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Gringa in Ciudad Juarez

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Gringa in Ciudad Juarez


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.

Posted in Chihuahua, Personal Experiences, Reports by StateComments (2)

This is Juarez: The War Next Door

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This is Juarez: The War Next Door


Almost all the dead are poor people, not drug-enriched grandees. And though we give Mexico half a billion dollars a year to encourage its army to fight drug merchants, this alleged war has a curious feature: Almost no soldiers ever die. For example, in Juarez, over 4,200 citizens have been slain in two years. In the same period, with 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers in town, the military has suffered three dead.

Charles Bowden, High Country News

My neighbor’s eyes are soft and welcoming, easing my tension as I stumble my way through our conversation about desert plants and gardening in my broken Spanish. Danny and I have shared a lot of time together, talking mostly about plants, teaching each other their corresponding Spanish or English names. Danny comes from Mexico City, a tropical region, and he knows a lot about gardening; but within the constraints of a brutal city he has had little opportunity to enjoy his love for nature. He along with his brothers and their families migrated to the border on the wings of hope and opportunity. They built their houses together on dreams of a better life for their families, eleven people living stuffed together in a tiny cinderblock house doing all that they can to help each other succeed. Instead of freedom and a better life they have found themselves surrounded by relentless tension and difficulty. These are outstanding people who have welcomed us, two gringos, into their neighborhood with open arms.

I tell this story as a parallel to the two Americans that died a couple of weeks ago in Juarez. We have seen their stories plastered all over the news, we have shifted in our chairs and taken comfort in our resolve to stay as far away as possible, convinced that we would be the target of the next strategic bullet. But it is families like Danny’s that carry the real weight of the war. It is the poor people of the world, the voiceless and powerless, that always carry the weight and residue of the affluent. Yes, two Americans tragically died that weekend, and so did at least thirty Mexicans, thirty more to add to the nearly 5,000 in the past three years. This is Juarez: Real people. Real families. Real struggles.

Charles Bowden, arguably the leading journalist and researcher on this heinous war, says that, “few discussions about the border come from facts. Most discussions of the border come from fears. We seem to prefer slogans and fantasies: free trade, ‘just say no’,'gigantic walls’.”

It is no fantasy that well over 17,000 people in Mexico have died since Felipe Calderon took office just over three years ago, or that in Juarez alone 5,000 people have been intentionally slaughtered. The easy thing to do is shake our heads in amazement and then change the channel. And while we sit comfortably in our easy chairs over 1,000,000 of our poor brothers and sisters in Juarez shut themselves behind their stick and cardboard fences and kneel on their dirt floors praying that the bullets do not pass by too closely to their baby’s head. In a city of 1.4 million, over 100,000 people have lost their jobs at U.S. owned factories. These are jobs that pay just $5-$7 a day, not even coming close to easing the burden of living in a third world country. 27% of the homes in Juarez are now abandoned. Over 10,000 business have closed and some 30-60 thousand people, the few that are able, have taken shelter in El Paso. The mayor of Juarez and the publisher of the local newspaper live in El Paso in fear of their lives. 100-400 thousand have fled Juarez for other parts of Mexico, and yet over 1,000,000 people are too poor to do anything about their situation, and their children, making disastrous choices in a crumbled society, keep dying.

The facts do not stop here. Thanks to folks like Bowden, Diana Washington Valdez and others, the deceptive veil of political ramble is being torn and the hideous truth is being revealed.

17,000 + dead in Mexico and 5,000 in our city. More U.S. guns is not the answer.

We have hesitated in the past to post a bunch of statistics about the War Next Door. We don’t want to give people another reason to run away from the border, or incite a spirit of fear over our lives and work. We believe strongly in layering all that we do and say about Juarez with words of hope, but what Mexico is currently reaping directly and absolutely affects all of our lives, whether we believe it now or realize it later. I write this because the longer we disregard them as they stand in the midst of their pain, the uglier this war will become.

Listen to Charles Bowden’s recent NPR interview here.

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Border Land

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Border Land


A world where half of the people live in extreme poverty is neither just nor secure. Our security depends on more than military might; it depends on other people’s security, well-being, and a hope that replaces anger and fear. We simply cannot and will not beat “swords into plowshares” (remove the threats of war) until all people can “sit under their own vines and fig trees” and have some share in global security. Only then will we remove the fear that leads inevitably to conflict and violence.

~Jim Wallis

June 17th 2008 was a sizzling day , we melted onto the grotesque tile floor just as the power went out. It was enough to make us laugh and brush away the tears that were streaking our faces. It had been a long and heinous day. One of those days where reality is shaken and shock creeps into your core. “We just moved to Juarez? Really?”

No power meant no lights and no swamp cooler. Misty made some stick-to-the-top-of-your-mouth almond butter and honey sandwiches on our dry crumbly bread, and I carried a couple of chairs outside where there was at least a breeze pushing the air around. There was no comfort in the sandwiches so we tossed them and decided to climb onto the roof of our new house to see just where we had willingly chosen to torture ourselves. A warm breeze, strange sounds, bizarre smells and swirling lights collided with all things familar and wrecked our senses. Ranchero music pumped through the thick air. The street was alive. This was Mexico. Our hearts, which had been so gripped, so white-knuckled by the stress of the day, began to relax. With smiles growing on our tired faces, we spun to face north and there it was: the string of lights burning a yellow line in the desert sand, dividing two worlds. We had no idea at that moment just how powerful the lucid borderline was, that those yellow bulbs would have the power to hold back the violence like a sea wall breaking down waves. We were ignorant to the unruly power that an imaginary line can wield. Those lights, that fence, we would learn, would be a reckless assurance that El Paso would continue to bear the gleaming badge of the 3rd safest city in the U.S. That obnoxious string of lights which has severed humanity and has carved a deep and bloody line in the desert sand has become the dividing line between a hopeless reality and the American dream. It has mutated into an insolent eyesore.

City Lights

That night the bulbs glared and shimmered. Later, when the power returned and we lay down on our air-mattress under the creaks and rattles of the swamp cooler, we closed our eyes but the ghost-like glint of yellow continued to radiate under our eyelids. In just a few months from our arrival, Ciudad Juarez would rise in the ranks as the murder capital of Mexico, gringos would stop crossing the border, the media’s buzzing and thoughtless words would lash and whip this lonely city, the grip of fear would tighten like a leash over America, the Western Church would take a step back.

The air is getting warm and heavy over the desert. All of the deciduous trees have exploded with life; flares of green bursting out of the dust. The spring winds have descended. At times it seems that the jet stream has abandoned its heavenly course and fallen on the land: nature’s way of raking the trash away and cleansing the desert. Hope is alive and well. I dare you to come and check it out.

~The photo above was shot by Axel Briseño. Last week we met Alex, a talented photographer and software programmer from Ciudad Juarez. He has started a photo-club and he and his compadres have posted some powerful photos. The photos are currently on display in downtown Juarez. Please take a minute to scroll through these incredible photos of our city. Check out Alex’s great Blog and Photo Club site. Thanks for your help & friendship, Alex!

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