My husband and I moved from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon to Ciudad Juarez in late February 2011. We were frightened throughout the process, were we jumping from the frying pan into the fire? After spending six unemployed months in Monterrey, we decided yes, but we’re doing it anyway.
I arrived at the airport, solo, my husband had left the day before with the moving truck and was supposed to meet me. I didn’t know what to expect, decapitated corpses on stakes lined up along the runway wouldn’t have surprised me. My mother-in-law’s stern warning, “we will never visit you in Juarez”, echoed in my mind. Well, it can’t be that bad if she’s not coming, I straightened myself, shoulders back, “just act like you know what you’re doing”, my father’s advice has carried me through since we moved here, no Spanish, no clue, almost no hope, that one line has worked so far.
I met my husband, got in the truck and we drove to the bank to withdraw some money to pay the poor moving guy who had to sit next to my growling German Shepherd, Heidi for 18 hours. Here, ahead and to the right, two navy blue trucks race and then come to a screeching halt. Police, bulletproof everything and armed to the teeth approach a single man outside his car, one officer remains in the back of the truck, standing, AK-47 pointed right at the suspect. It really is horrible here, I’m thinking all the way to the home I’ve never seen before.
The house we are renting is beautiful; nothing special by my previously spoiled American standards but it is heaven compared to my Santa Catarina hovel. It has kitchen cabinets and countertops! It has real flooring! A water heater! And let me check, not a cockroach in sight. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
The days progressed, our gated community is quiet, there is a park in the middle of the street where children play like normal children do, throwing rocks and using bad language because their parents are out of earshot. These kids don’t hide in the house, in the dark, cowering in the bathtub to avoid a stray bullet. And it’s not just because no one has a bathtub here either. We walk Heidi in the park that runs for blocks beside Juan Pablo, it’s much cleaner than the one near our house in Monterrey. No one herding goats here. Just people exercising. We go to the Soriana for groceries. The Army is outside in their camoflage covered trucks. I expect foul play as I go in, ready to duck and cover with the cart. They stopped to get Cokes. Probably for free too. And flirt with the cute, skinny girl at the register.
After crossing the bridge for the first time, I could have told you what Ciudad Juarez’s problem really is: poverty. The bridge people! You alternately cringe because of their missing limbs or their ribs showing through baggy, torn shirts and then cringe again because they’re making a beeline to your car, filthy rag in hand, asking for a quarter for lunch if you just allow me to rub this disgusting, greasy thing all over your car. No thanks buddy, I’ll keep the sand and please get the hell out of here because you’re rubbing your poor all over my automobile. The indignant, entitled American shows through. Then you’re confronted with an indignant, entitled, bossy Border Patrol agent and pray, “please don’t let me be as much of a jackass as that guy”, so you’re a little nicer coming home.
Juarez is a place that is trying desperately to be something it’s not. It’s like when one of your nerdy friends in high school got a mohawk but still had a pocket protector and good grades. Juarez wants to be affluent, it looks over the Rio Grande to its’ sister El Paso with her 3 bedroom, 2 bath ranches with grass and real air conditioning, with a sting of jealousy. Juarez, try as it might, with shopping malls that glitter with overpriced, unnecesary trinkets, subdivisions that are tucked away with 24-hour security and a tennis club inside, here’s a Starbucks, there’s a shiny new hotel with a pool; it just can’t quite pass itself off as authentic. The subdivision is encased in a concrete wall, with barbed wire stretched across the top to keep the riff raff out. Unfortunately, it’s the same sentiment that El Pasoans carry toward the inhabitants of Juarez.
Juarez is valuable real estate for cartels because, as in all good real estate transactions, it’s got location, location, location. We are here at the portal, drug manufacturers, meet drug users. For a poverty-stricken place, 46% of Mexico’s population is at or below Mexico’s poverty level since Calderon has taken office; the promise of quick, easy money, making more money in a few hours than you could all month sweating away, performing mind-numbing, back-breaking labor in a maquila, drugs are glittering gold, hope wrapped in little foil packages. This could feed your family, buy your children new shoes or take your pregnant wife to the doctor.
If taking care of your family isn’t worth fighting, killing and dying for, then what is?
The drug war will never be won with brute force. No amount of Army tanks and helicopters can run down or stamp out the desire for a comfortable life. Especially when it’s right there, over the fence, driving by you and your dirty rag, headed toward easy riches, rubbing your nose in it every day. The war on drugs is as unwinnable as the war on terrorism – how can you kill an idea? Human beings are programmed to progress, to evolve, to adapt. To want more.
What is shocking is not the violence in Juarez and in all the border cities; it’s the terror and outrage of the American people at the drug war. Don’t want little bits of Mexican brains splattered on your pristeen US soil? Here’s an idea: make drugs legal. Or at least don’t bite the hand that feeds the DEA, the largest purchaser of illegal drugs in the world. Don’t be a hypocrite. Take some responsibility.
I know, I’m not holding my breath for that either.
In the meantime, Juarez stands in the middle, shaken, anxious, like a street dog that has been beaten, hungry and in search of shelter. Things remain quiet here in my little gated community, the worst thing that has occurred was that some teenage boys were drinking beers and peeing in the park. There was a neighborhood meeting and someone told their mother.
I am not fearful here. I continue to “act like I know what I’m doing”. Actually the only slightly scary thing that’s happened since the move was being pulled over by a Juarez police officer at 4 am. The Army came to Juarez because half of the corrupt police force had been fired. The remaining half are questionable. I stood my ground and didn’t pay the mordida, stupidly hanging on to my ideals to pay a lot more to get my license back. I am not fearful, I’m cautiously aware. I take the same philosophy as I did when I would list a house in a particular Chicago neighborhood. Don’t wear your colors, don’t wear a hat, don’t throw up any signs, like I knew what those were, don’t show your bling, don’t be flashy and don’t look scared. As long as you’re not here to buy or sell drugs, don’t own a business and don’t hang out with friends who do, you’ll be fine.
When you stop pointing the finger at the cartels, at Felipe Calderon’s awkward attempts and the acts meant to inspire shock and awe and look at it for what it is: people, just ordinary people, like you and I, except they have far fewer choices than you and I have. People just trying to do what they can to carve out a tiny piece of opportunity, a crumb really, compared to the opportunity that is handed out freely, just over there, in El Paso. People just doing a job they don’t particularly care for in order to bring home tortillas and shoes.
On my way, in the morning, in the dark, headed to another day of work, for a company that I don’t respect, just another number who serves no purpose whatsoever than to fill a black swivel chair, I understand.