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A Tale of Two Cities: Ciudad Juarez and El Paso

A municipal police officer at a crime scene in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, October 28, 2011. (Photo: Katie Orlinsky / The New York Times) Charles Bowden dubbed Ciudad Juárez “Murder City” via the title of the book he published in 2010, the same year the city suffered 3,110 murders. During the first three days I spent in Juárez in late January, 20 murders occurred in one weekend. “You have come on a very busy day today,” Sandra Rodriguez tells me with the tender, rushed and somber voice that El Diario journalists and photographers, as well as other residents of the city, often employ when talking about death. “There have already been eight murders,” adds Rodriguez as she walks briskly back toward her desk to finish the next write-up. It is just 4 PM.

Juan Carlos does not flinch when he explains in a tone filled with both passion and remorse, “Every day, I wake up and look in the mirror and ask myself, Is this day going to be my last?”

Juan Carlos, a 44-year-old bookstore owner, is reflecting on his life and profession in Ciudad Juárez, otherwise known as “Murder City.”

A critically acclaimed documentary captured the essence of the matter with its title, “8 Murders a Day,” the average daily number of killings with which the city has long contended.

Murder City

Charles Bowden dubbed Ciudad Juárez “Murder City” via the title of the book he published in 2010, the same year the city suffered 3,110 murders.

During the first three days I spent in Juárez in late January, 20 murders occurred in one weekend.

“You have come on a very busy day today,” Sandra Rodriguez tells me with the tender, rushed and somber voice that El Diario journalists and photographers, as well as other residents of the city, often employ when talking about death.

“There have already been eight murders,” adds Rodriguez as she walks briskly back toward her desk to finish the next write-up. It is just 4 PM.

Right before I left for the bloody weekend, I conversed with Bowden as we drove to Stanton Street Bridge on the border. Bowden did not mince words about Juárez and the drug war in general.

“How many people have died in the drug war since Calderon took office? Fifty thousand. And how many soldiers did Calderon admit to having perished? One hundred. I would be surprised if it was even that many,” Bowden commented wryly as he explained his argument that the Mexican military and drug cartels were far from distinct entities.

Impunity is as familiar as murder to Ciudad Juárez.

“The police came on to the scene, sort of looked around, and walked away pretty quickly,” Sergio, a 24-year-old local and student recounted, adding that this was an all too common approach for what are called police “investigations” at murder scenes. Sergio was explaining to me what he had seen after I had been in Juárez no longer than 24 hours. In these parts, only some 1-3 percent of murders are investigated, a rate that is only 2-4 percent below the average for the rest of the country.

“Each person lives their daily life, goes to work, comes home to their family and house and that’s often it; a highly routinized way of life. The violence that encircles Juárez has transformed it to a place where the people do not look you in the eyes anymore, and instead, they turn around and look straight down at the floor or in whatever other direction,” laments Sergio.

Sergio’s laments brings to mind the central themes behind John Gibler’s sharply critical work, “To Die in Mexico.” Gibler strongly argues that anonymity is the chief trait of murder in Mexico. Kids, teenagers, and adult women and men have all been killed during the drug war, scores of people obliterated while their relationship, or lack thereof, with the drug trade remains unknown. People have been killed in kidnapping rings, and others have simply been caught in the line of fire. Too often, Gibler notes, assumptions are made that the person killed was involved in the drug trade. The reality is often far different.

Like many other native residents, Sergio is nostalgic for the time when Ciudad Juárez was nothing less than a cultural beacon at the border.

Nowadays, impunity reigns in a city where local journalists often refer to the many malandros who permeate city politics. Malandro is name used for “bad” and/or “corrupt” people and unsurprisingly, it has been a name that is increasingly used for corrupt officials at any level, the city police, public municipal officials or even legal officials who are “on the take.” Malandro was easily the word I heard the most often within the auspices of El Diario.

“Let me tell you one story,” says Lucy de Carmen Sosa in a soft, whispery voice on the newsroom floor of El Diario. “One time, local officials wanted to retrieve the guns of murdered police officials, but they couldn’t ever get to the guns because they were not being released by malandros to the investigators. These are official guns, the same ones that the city gives to its police. But they easily got mired in the corruption that is intimate to this city and were ‘lost.'”

It was incisive reporting like this that led to threats leveled at Sosa through her editor, effectively pulling her off the narco beat. She did not go easily, her compañera Rodriguez explains.

