What Does Juarez Represent?

February 5, 2010

The city of Juarez is no longer a city. What’s happened there over the past 15 years has made it something much more, and much less. For starters, daily life, the daily economy of the city has completely broken down. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.

In the mid 90’s, Juarez was famous for an incredible series of unsolved femicides. And before it, ‘femicide’ as a term was something that we almost didn’t need to have a word for; in most cultures, dating back to the beginning of time, the murder of women by men has been more reprehensible than the murder of other men. But Juarez, special valley on earth, was the exception. Over 500 women were murdered, their murderers never tried, never arrested, in most cases, never even pursued.

This was due, I think, in large part to the ubiquitous control of Amado Carrillo’s Juarez cartel. For a time the owner of the country’s most facile and profitable drug trafficking organization, controlling the single most profitable and strategic border crossing into the United States, Amado was the undisputed owner of Juarez. At the height of his power in the mid 90’s, he was flying DC-10 airplanes filled to the brim with cocaine direct from Colombia to airstrips throughout Chihuahua, earning him massive, massive profits that no single cartel has enjoyed since. This allowed him to make bigger and bigger payoffs to officials, strengthening his power even more.

The point is, he owned Juarez. He owned it. He bought everyone and everything, there wasn’t one thing that happened in that city, on the local municipal, state, or federal level that he didn’t have control over. The thing about drug trafficking in Mexico that is most hard to wrap your head around is how omnipotent drug money is there, economically, politically, socially. Conservative estimates place the annual Mexican cartel revenue from drug smuggling at $40 billion, which is almost one third more than the country makes from oil exports every year, it’s biggest national product. That kind of money touches everything, and what’s more, once an economic system becomes dependent on that source of money, and I mean dependent in all senses, from the smallest mom and pop sense of the economy to the political donations and palm-greasing that has gotten things done in Mexico since the hacienda days and before them, there’s no turning it around. Nothing, nothing can replace it. It will tear itself apart to maintain it.

And so, in the mid-90’s, when the hired gunmen who created law for Carrillo’s narco-society (obey or be killed) started finding it entertaining to murder a prostitute after a drug-fueled party in Casas Nuevos Grandes or any of the other ranch towns surrounding the city, there was nothing, no law, no moral, no principle subject to anything more than the money that drugs and Carrillo provided to stop them. He created a culture of complete impunity. These days experts estimate that in those times, at least 90% of the police operating in Juarez were directly on Carrillo’s payroll. Actually, what’s probably worse, none of them even associated the money they were getting with Carrillo, with one man. It was just coming in from some nameless, faceless source, and in return, all they had to do was not do their jobs. And, if they did decide to do their jobs, they’d be killed by someone else acting not on the orders even of a man, but on the impact of money and the threat of death. Death and money. They ruled the city.

Femicide became ubiquitous. Finding dead women in the morning was a normal thing. And in an economy like that, in a border town, where the municipal services are so infected with illicit money and the imminent threat of death, what did it matter? The murder of women probably became (believe it) a cultural meme among cartel bangers and corrupt cops. Because what did it matter? In ‘94 NAFTA was signed, and Juarez flooded with migrant laborers from the poor provinces of Oaxaca and Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras, seeking the ‘opportunity’ to work for pennies on 16 hour shifts in US owned maquiladoras that sprung up all over the outskirts of town. Slums sprung up almost overnight. What is life worth in a place like that? It’s not a coincidence that the femicides stopped in 1997, when, of course, Amado Carrillo died during an ‘accident’ involving his anesthesia while he was undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance. Most speculate that some kind of foul play was involved, and the cartel went more underground afterwards, foregoing the ostentatiousness and sheer fearlessness of reprisal when Amado’s younger brother Vicente eventually took over.

