Walking through downtown Juárez, only steps from the border, Maria Vargas is unable to conceal her frustration and sadness. Where tourists and shoppers once crowded stalls and stores, heavily armed and masked Mexican troops now patrol. Shopkeepers lean in doorways, wariness at the edges of their eyes, their businesses deserted and hushed. The playful bargaining between customers and store owners is missing, along with the laughter and conversation that once spilled from restaurants and cantinas.
The emptiness seems to acquire a physical weight that settles around her shoulders as she points out a candy store she, her brother and her sister favored as schoolchildren. Faded pink paint flakes off in patches, and dirt coats glass panes that used to showcase chocolates and other sweets. Several more storefronts are darkened, their bargain shoes and pan dulce long gone, evidence of the drug war’s far-reaching effects.
Soon, bodies began piling up. More than 7,300 deaths have been attributed to the drug war since January 2007—at least 5,000 of them in 2008. Among the dead are cartel members, drug dealers, police officers, soldiers, journalists, tourists and children. Targets are usually connected to the cartels or to those trying to stop them. But stray bullets strike the innocent. No one has been spared.
Hardest hit are the residents of Ciudad Juárez, a border town laying claim to an estimated 300 murders already this year. A city just a few short miles from New Mexico’s state line, Juárez is well known for its vibrant mercado and Downtown shopping district, as well as its maquiladoras. These factories are tasked with assembling products from imported raw materials, which are then exported back to the United States. Juárez is also identified with drug trafficking. Its location is ideal for cartels transporting marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine into the U.S.—the world’s most lucrative market for illegal drugs.
Twenty-year-old Maria is an NMSU student who leads a busy life in Las Cruces. Aside from attending classes, she is president of NMSU’s Rotoract Club and manages a salon. By all appearances, she’s a typical American college student occupied with study groups, friends and keeping up an apartment shared with her partner Mandy. But Maria is not American. She was born and raised in Mexico, and not long ago she was forced to confront American attitudes toward Mexico and its people.
During a Rotoract meeting, the club (a university-based arm of the Rotary club) was discussing an upcoming international service project. Maria felt Juárez was an obvious choice as a recipient due to its proximity to the university and because so many charities have suspended operations in the city, citing increased violence. Maria was stunned to hear fellow club members protest her suggestion for very the same reason.
The emptiness seems to acquire a physical weight that settles around her shoulders.
Mérida Initiative’s critics point to Colombia’s increased cocaine production and suggest the solution is legalizing or decriminalizing drug use—but not just in Mexico. For this approach to work, they say, America would have to follow suit.
Carlos Fuentes, a respected Mexican writer, agrees. “The only way to curb the violence of the drug cartels in Mexico is by legalizing drugs,” he is quoted as saying in an openDemocracy.net article. “If six or seven countries agreed with each other to legalize drug-taking, we would end it with the drug traffickers.”
Maria holds little hope for such cooperation from the U.S. “Why should they help us like that? What would we give in return?” Her rationale is blunt. “We don’t have nearly as much oil as Iraq. America won’t rush in just to be neighborly.”
Growing up, Maria didn’t recognize Mexico’s deep entrenchment in the drug trade. “I remember going to parties, and the door would be answered by men with guns. Because it happened all the time, I thought it was normal.” The situation began to come into focus after moving to the U.S. “When I went off to college I realized there was something wrong with that,” she says.
Maria’s upbringing could easily be described as privileged. In a city where shacks built with pallets pass for homes and children stand beneath the border’s bridges begging tourists to toss spare change, Maria’s family’s house might as well be in a different country.
The neighborhood Maria was raised in is home to several cartel members. Though her family was never involved with the drug trade, its activities have always been just around the corner. Driving down cobblestone roads lined with sprawling homes set behind barbed and electrified fences, she slows to describe who is tucked behind the high walls patrolled by armed guards. “This is where the son [from a well-known Juárez cartel] lives. And here’s the other son’s house. They’re my neighbors; everyone knows who they are.”
Maria shakes her head as she tries to make sense of life in Juárez, a puzzle of irreconcilable pieces. “I’ve watched my brother struggle with drugs, and I hate it,” she says. “But even I sing along to the narcocorridos when they come on the radio.” Narcocorridos are Mexican ballads glorifying drugs and narco-culture.
In a country where poverty is as widespread as government corruption, it’s easy to see why the cartels are often idolized by the population. The cartels have become folk heroes by putting on lavish displays of wealth and openly defying the authorities. And as a struggling young democracy, Mexico has a difficult time providing legitimate alternatives to an alluring fast track to riches, despite the danger involved.
By sequestering themselves inside their homes or moving across the border, their lives have been stolen, in ways perhaps more subtle than death, but lost nonetheless.
As Maria makes the rounds visiting family members, each has a story to share about how the war has made its way to their doorsteps. Maria recounts witnessing a kidnapping in front of a gas station while she waited in line. “It was just so casual. He was at a pay phone, and this SUV pulls up filled with men and guns, and they just took him.”
Factory managers and owners have become targets for extortion kidnappings. Maria’s mother, a maquiladora supervisor, lists the many precautions she’s resorted to taking. “We’ve had security briefings, covered the windows in my office. I have to take my name off my work badge, and every day I take a different route to work.” She wonders if now is the time to move to El Paso, if only to keep her newborn grandson safe.
Gilberto owns a maquiladora and so is in a similar position. He’s received phone calls demanding payment to prevent injury, but he brushes them off. On a street near his home, he witnessed a man get his head beat in with the butt of a gun. And then there was the time several soldiers burst into a poker game between Gilberto and friends and robbed them.
Maria’s cousin talks about an evening when a man forced his way into her home and held her on the floor at gunpoint. “I don’t know what he wanted, and he left as soon as he realized my mother was home,” she says, adding, “I was stupid for answering the door; I knew better.”
Visiting the Plaza of the Journalists, we stand before a small newsboy statue meant to symbolize how far Mexico has come in granting freedom of the press. Just weeks before, a family friend’s decapitated body was found hanging from a bridge, his head deposited at the newsboy’s feet, signaling the press to keep quiet on cartel issues. Those who didn’t heed the warning quickly realized it wasn't an empty threat. El Diario crime reporter Armando Rodriguez was gunned down in his car while his daughter sat in the passenger seat. (She was unharmed.) Some reporters have found their names on publicly posted hit lists and have either scaled back their reporting or sought asylum in the U.S.
Stories of brazen violence and corruption are grim facets of Juárez’ war, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and soldiers. But each time they are told, there’s also firm determination. They will weather this most recent storm.
Sitting at a slightly wobbly table on a street corner hours after the sun has retreated, Maria, her cousin and Mandy discuss Mexico’s situation over burgers topped with grilled pineapple from a roadside stand. There is hope that America will reconsider its position on drugs and Mexico, or that perhaps the cartels will run out of people to kill. But whatever happens, they know they will continue with their lives. As Maria’s cousin puts it, “You probably didn’t think we went out like this at night. But we have to; we still live here.”