Last week, President Felipe Calderón spent two days in Ciudad Juárez, ostensibly to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the signing of Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, the pact that transferred power from the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the provisional Revolutionary government of Francisco Madero. Harking back to the city’s glory days, Calderón called Juárez a “heroic city,” and presided over a parade of 700 soldiers and a huge amount of sophisticated military equipment (and a contingent of university students dressed as Pancho Villa’s cavalry).
Set opposite El Paso on the Texas-Chihuahua border, the city is no stranger to bloodshed, not all of it heroic. Nowadays it is notorious both for its decades-long femicidios (apparently motiveless murders of young women) and its more recent string of juvenicidios (murders of young people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time). And during Calderón’s term in office, it has become the scene of brutal confrontations between rival drug cartels, confrontations that have left scores of beheaded bodies by the roadside. Since Calderón took office at the end of 2006, the city has suffered some 7,000 deaths linked to organized crime and/or the seemingly fruitless War Against Organized Crime, AKA the Drug War.
In that context, not all the residents of the city greeted the president with open arms. The Workers’ Pastoral, a group that promotes the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, and a secular civic group called the Plural Citizens’ Front asked why Calderón did not have time to listen to the families of the multitudinous victims of the violence, which, the groups claimed, his military strategy had brought to the city. Why, they asked, did he refuse to take responsibility for those deaths. “His message is very clear,” read a joint statement of the two groups. “He also came to tell us that, seen from his office, there are fewer deaths and that the war — his war—is going well: that the violence is a matter of perception.”
The president has become a cheerleader of sorts for the story that he is winning the war against crime, and has likened his steadfast stand against drug trafficking to the stance of Winston Churchill in the global fight against fascism. On the one hand, he tells whoever will listen, civilization itself is at stake; on the other hand, we are gaining the upper hand. He recently told a convention of tourism entrepreneurs that since innocent people were not targeted by the spreading gang violence, the industry had nothing to fear. Tourism was increasing. The only shots that American spring breakers will receive, he told the industry gathering, are shots of tequila. (Not quite “We will fight them on the beaches…” but a distant echo of Churchillian inspiration? Raising hopes in dark times?)
But Calderón's insistence last week that everything was under control in Ciudad Juárez revealed a fundamental failure to grasp the day-to-day precariousness of existence in that chaotic city.
Throughout the 1990s, Juárez was Mexico's fastest growing center of industrial production. It expanded explosively over that decade with no warning and no planning. It generated jobs that were low paying and insecure, and it retained a set of urban services—from road maintenance to primary education—that were nowhere close to adequate for its burgeoning population. The city is now home to an estimated 1.5 million people and over 300 export-oriented assembly plants—maquilas. About 190,000 Juárez residents, down from 250,000 a few years ago, work in the maquilas. Over half of those workers are women, and some two-thirds are under the age of 30.
Despite the endemic violence, the city remains a magnet for impoverished campesinos and unemployed workers throughout north-central Mexico, as well as for transnational factory owners, attracted by the city's modern industrial parks and by its available, low-wage, non-union workforce. It has long been the home of over 10 percent of Mexico's maquila workers—the largest concentration in the country.
The city's location and loose social structure have also made it a magnet for transnational drug traffickers. The traffickers, like the maquila owners, are attracted by the low-wage work force and by the proximity of the lucrative U.S. market. They are also attracted by, and make profitable use of, the city's social disorganization.
This is nothing new. "If you see a neighbor building a nice extension to his house in this barrio," a former maquila worker told me on a visit to Juárez back in 2003, "you know that someone in the family has been carrying drugs across the border, and probably that someone in the family is in jail. No one else could afford it. And you know that whoever is in jail, if he is from this poor neighborhood, he will remain there for a long time. He can't accept a deal and denounce the drug capos because he knows that if he does, the capos will come and kill his children."
Some years ago a parish priest, Father Antonio Urrutia, with support from the Juárez Diocese, organized a shelter for the city's sex workers. The idea, he told me then, was to offer protection, rest and, most of all, alternatives to the city's prostitutes. "A small minority of the murdered women have been involved with prostitution," he told me, "and that's become the authorities' excuse for inaction. In fact, the killers seem to have links with the police. They know just how to dispose of the remains, and when and where."
At the time, Father Antonio's "rest house" took a small bite out of the extreme disorganization that has beset this city. "We are up against powerful opposition," he told me, in a way that, several years later has become prophetic. "The organizing forces of this city are the drug traffickers. On every street here, you're in the jaws of the wolf. It's a very dangerous city."