Dispatch from Juarez: Fear and Happiness at War

A family describes its search for peace as tens of thousands die in a brutal drug war fed by corruption, and the U.S. black market.

By Debbie Nathan Oct 05, 2010

I live in New York now, but for years I was in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S. border just across from the Mexican city Juarez. I worked there, raised my kids, and made friends on both sides with people who tried to live as though the border was a bond between two countries, not a gash. We did all kinds of things together, including sharing family happiness. Weddings, baptisms, baby showers, quinceaneras–photographers were on hand and if you were lucky, you saw yourself the next day on the Society pages of El Diario, Juarez’s daily newspaper. (See images in slideshow and sprinkled in the text.)

Today my old stomping grounds are a war zone. Thirty thousand Mexicans have died in the past four years in a crossfire involving narcotrafficking organizations, street gangs, and corrupt politicos, police and military. That war is fed by enormous U.S. demand for black-market drugs, and in Mexico by lack of schools and employment, extremes of poverty and wealth, and impunity–virtually no one is punished for murder.

Juarez is devastated–over 7,000 of its people have been killed. The  population used to be 1.5 million, but at least 100,000 have fled. I have a friend in Juarez who could leave, but hasn’t. Once I met his grandmother. I attended his wedding and I remember when his son was born. Last week, we talked by phone about his family’s life now. And we talked about pictures, because days earlier, a photographer for El Diario had been gunned down, and the paper had responded by printing an editorial asking the narco cartels to say what they want from the press and to please, please stop killing the journalists and photographers.

My friend and I talked about the society-page pictures that still appear in El Diario. We talked, too, about happiness, in awe that to speak of it and Juarez is still not an oxymoron. Here, is what he told me. He asked to remain anonymous for his safety.

Why I Stay, For Now

My parents were from Juarez, and they were permanent residents of the U.S.–something not uncommon on the border. They went to live in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. I was born there and came back to Juarez when I was 6 months old.

As a child, I was always going back and forth between the two countries because my mom worked at stores in downtown El Paso. When I showed my passport at the bridge, I thought it was because you needed a passport to go between two cities, not two countries.

I got the message at age 10 that "You should learn English because you are an American and you’re going to end up working in the U.S. and for this condition you need English." Being American was a special condition, like being left-handed.

And of course I was starting to like rock music. In sixth grade a teacher taught us the words to the Beatles’ "Yesterday" and that’s when I really got interested in English. I’m not half the man I used to be. I was 12 and kind of knew what that meant.

 At 13 I was sent to after-school English classes in downtown El Paso. I played hooky sometimes and went to a store to play with toys, then I’d go to Walgreen’s to look at Playboy and Penthouse.

In Juarez as a teenager, I got politicized. Later I became involved with a leftist group; later still, I got married and had a son. I have invested so much in the city. The group of friends I do activism with–we work on "refounding Juarez" – organizing to reverse the violence which has increased in the city since the 1990s. We’ve tried to create more options for young people, more culture.

People were already worried about drug violence by 2005. My 7-year-old son had a friend then who had a bodyguard. When we got to his school in the morning we’d see that bodyguard outside with other bodyguards, and their guns. 

Meanwhile, people I know started being extorted over the phone by callers who dial at random and tell anyone who answers that they will kill family members if money isn’t handed over. They called my wife’s brother-in-law and a teenager in the family answered. The caller said, "We want to talk to Jaime S."   Jaime goes by "Jimmy," and the teenager yelled, "Jimmy! Telephone!" The guy on the other end says, "Listen to us, Jimmy." Jimmy didn’t know they knew his nickname only because they’d just heard it. It scared the shit out of him.

Things really got crazy as 2007 turned to 2008. There were rumors on the Internet that on a certain weekend mass murders would occur in the streets of Juarez. We thought the rumors were bullshit, and my wife and and I went out that weekend so our son, who was 9, wouldn’t be scared. We went out for breakfast. We went to the movies. There’s a supermarket we go to that has shish kabab that always sells out early in the day. We went at 7 p.m. and there was still a lot left.

At the end of 2008, I started thinking how my son was going to be teenager at risk in Juarez. I started floating the idea of public school in El Paso. His reaction: "My friends are here. My school is here. And it’s not fair to leave my cousins behind."

Christmas 2008, we went to his school party. He plays cello in the orchestra. We were standing in line and people were talking about who had left for El Paso.

"Are you ready to go?"

"Yeah, we’re waiting for our visas."

After the winter vacation, some kids didn’t come back to school. They were in El Paso. My son got invited to piñatas there–birthday parties, and the kids of Juarez were talking about their new experiences across the border. My son still didn’t want to follow them.

Ten of my friends have left. They’ve left for different reasons. Some are wealthy and have always had houses on both sides, so going to El Paso is nothing new for them. Others leave because the economy has gotten really bad since the U.S. downturn and they’ve lost their jobs. But they still have their debts, like their home mortgage. They abandon the mortgage and move into the interior of Mexico. 

Then there are people who were born in the U.S. but always lived in Juarez. They’ve never thought of leaving, but now they are taking their option. Some have had things happen to them. They’ve been carjacked or seen something really terrible. They’ve been threatened. They’re afraid the soldiers will come into their homes or search their cars or do a frisk. When they do, they steal: a wallet, a bottle of whisky, household items.

Others leave because they’re afraid they’re going to get killed.

And there are people who stay because they have no choice. They’re poor. They have no crossing documents. They have documents but their elderly parents refuse to be uprooted. Or, like my wife–she’s a government employee–they have a profession they don’t want to abandon, despite the violence.

We’ve had four or five carjackings in our neighborhood, two kidnappings and several phone extortions. In one carjacking, we had just gotten home after my son’s soccer practice. He saw our next door neighbor, a teenager, with a gun at him. That neighbor moved to El Paso afterward–his mother sent him to live with a brother. My son was 11.

A little while later, he went to the store with my wife and a woman on the parking lot had just been carjacked. My wife tried to comfort her, but my son said, "Let’s go, Mom, let’s go!" 

Shortly after that there was a shooting outside his school. A hundred federal police responded, and helicopters, plus soldiers on the roof. Not long before this, right down the street at a church, a bridegroom and his best man had been kidnapped by commandos when they were literally at the alter. The groom was murdered. My son knew about that, too.

Since the shootout, he’s decided he wants to go to school in El Paso but only after he’s finished grade school in Juarez and done the class trip to Mexico City, the nation’s capital. He seems to be seeking a sense of closure with that trip.

But I still don’t know about moving. My wife doesn’t want to go. She and other people in Juarez say things about El Paso–for instance, that the kids there all do drugs and have sex at age 13. I think it’s easier for them to talk this way than to explain their feelings about leaving Mexico. 

I’ve had my agenda for a long time: political and cultural activism in Juarez. But it’s become so much more difficult–we have to go to funerals now, of fellow activists, of rap artists even, who were killed trying to do political work. Like everyone, I’m constantly imagining things are going to happen to the people I care about. Sometimes, too, like in the shower, I see images in my head of things that have happened–kids like my son murdered and the government excusing it by claiming they were gang members.

I get mad then at Mexico’s president and really mad at our mayor. I found myself near him once at a public event and actually yelled at him. I yelled, "Liar!" Because while all this horror is going on, he says things in Juarez are fine.   Amid all this, I know people from El Paso who cross the international bridge even now. There can be smiles, and in some way, happiness. I got an email from a friend saying, "Let’s get together and talk about what’s going on. Maybe we can just laugh about ourselves." Staying in Juarez can still seem worthwhile.