The British are a nation of nosy bastards: we chase ambulances as though they were ice cream vans, and our paramedics play to packed houses. But here, in Ciudad Juárez, there is no such gaggle; the siren excites few rubberneckers where blue lights spell danger — no, people face the wall, lest, seeing something they shouldn’t, they wind up sliding down it. Curiosity drowns kittens by the litter.
To the unadapted eye Juárez passes for a typical Mexican border town, a place where the breeze block is a unit of both distance and time. Decamped-Dickensian, dust-globe scenes of rewardless graft and dream-resistant stupor are sketched against a backdrop of sagging garages and ratty kiosks selling porno-pulp comics. It’s a short walk from downtown El Paso, but the morning constitutional of the average Texan rarely takes the detour. An estimated 1.4million people bed down here each night, but the city’s distinction is not the size of its population, it’s the rate at which it’s shrinking. It may come as news to Caracas, Bogota or Port-au-Prince, but Juárez currently holds the title of “murder capital of the world”, and its trigger finger shows no sign of relaxing.
The US State Department estimates that 90 per cent of the cocaine that polos American noses comes through its porous southern border. The days of drop-offs in the Gulf — of Cessna-borne Medellín mobsters in Del Monte cotton waving hankies at speedboats — are long gone. Sleeves were rolled up. Crockett and Tubbs made the interception. It was time at the Escobar, please. Overheads had to come down, and so the vulture landed — in Mexico. And Mexico was ready; it rolled over with a boudoir ease. Widespread political corruption — that is, institutional failure on a Busby Berkeley scale — took the cartels by the hand: it had been champing to make some proper money; marijuana, its traditional contraband, simply wasn’t cutting it. Either slow-boated from Colombia to ports east and west, or muled through Guatemala and Belize, the white stuff goes by ground now, all routes north.
The humanitarian cost melts calculators. Drugs claim lives, the drug war claims more, and the war on drugs, which is not the same thing, more still. President Felipe Calderón launched a nationwide military offensive against the cartels in 2006, the year he took office. Not as an act of affronted sovereignty, but in line with US national security policy (the US also bankrolls it, under the Mérida Initiative). Its effect has been limited except in terms of crossfire. According to official figures (which nobody quotes without shame guffawing in their face), 50,000 Mexicans have died in the drug war in the past six years. Violence spikes with every seizure, arrest and erasure: gangs pad out their accounts with extortion, human trafficking, kidnapping and the hijacking of trucks and trailers; and power vacuums created by the army’s “decapitation strategy” (the targeting of high-profile drug lords) fill with blood as would-be successors stage palace coups that make the 4th of July look like fag-ends under frosted glass. In many areas the army is just another player at the table, one with god-assumed sanction and easy access to firepower operating in cahoots with the traffickers. In strategically vital Juárez, the homegrown Vicente Carillo Fuentes mob, backed by Los Zetas, a phenomenally brutal band of Special Forces defectors who were hired as mercenaries by the east-coast Gulf cartel (only to take over most of their territory), are at war with the Sinaloa alliance, the largest — and oldest — criminal organisation in Mexico, from the western “narco state” of the same name. Their arsenal, like so much else in this equation, comes courtesy of the US. Mexican demand for weapons as a result of Calderón’s strongarm tactics is a growth area for the American firearms industry. Presidents Bush and Obama have done their bit, too. Between 2006 and 2011, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed thousands of weapons, including heavy-calibre assault rifles and grenade launchers, to cross into Mexico in “gunwalking” stings that were intended to lead federal agents to cartel strongholds. (Not only did operations such as Fast and Furious fail to make significant collars, but most of the arms went AWOL, expediting the country’s bad-faith conversion into a shooting gallery where the price of life doesn’t even make the ledger. The names of its no-go zones comprise an unholy rosary: Veracruz, Acapulco, Chihuahua, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Matamoros and, my home for the next fortnight, Juárez.)
For a lift, a breakfast of tacos al pastor and soothing accounts of a Mexico not entirely removed from that of my residency a decade before, I thank the student doctor who let me spend the night in her rat-charming basement, and cross, by footbridge, the Rio Grande, a name that conjures images of game appaloosas losing their hooves in a foaming roil — until you see it: a shit ribbon running through a chemical dump, popular among anglers with a cadmium deficiency. Mexicans call it the Rio Bravo, with, I assume, a shake of the head. A slope-shouldered border guard asks if I need directions for the bus station, because Durango, where he is from, is “really beautiful and not too far if you sleep”. I tell him that I’m stopping for a spell, which wins me a delicate shrug and an expression containing more pity than is strictly polite or comfortable. It is the last week in August, a month that will, with 333 murders, make a splash as the bloodiest in Juárez history. I take it the city has had its fill of martyrs.
