen hours after a massacre on the eve of Mexico’s independence celebrations, on September 15, 2009. Pools of blood were spattered across the courtyard. It took little forensic examination to realize that this was the work of an expert and heavily armed death squad.
But who would want to murder wretches trying to kick their addictions in rehab centers? There are various hypotheses. Pastor José Antonio Galván, who runs a center called Visión en Acción, believes that narco syndicates—the Sinaloa and La Línea heirs to the Juárez Cartel—are picking out former operatives who once worked for their rivals. A twist to this is suggested by a former patient and now an assistant at another rehab clinic who wishes to remain anonymous: the cartels have an interest in eliminating their own, the logic being that those who are trying to sober up and fix themselves a new life could become dangerous—no longer bonded to the organization and knowing too much.
And there is a third possibility, a heresy advanced by Cardona and a former colleague of his named Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez. The Mexican army, they suspect, may be using the crisis to facilitate, or perhaps even engage in, a campaign of what they call limpia social, "social cleansing" of society’s human junkyard: the undesirables, drug addicts, street urchins and petty or more-than-petty criminals. The army hardly dispelled this notion when, at a press conference on April 1, 2008, Jorge Juárez Loera, the general in charge of the eleventh military district (of which Juárez is a part), described each death on his watch as that of un delinquente menos—one criminal less.
The heresy was given its first public mention by a senator of the republic in September, when the Labor Party’s Ricardo Monreal Ávila tasked the government’s Center for Investigation and Public Security to provide details of what he called "death squads" operating "on the margins of the law with the complicity, recognition and/or tolerance of the Mexican state." The senator said he wished to see inquiries into "pyramids of social cleansing" backed by shadow elements in the state apparatus.
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, perhaps the most compelling public figure to emerge from Juárez’s war, believes that all the above explanations can be concurrently true, including the provocative theory that the army is complicit in limpia social. In April 2008 de la Rosa was appointed as legal director of the Chihuahua branch of the National Human Rights Commission, a rare institution of self-policing by the Mexican government. He retains the position but has been obliged by threats to spend much of his time across the river in El Paso. Over several coffees last year in the Camino Real Hotel in El Paso, he talked about "a group of killings, about 400 to 500 this year, of malandros—common delinquents, junkies, nothings—such as those in the rehabilitation centers, crack dens and abandoned houses, taking drugs." They play no part in this war, he says, beyond the fact that they are addicts. And they are not ritually murdered or mutilated but killed in ways "characteristic of soldiers or the police, in a hail of bullets, sprayed all over the place, mechanically but without regard to the amount of ammunition spent, as is characteristic of military commandos or death squads." This kind of mechanical killing, de la Rosa concludes, "suggests training in the army or federal police."
In the eye of this storm, and in the far corner of a cafe, Sandra Rodríguez sips a cup of green tea. One of the most senior reporters on the principal local paper, El Diario, Rodríguez is direct about the peril in which she lives and works, and she speaks with a bravery that is humbling in its dignity and resolve. But she is not without a sense of irony. Born in the state of Chihuahua, she came back to Juárez from Mexico City, she says, after being threatened in the street—she returned because she thought the capital was too dangerous.
To do her work Rodríguez has to drive through zones of the city few dare penetrate at night, to listen to people who may know the answers to questions that seem unanswerable. Although the job is becoming increasingly dangerous, she remains tied to the city and to her work there. But, she acknowledges, "I am very, very concerned for some of the reporters who have young families. There was a colleague of mine, a young woman with a child, who was going to do a story, and I said, ‘Let me do it—I don’t have children.’ But this woman said, ‘I have to, like a duty, because it is my job.’ She wasn’t looking for fame, because we don’t have bylines anymore. She just knew we all have to carry on with this task to expose what is going on."
But what is going on? "Above all, we are talking about a culture of total impunity," Rodríguez says. "This starts at the top, with the people like those who arranged for the building of Riberas del Bravo where it is, who created the monster of a city purely for reasons of personal gain. The entire urbanization of the city is a criminal enterprise. And it goes all the way from those in power to the very bottom: to the kids growing up in this criminal city, who never go to school, who instead go over to the narcos. All the way down to the 16-year-old boy I wrote a story about who killed his mother and father and little sister. When I asked him why, he said, ‘Because I could.’"
As the conflict intensifies, a growing number of media professionals are getting caught in the cross-fire—or directly targeted. In January Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission published a tally of fifty-six reporters killed over the previous nine years, with eight missing and seven newspaper offices attacked, and that was before a sudden surge in violence along the border between Texas and the state of Tamaulipas last spring, during which eight reporters were kidnapped and one was tortured to death. The commission estimates that sixty-six reporters had been killed as of November 19.
On November 6, 2008, a decapitated corpse was found hanging from an overpass in Juárez, suspended by the armpits, hands cuffed behind the waist. The dead man’s severed head was found days later in the Plaza del Periodista—Journalist’s Square—at the foot of a statue of a boy hawking newspapers, a celebration of old Juárez’s pride in itself as the cradle of the free press during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The message to journalists could not have been more articulate: one week after the execution, one of the leading reporters on crime in Juárez, Armando Rodríguez of El Diario (no relation to Sandra), was shot dead while warming up his car. His 8-year-old daughter, whom he was taking to school, was in the passenger seat.
In many parts of the country, media outlets have been silenced. To the east, in terrain largely controlled by the Gulf Cartel and its paramilitary wing (and sometimes rival), Los Zetas, reporters have all but stopped covering the conflict. In Nuevo Laredo—one of the busiest commercial frontier crossings in the world, which handles 40 percent of all US-Mexico border trade—the local paper, El Mañana, was attacked by grenades in February 2006, targeting and injuring Jaime Orozco Tey, a veteran journalist who was investigating narco smuggling and conditions in the maquiladoras. Two years before that, in March 2004, the paper’s editor, Roberto Javier Mora Garcia, was stabbed to death outside his apartment. El Mañana‘s publisher, Ramon Cantu, says plainly, "We’re censoring the newspaper, because we have to get our children to school. These people, they just kill you. They don’t make up a slander that you’re having an affair or taking money from the Mafia. If they don’t like you, they kill you."