Sandra is El Diario’s main narco reporter. Recently, El Pais profiled Sandra and her pursuits, noting her damning account of the drug war, entitled “Crime Factory.” The book, just released earlier in the month, presents a devastating account of impunity, including murderers who glibly state that they thought their actions would go unpunished.

“But there was no choice, really. You can’t be a good reporter as a dead reporter,” Rodriguez reasoned while we downed drinks at the crowded bar of choice for the journalists at the paper. With a BBC film crew trailing Rodriguez during the same weekend, highlighting her brave work, one can understand why Sosa did not go easily.

Pedro, the editor of the paper, is a calm and friendly man. He explains the situation: “When a cartel comes here to ask us not to publish something, they’re very diplomatic, and not violent. When you have the power though, you can be this way. You can simply ask and it is done.” He looks me straight in the eyes and adds calmly, “Sometimes, I have to ask Sandra and Lucy to be more careful with their writing.”

A quick scan through the paper finds next to no bylines associated with the articles. It is not hard to understand why that is the case.

Sosa’s corruption example was not an aberration, she made sure to mention before I noticed Carlos running out of the photographer’s room.

“Let’s go,” he tells me, as he knows I was waiting to make a run with one of El Diario’s photographers.

We board a truck bearing the El Diario insignia and Carlos peels out of the daily paper’s parking lot. Within minutes, we’re on I-10, the local border highway where hundreds of yards of desert sand precedes the Bush border wall built years ago.

With one hand on the steering wheel clenching a cell phone and the other gripping the gear shift and a Nextel radio, Carlos burns rubber and caroms around a corner at 50 mph. A voice on the handheld radio gives directions to cover a “treinta y tres,” police code (“33”) referring to a murder victim. The chase to the murder scene is on, as it is well known that cadavers do not rest on the ground for long before being whisked away after hasty, on-the-scene “investigations” are completed.

Minutes later, however, the cell phone rings. Suddenly, Carlos slows the car down and calmly says, “Alarma falsa.” False alarms, I would learn during my stay, are almost as common as actual murders.

“My life was saved because of my partner, Luis,” said Carlos. Both were wounded by bullets. “He died; I barely survived, and probably only because he managed to reverse the car.”

“A man in a mask came up to our car in the shopping mall parking lot. I saw him and yelled, “Dále, dále!” and Luis actually did hit the gas and the car started going back in reverse. The man had already shot him, though, and he later died. I too got shot, three times. If he hadn’t hit the gas, I probably would have died too,” explains Carlos, in a soft, modest tone.

In fact, Carlos was a mere intern when he suffered through the shooting, the resulting injury and the near-fatal experience. So, why does he still do it?

Carlos is drawn to the excitement, the interesting and changing nature of the job. Like many in his line of work, he says simply, “I like the work.”

“I could never take a desk job and be behind a desk all day.”

Carlos is waiting to have a child with his partner. It goes without saying what the profession of his child will most likely be: photography. The child will be born into a full family of photographers. Carlos explained that, “Everyone is a photographer in my family: my father, my uncle, my aunt … my grandfather.”

“I’ve been working photo since I was 13,” Carlos added matter-of-factly.

On a different run, another photographer, David, who has been working the graveyard shift for the last 12 years, fielded a call like the one Carlos took earlier. David’s radio blared some instructions, and he turned to me with an icy look on his face, a look I saw many times during my days in Ciudad Juárez. It was the look of death, of murder, of bloodshed.

“There was a death,” he told to me somberly. David pounded the gas to the floor, and off we went.

When we arrive in a poor neighborhood full of abandoned houses, we are greeted by a departing police official leading a convoy of a dozen cars which had already arrived on the scene. The official said there was a “treinta dos y media,” (“32 and a half”) while he laughs with the local pool of journalists who were, by then, also all on the scene. There wasn’t a murder; it was just someone who died of natural causes. Another “falsa alarma” then, but given the location, officials said they weren’t taking chances and showed up just in case. Far from out of the ordinary, says David.

“Why are there so many abandoned houses?” I asked David.

“People leave here because it is just too hot, just too dangerous.”

And hot it was. The talk of the town was mostly a lament about a possible return to the days of 2010. Compared to the past, record numbers of people were being killed for that month and for the start of the year.