The day is on its last legs before I find a cheap hotel that doesn’t charge by the hour. Its vast reception could double as a field hospital: there are towels, water drums and several motionless bodies, their bellies exposed to the dewy chill of the tiled floor while Juárez cooks outside. Among the Burciaga’s other charms is air-conditioning — come noon, when the car tyres and tarmac become one, the caretaker with a crocked lung blows through his own keyhole. I am shown my room, which, with its humped bedclothes and carpet stains, suggests a hastily disguised crime scene. The manager isn’t one for expansive gestures, but I note he retreats a step or two, his hands hanging bonelessly. The headboard crawls with the hacked legends of cherry-busting American teens who got their kicks back when Mexico was a hire-out hinterland where rites of passage could be performed in relative safety. The air has been walled up, unstirred, for at least a month and the woodchip is a mess of mosquito swats, their iridescence angry in the curtained light. I load my jacket with essentials and kiss my pack goodbye.
The federal police are making their rounds in a showroom-fresh open-back jeep. It’s a fearful business — there’s a reward on the heads of the men who haven’t already taken a mordida (a bribe; literally, a “bite”) — but I spot merriment beneath their customary balaclavas and an assault rifle rocked like a baby. I chance a photograph. In the time it takes me to assess the damage, the vehicle stops and I’m beckoned over. I jump to it, with what I hope comes off as indecent sloth. My summoner raises wraparound shades, inches down his muffler and extends, I suspect for the camera, a hand. I can read my misfortune in its hard lines, dead ends and godless islands. Words, specifically the Spanish for “I am a lowly tourist with an eye for unexpected moments”, fail me. But I have reckoned without my genius for photography. The marble gaze of the comandante softens, yielding shallow creases of amusement that reveal teeth as my 25th study of peeling stucco fills the viewer. There’s no point in taking you in, his brow appears to concede, you’ll never break — you devise your own tortures. (My Nikon is confiscated again a couple of days later, along much the same lines. A picture of a Boston terrier in Mardi Gras beads clinched its return that time, and with a decided twinkle.)
“Pinche pendejo, do NOT pretend to be a tourist. Tourists have money and word of money gets around fast.” This is Armando, my cab-driving guide, a private detective in Guadalajara who moved to Juarez in 2008 to help his sister after her husband — and father to her four children — was disappeared (here, as in Chile under Pinochet and Paraguay during the Stronato, “to disappear” is also a transitive verb). “It takes about a week for the cholos to map a stranger’s movements and work out how much they are worth. And if it’s enough, they will grab you.”
There’s no disguising I’m that stranger. A slouchy 6’2″”, I burn seven times for each lick of tan and, outside of a mirror, I don’t see a gringo all week. And, as promised, I am often followed —daily on foot and, twice, at comic-cortège pace, by a thuddingly soundtracked, ostentatiously modified black SUV. But, then, it pays to pick your feet up and keep your head down in Juárez. Otherwise, they will see you. They, whose marron-glacé eyes turn priests into theocides and god to drink. “Find us,” the vanished enjoin from every lamppost and hoarding, like sirens with their throats cut. It’s as though the plaza has been papered with a torn-up yearbook, from a finishing school where good deportment, like everything else, means nothing. If you’re from a deprived, remote neighbourhood, comely, dark, slender and aged between 10 and 25, you’re the girl most likely to… end up on one of these posters. Lovingly descriptive of their subjects’ virtues and idiosyncrasies (one 13-year-old was last seen wearing black patent leather shoes, her favourites, even though they pinched), they read more like eulogies than calls for help, which is no surprise: no one expects a desaparaceida to be found alive.
Sometimes they drift from the column marked “missing” to one with a more terrible rubric: feminicidios, female homicides. Their remains litter the desert, cursed relics of a counter-civilisation. As many as 3,000 young women are thought to have been abducted, raped, tortured and murdered in Juárez since 1993, when the prospect of a job in the maquiladoras, the vast assembly-for-export plants established in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, started to draw them from the Mexican interior. NAFTA’s success was predicated on such women, muchachas del sur who are prized for their manual dexterity and docility in the face of miserable wages and hazardous working conditions. Whatever is driving the murders — and the Reforma newspaper columnist Sergio Gonzáles Rodríguez describes the unique weave of big business, underworld activity, male-chauvinist culture and rising drug consumption in Juárez as a “femicide machine” — the companies still enjoying the cheap labour and minimal tariffs enshrined in NAFTA (among them Electrolux, Blackberry and Generals Motors and Electric) seem unexercised by them. In fact, the sector, which currently employs about 500,000 people, is expanding: as well as more positions, plants that laid off staff in 2008 and 2009 are now offering overtime.