In Juárez, however, El Diario has continued to publish detailed, daily accounts of the bloodbath. The response of the cartels—or whoever the killers are—came on September 16, when a Diario photojournalist, Luis Carlos Santiago, and a young intern working with him were attacked by gunmen while they were on their lunch break. Santiago was killed and the intern wounded. A week later, El Diario published a dramatic front-page open letter addressed to the "men of the different organizations that are fighting for control of Juárez" and titled "What Do You Want From Us?" The editorial, significantly, addressed the criminals as "the de facto authorities in this city," avoiding the word "cartel" so as to encompass all possibilities regarding who the killers might be—including politicians, police, gangs and the army. "We want you to explain to us what you want from us, what we are supposed to publish or not publish," wrote the editors, adding, with a chill, "so we know what to expect."
The open letter was wrongly regarded in the United States as a sign that El Diario was going the way of El Mañana. But the paper’s intentions were quite the reverse. "We cannot stop reporting what is happening here," Rodríguez says. "It is our duty, and we all of us feel it strongly—that we have a truth to tell."
As important, but unreported in the United States, the open letter went on to lambaste the Chihuahua secretary of education and culture, Guadalupe Chacón Monárrez, who had accused the media of becoming "partners" in the violence by reporting it because, she said, "psychological terrorism is achieved through communication."
"What is it she wants to say with respect to that?" countered the paper. "That we stop publishing?" Chacón Monárrez, the paper asserted, "has created a smokescreen, to hide the incapacity of the authorities who have not done their job."
Rodríguez was herself subject to a terrifying slander in 2008 after she began investigating human rights abuses by the army. When she raised a question about the violations at a press conference, a Mexican army general singled her out and said, "You look suspicious to me."
"They were suggesting that I work for a criminal group," says Rodríguez. "They had even been talking about it with the delegate of the federal prosecution service in Juárez, suggesting that I was compromised." Such an affiliation is a death sentence in the Mexican media—a number of journalists have been killed not because they were crusaders for truth but because they were placements by one cartel or another, taken out by a rival.
It is hard to imagine journalism as brave and dangerous as the kind Rodríguez and her colleagues practice in this murderous demimonde. Charles Bowden urges that if the Pulitzer Prize is worth what it claims to be, the next award should go with honors to the staff of El Diario, whose concerns are very much those of the United States as well as Mexico, and whose offices are, after all, only a short walk from Texas. "If the Pulitzer stands for publishing the truth against the might of governments and at risk of your life," Bowden says, "then this year the nabobs of American journalism have it easy: give all the newspaper prizes to the people of El Diario."
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To dare to compile some kind of academic profile of the Urban Frankenstein requires a blend of gall and courage, but this is what Hugo Almada Mireles undertook at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez. The result is a remarkable book called The Social Reality of Ciudad Juárez, published in 2007—the sole attempt at a sociological explanation of what has happened in this city.
His forensic study of Juárez, inasmuch as anyone can undertake and produce one, finds a population that is "shifting," increasingly made up of young migrants. The city, meanwhile, is characterized by a "deterioration of services and health," with some areas "lacking all the basic orders of social infrastructure," resulting in "insecurity and delinquency" and "a very grave problem of domestic violence and crimes against children." There are "few hospitals" and "schooling wholly inadequate for the numbers of children." Mireles’s book studies the effects of "an excess of work, stress, health problems and those of violence upon children, and anxiety generated by living on the minimum needed for survival." Among the consequences are that "narco traffic becomes a major economic power, such as to exercise a major infiltration of and ultimately control over the police forces."
The university’s campus is one of the few territories in Juárez still endowed with a sense of normal life, yet Mireles elects to meet at a branch of the Carl’s Jr. fast-food chain on a busy thoroughfare that has seen its fair share of shootings. In conversation he considers the influence and impact of the narcos beyond Juárez. "I suspect that the phenomenon of narco traffic has to do with bigger structures that extend beyond Mexico, into the United States," he says.
According to the DEA and the United Nations, the profits from drug trafficking worldwide are worth at a minimum $350 billion a year, with a substantial amount of that business supplying addicts and drug-takers from America and Mexico. Mireles, though, is not convinced that all the proceeds from this trade trickle back down south to the narcos [for more on the role of US finance in the Mexican drug trade, see "The Wachovia Whistleblower"]. "I think it stays in the US," he says. "And if it is banked and invested, do we believe that the bankers and investors have no idea where the money comes from? One should perhaps ask: if this is the case, how many powerful people in the US do not really want to end the drug business but rather to keep it under control and eliminate the small guys, while the big guys continue to bank and invest the money? I do not know the answers, I merely ask the questions."
Back in the cafe corner, Sandra Rodríguez takes another sip of tea and says she doesn’t see the drug money swilling around the banks across the border; her purview is the daily misery and violence that create it. "Of course it is a business, a great business, and international forces are involved," she says. "But there is a Mexican dimension to all this too. Other societies have a legal system, at least nominally. Here we have a system of justice that serves only people in power, wherever that may be—in government, on the street, wherever."
Rodríguez sits back and reflects on the fear that has overtaken this city. "People say to me, ‘Beware—take care of yourself.’ And I reply, ‘Take care from what? Beware of who? Beware of the criminals, of the authorities, of my neighbors, everyone? Beware of every minute of the day and night?’"