What concerned residents and officials alike, however, was that police were being killed in droves. Two were murdered on my first day there, a married police couple who were ambushed by a truckload of armed killers. Two more police were killed on my second day, prompting headlines and the local press to ask when a rule prohibiting police and local officials from transporting firearms on their homebound commute would be ended. By the third day, there was an announcement that the rule was gone.

In spite of concerns about the rule change boding even more corruption, most people reasoned to me that there was simply no other choice. After all, this is murder city.

Resistance and Hope

In spite of the climate of fear and impunity, hope and struggle also characterize Juárez. There is arguably no city in Mexico that has more demonstrations organized, more community groups and displays of political resistance, and more activism on such ample display.

“People here are always in struggle,” a bicycle activist explains during the monthly critical resistance bike ride. “They are involved with all sorts of issues, struggling against Calderon’s drug war, against impunity, in favor of justice, against corruption and in favor of labor rights.”

Across from the avenue where the bicyclists are riding, a group of young students distribute pamphlets against proposed reforms to Mexico’s constitution that would lessen restrictions against potential incursions by the Catholic Church into Mexico’s public policy realm.

Many groups are forced to meet in secret locations. Such is the case for a long-running cause with which Juan Carlos is involved.

For many years, residents of the Lomas de Poleo area have been struggling against powerful business interests and even armed guards, which have created violence and intimidation in the community. The area had served as a principal dumping ground for the bodies of the victims of the ongoing femicide in Juárez. Now, both illegal and legal business ventures are at stake, as the area continues to serve as an important transfer point for the international drug trade. Of equal importance is that Lomas de Poleo serves as the location for the Jeronimo-Santa Teresa project, which since 2002 has been forcefully transforming the zone into a corridor for trade and maquiladoras and aspires to boost tourism and attract investment in casinos.

When the Jeronimo-Santa Teresa project was inaugurated a decade ago, brothers Jorge and Pedro Zaragoza Fuentes had already been laying an important stake to the land through both legal maneuvering inside the courtroom and violent measures outside of it. The Zaragoza brothers are business tycoons who made fortunes from the local gas, dairy and Corona beer franchises. Reports have been filed for years from activists and residents alike of paramilitary-like armed guards used to intimidate, evict and even kill residents.

Local activists like Juan Carlos continue to struggle against these interests which trample the rights of residents, including their claims to own land.

Juárez is also a major stop for social movements with a national focus, such as the movement against violence, impunity and the drug war, led by the poet Javier Sicilia.

Sicilia was catapulted into national and international media attention following the death of his son, who was found in his car with six other young adults.

Julio César Romero Jaimes, Luis Antonio Romero Jaimes, Álvaro Jaimes Avelar, Jaime Gabriel Alejo Cadena, María del Socorro Estrada Hernández, Jesús Chávez Vázquez and Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega all went out for a ride in Cuernavaca, the city of eternal spring located some 60 miles west of Mexico City, on March 28, 2011. None of them ever returned home, however, as their dead bodies would be found by federal authorities, pulled out of a Honda sedan on a street near the Mexico City- Cuernavaca highway.

Shortly following the death, and in light of the national media attention Sicilia was receiving in Mexico, he was invited to meet with President Calderon. Sicilia uttered nothing but incomprehension about Calderon’s violent approach to the drug war. Sicilia was abroad when his son died. En route to Mexico for his son’s funeral, Sicilia stopped in Amsterdam for a 14-hour layover. In light of this stop, he expressed disbelief to Calderon that drugs and violence had to be an inevitable mixture, echoing similar sentiments voiced by every single person with whom I spoke in Juárez and by many from El Paso, as well.

After the death of Sicilia’s son and his friends, on May 5, 2011, a three-day march was organized starting from Cuernavaca and culminating in Mexico City, with over 200,000 people in attendance. Months later, a nationwide, binational caravan was organized. A major stop was taken in Juárez en route to El Paso and beyond into the United States.

El Paso

El Paso and its surrounding parts, like Juárez in many ways, also have their fair share of activism and resistance. One of the most frequented listservs for activists and journalists alike was started by Molly Molloy, a 56-year-old librarian based in nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico. The listserv tracks any and all drug-war-related deaths at either side of the border. It has ballooned and become an essential subscription for those following the drug war.

It cannot be overlooked, however, that the total number of murders in the last few years in El Paso is no more than a dozen. Instead, El Paso has other unique characteristics.