Anapra is one of the poorest districts in Juárez, having sprouted from the city’s first rubbish dump. Unfinished roads run between lashed-pallet hutches with chickenwire porticoes. Ears sing to the rumour of running water. Many maquiladora workers live here. One of them is Maria Beatriz Torres, a softly stocky woman whose platter-like face explodes on smiling. At 26, she’s an old hand, having given eight years to the factories. “The work has got better, fewer hours, more money, but we are all frightened. Even me, and I am not what they are looking for. I don’t trust the bus drivers, not at night. Sometimes I finish very late. I have seen girls dragged into cars. Strangers replace friends at my bench, and the friends didn’t say goodbye. I had a boyfriend for a while, the son of one of my bosses. I didn’t really like him, but he had a car and I didn’t have to take the bus. When you see a beautiful woman holding the hand of an ugly man, it’s like they are holding a gun — it’s for protection.
The full story is one of systemic perfidy, as much as pure horror. The victims are violated twice; first by their attackers, and then by the incompetence, indifference and downright venality that, although common to all levels of government and law enforcement in Mexico, have become specialties of the house of Juárez. Despite interventions from the United Nations and the International Committee on Human Rights, impunity from prosecution is still considered a birthright by most criminals. In The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women, her 2006 book about a seven-year investigation into the murders, the El Paso reporter Diana Washington Valdez argues that the Juárense authorities knowingly shielded the guilty, many of whom were narcos, and extracted confessions from scapegoats by torture, a version of events that has, for want of refutation, become fact. An Egyptian national was fingered as a serial killer, but neither his mysterious death in prison, nor the incarceration of his “accomplices” (including several bus drivers), did anything to stem the flow of corpses. Patricio Martínez García, the governor of Chihuahua from 1998 to 2004, claimed that he had put a end to the femicides, disregarding (as “that damn report”) Amnesty International’s 2003 account of the state’s decade-long “failure to exercise due diligence in preventing, investigating and punishing the crimes in question”. Justice may be a dreadful joke — a supervillain packing a throwdown sword and gram scales — but her agitants abide: devastated mothers continue to trawl the moral morass to build cases against the perpetrators, to march the streets and protest their findings, regardless of the mortal dangers. Not long after my return to the UK, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, a vigorous campaigner for the retrial of her 16-year-old daughter’s confessed murderer, was gunned down outside the governor’s office in Chihuahua city. In January 2011, Susana Chávez, a poet who coined the phrase “Ni una mas” (“Not one more”) that was adopted as the rallying cry of the influential advocacy group Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Bring Our Daughters Back Home), was dumped — dead — in her own neighbourhood, with a black bag cinched around her neck and her left hand sawn off.
The sky, high-fired for days to a hysterical blue, bruises, cockles and splits. An ocean falls out of it in the time it takes to get wet. There are good-humoured squeals as roads become rivers and prim blouses achieve transparency. Herded beneath awnings, people talk, mostly of the rain and their forced intimacy. I ease my way into conversation with a huddle of middle-aged men at the corner store where I buy a four-pack of Tecate, my minimum requirement for sleep — insurance against the sleazy whirr of disease-bearing insects and the twice-tried door handle. On the basis of my sun-scabbed complexion and ready ear for revolutionary politics, they have decided I’m Irish, which suits Central Americans better than talking to a Brit. I keep to the first rule of investigative journalism: never tell someone you’re not who they want you to be. The chat is intermittent, drummed out by the deluge on the corrugated roof or coming in riffs tossed at the backs of departing customers (“He had to spend some money, his trousers were too tight”; “He’s a real mummy’s boy — he only comes out when she’s got her period”). Laughter is pursued, not for the relief it brings, but the pain it causes. Doubled over like debased geishas, the men clutch their ribs or rub at their heartburn. A girl of 15 or so, in school uniform, text books held over her bosom, smiles indulgently at her incorrigible uncles. She draws innuendo all the same, as does her mother and her mother’s mother, and I turn, outraged, to her critics. The man I take to be the proprietor, because he is sat closest to the counter and grabs drinks from the cooler without glancing at the till, cautions: “Don’t be fooled. She drops those books in the trash as soon as she changes out of her uniform. Girls, they smile shy, innocent, good daughters, good students, but they lead una doble vida. Only some are prostitutes, but all have a price.”