What I’m saying though, lengthily, is that the damage had been done. What is happening in Juarez today is an extension of what has been happening for years. This is a place where criminality, impunity for evil has been the rule rather than the exception to it for years, and it’s mostly because of money, money, money, though that has ceased to be the reason now, which is the most important thing to note. The cartel turf war that erupted in 2007 at this point has become pretext for what is happening now. At first, it was about the Sinaloa cartel tiring of paying off the weakened Juarez cartel for the right to traffick through the most important border crossing.

But quickly, so quickly, it caught on all the old trip wires of evil in Juarez, brought out the despicable worst in the city. Soon, we don’t even have the Sinaloa cartel battling the entrenched Juarez cartel. We have both cartels subcontracting local gangs of 12-19 year olds to do their killing for them, these children who grew up in the culture of impunity, the children of migrants from other places who came to Juarez to find work and a life and found a hopeless pile of shit festering on the wrong side of an invisible line that separated the destitute from the born-entitled. It’s pure capitalism, but extrapolated to a biblical extreme. Tearing up a generation of youth in a city with no history and no future, just the inescapable roar of death and the glossy allure of money to bide the time until it comes.

I read this review of a forthcoming book by one of my favorite authors on the subject today:

Bowden (Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing) grapples with the almost incomprehensible levels of violence in Juárez, Mexico. Over 1,600 people were murdered in Juárez in 2008; almost as many were murdered in the first half of 2009 and countless more have been kidnapped. Bowden tries to explain the escalation in violence, but explanation—even investigation—is impossible: witnesses don’t come forward out of fear of the police; the police in turn are terrified of the military and the cartels. The military are apathetic and often complicit in the killing, as is the federal government. Journalists report the scantiest facts; many are paid off, and the rest fear the consequences of telling the truth. In the absence of hard facts, Bowden can offer only an impressionistic account of his own frustration at the collusion of police, media, federal government, and global economic forces in making inexorable violence the defining feature of daily life in the border town. This is a nonfiction book without facts, without a thesis, and without an argument; Bowden’s sentences are gorgeous things, euphonious and deeply sincere—but the book offers no understanding or call to action, only resigned acceptance.

We call what is happening in Juarez a ‘drug war’, but now we have something happening that doesn’t resemble a war at all. Women selling burritos are gunned down in the street because they didn’t pay an extortion tax to a local gang. 18 people lined up against the wall of a drug rehab center and executed. Scores of businesses shutting their doors for good in the most lucrative downtown settings because they have been threatened by god knows who, local thugs? Cartels? Gangs? If you can’t pay you can’t pay, and it’s not worth sticking around to find out who’s asking for the money, because all it takes is a morning read of El Diario to see what it’ll lead to. Gangs and roving teams of scavenger criminals stealing, killing, kidnapping, extorting, raping—all because they can, because the city has been so bought off throughout history that no one can even stand up anymore and separate cartel crime from crime. It used to be a rule of the Juarez cartel to not shit where they eat, to not provide drugs to local citizens, part of the deal with the local cops to keep the streets clean. Nowadays Juarez has one of the world’s worst growing addiction problems. Violence begets violence, evil begets evil. We are now dealing with the effects of a culture of violence, of death, that has grown like a fractal, spiraled beyond rational understanding.

There is no longer a war in Juarez. Juarez itself is war. Juarez is the snake eating its own tail.  Juarez is a stillborn city. Nothing gets out, and there is no hope until it destroys itself. It sits there, outside El Paso, inches from heaven, dying a thousand deaths and no one is even reaching out to it, no one is praying except the citizens of the city that have made it this far, living in the shadow of timeless, timeless evil. We’re all watching as the forces unleashed by money, governments, and ruthlessly avaricious men tear a place, an actual place on a map, a vessel of lives, apart into nothing. A vacuum.

Juarez is the worst, and as many philosophers have reasoned, perhaps most necessary manifestation of the curse of duality. Without great evil there cannot be great good. Without great scarcity there cannot be great abundance. Juarez is the future, as well as its end.

Juarez might be beyond hope.

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