“The worst-kept secret in town is that El Paso practically leads the country in total banking cash deposits, and only trails New York City,” explains University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) Professor Richard Pineda, a native of El Paso, while giving me a tour of the town.

Pineda could have added that many of these bank deposits have not been legal in recent years, as the then-Wachovia (since bought by Wells Fargo) helped launder some $378.4 billion from 2004 to 2007. In what was the largest violation ever recorded of the Bank Secrecy Act, a law designed to counter money laundering, the federal prosecutor handling the case told Bloomberg News, “Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations.”

To the casual visitor or outsider, the links that bond Ciudad Juárez and El Paso together may not be evident beyond the border they share. But to the residents of both cities, the links are well known.

“The streets of El Paso are paved with blood,” said an older native resident with a soft-spoken voice.

Most residents quietly recognize that El Paso owes its relative prosperity and peaceful existence to the drug war. The largest military base in the nation is located squarely within city limits. El Paso, in contrast to Juárez, is the safest city for its size in the United States. It enjoys first-world conditions, despite being within sight of the very much third-world Juárez. Residents from both cities speak longingly of a more equitable past, when fluidity between both sides of the border was more mutually beneficial and shared.

In the past, residents went back and forth between both cities with ease – both for business and for pleasure. Ever since Calderon launched his drug-war offensive, that past seems distant.

Guillermo Vazquez, for example, misses his old business and recounts an all-too-common refrain: “I had my own clothing store. We were successful for many years. But I had to close up shop a few years ago. It simply was impossible to keep doing business there,” said Vazquez. Nowadays, he drives a cab.

Special Agent-in-Charge John J. Riley heads up the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Chicago Field Division, but had worked for the DEA in El Paso for a number of years. He doesn’t blink once when he speaks of the vast differences between the El Paso/Juárez of today, and that of yesterday. “You’ll be fine when you go to El Paso,” he assures me. “Just watch your back, big time, when you’re in Juárez.”

Charismatic and assertive, the six-foot-plus Riley exudes the strong presence of a law enforcement officer. Before, Riley authoritatively explains: “Matters were very different in Juárez. People would go back and forth all the time. Now, everyone and everything that can is fleeing to El Paso.”

While El Paso may benefit from Juárez’s misery, others criticize the limits of these benefits and argue that a better existence can be had by ending the drug war and decriminalizing certain drugs, such as marijuana. Such is the position strongly held by one of the city councilwomen, Susie Byrd.

“Look, a minor league baseball team was seriously deterred from moving here because of perceptions, albeit false, of fallout from our location with Juárez. Our current approach to drugs is not sustainable and no one is making the case that it is. There may be short-term gains to a limited amount of individuals, but that isn’t really helping the community,” Byrd said passionately.

Byrd also raised the issue of added difficulties with severe delays to border-bridge crossings which have resulted in lost opportunities and placed a significant strain on an important part of the El Paso economy.

University officials and law enforcement officers all voice similar complaints, even if they disagree on solutions.

“El Paso suffers a perception problem,” said UTEP Dean Patricia Witherspoon. UTEP is the second-largest public university in one of the largest states in the country. El Paso itself is the largest border city in the country, boasting well over a half-million people.

“In actuality, El Paso is as safe a city as nearly any other its size,” adds Witherspoon. Manny Marquez, who has been working the local beat for the last three decades, agrees, “The perception that people have from up north is false.”

The mayor of Juarez, as well as the publisher of Juarez’s daily paper, do not harbor such false perceptions. Both maintain residences in El Paso, despite holding several of the most important positions in Juarez.

While things have changed in terms of the relationship El Paso has with Juárez, “People here have adapted,” Marquez adds.

To be sure, people on both sides of the border have “adapted.”

“You can tell the difference between El Paso and Juárez at night simply by looking at the lights,” Pineda advised me. “The old phosphorous-colored lights, well, that’s Juárez.”

On the other side of the border fence, it is Saturday night and Pablo Martinez is getting ready to go out. He says to his father, the book dealer Juan Carlos, that he is, “going out to risk my life,” and see some friends of his. “You see that,” Juan Carlos says with expressive eyes and a strong voice. “He didn’t say he was going out to have fun; he said he was going to risk his life.”

The phosphorous lights continue to burn on in Juárez, as ambulance sirens blare from corner to corner. Death lingers in the air, impunity reigns and the drug war continues with no discernible resolution.

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