The atmosphere now sour, I signal my disappointment with a crimped mouth and duck out into the torrent for my date at the morgue. I have been encouraged to pop by with my press card, “no appointment necessary”, because “people don’t hang around for long enough to require supervising”, but I am received with unfailing courtesy and spared no sights on my brief recce. Death’s latest delivery is stacked everywhere. You can’t move for the unmoving. It’s the Grand Guignol on ice. My nose can handle the formaldehyde, and my stomach stays put, but my pupils are shrinking to positions of safety. The registrar tells me that you get used to it. The horrors are so particular — spare heads, jointed carcasses, flitches of scored and scorched flesh, each a map of instant recoil — that I wonder what she means by “it”. But scarcely have we dispensed with the ground rules for my tour when I realise that finding a single category for cruelty’s indulgences is essential to their assimilation. Professionally engaged is as human as one dares to be: “We’re not undertakers, our job isn’t to bring the dead back to life, to put them in a suit, arrange the flowers, to bring families peace. But people don’t want to know what we know, to see the monsters who robbed them of their children.”
“Who you don’t know can’t hurt you” should be the epitaph of the unclaimed bodies buried in common graves in San Rafael municipal cemetery. These personae non gratae are sent off with zero ceremony, in a flash of white overalls, their memorial a serial number scratched on a metal plate. The message is clear: the door to Hell is on the latch; they will let themselves in. On my way out, I spot a stall sprinkled with plot-gladdening gimcracks: bleached plastic wreaths, stuffed toys holding wizened hearts, foil windmills that turn lazily, if at all, in the loaded air. Out of the melodramatic morbidity for which I’ve always nursed a talent, I buy one for myself, a star yanked down from heaven and exposed as tat, and start to compose the note I will pin to it in case I turn up weeks hence with a scream full of sand.
Bobbing slightly, my upper lip could do with a stiffener. West of Avenida Juárez, the Mariscal, an old red-light district now faded to apricot, is being remodeled. Dusk doesn’t loiter; the sun drops as through a hole. The depths of a black Laguna betray a muffled banging. Armando walks me to a bar, past one-storey brothels, vacant lots and club facades like the portals of bygone fairground rides, to meet Heriberto, an occasional drinking buddy and gangland connection. Bert is thick-set, with a centre of gravity so low it gives my kidneys vertigo. His friendliness is welcome, although it is doubtless chemically assisted. Over shots of cooking mezcal, Bert tells me that he knows I’m a journalist and that “a journalist would consider me an interesting man”. As if I need persuading, he hoiks up his tonic shirt to reveal a crude tattoo of an Aztec head. I confess that its significance isn’t lost on me, even if its artistry could bear tuition: the Azteca gang do dirty work for the Juárez cartel. Bert takes this as his cue to catalogue said dirt, lending eye-widening definition to every morsel.
We repair to a back room where, screened off from the main bar by a potted plant, cascades of glass beads and the milling of prostitutes, I am granted an insight into Bert’s exuberance. Tapping cocaine from a glass vial onto his knuckle, he begins: “Everyone’s in on it. Police, army, government. Mexicans, Americans. The only way out is in. Kill or be killed. I started off collecting debts, first with a baseball bat — I love baseball, my cousin tried out for the [Monterrey] Sultans — then with a gun. I was good at it, very calm, serious features, and I wasn’t so stupid to take what wasn’t mine, not even on this.” He holds up the vial. “Want a bump?” For an hour or so the conversation threatens to derail after two girls join our table, apparently at my insistence. Their faces merge as sweat vaults off my nose. I reach the bathroom by some unrecorded means and flick water at my face. I imagine my heartbeat slowing to a fierce gallop, its rider thrown and twisted. The sounds of insufflation, of uprush, fill my ears. It’s like I’m standing inside a rolled note. The mirror throws down a challenge — ”Can you not see what you’re doing?” — which, way past reflection, I duck. I hang out by the sinks, eliciting grunts, looking less casual by the second, waiting to drop down another gear.
Returning to my seat, I hear Bert has taken his desertion badly: “Culero, do you want to hear this or not?” An impulse to prove that I’m an arsehole by clocking him is beaten to the punch by vocational pride. What follows makes me grateful for the intervention. Bert is a sicario, an enforcer. He no longer collects debts, but people, and few of them survive their time in his specimen cabinet.
“It can be anyone. Sinaloa scum, the fucking mayor, someone who owes the cartel money, businessmen who won’t co-operate, guys who can’t keep their dick in their pants, girls who can’t keep their pussy dry, good cops, greedy cops, prosecutors, people who make our lives difficult. They’ve got stuff we want — money, information — but we can’t always guarantee a fair exchange.” He explains: “We take them to a safe house. Isolated, very rural. The local police are told to take some time off — a week, a month, eternity. We keep them sweet, sort them out with drinks and girls when they come to town. Anyhow, we get down to business. We call the victims’ families, make our demands. It gets boring. We drink too much, snort too much, our masks come off. The party has to end for someone.”
Doctors are kept on hand to revive abductees; to ensure the torture, which includes beatings, duckings, electrocution and sexual assault, comes in non-fatal doses. The moment the marionette stops jerking is put off for as long as possible. Broken toys need to be disposed of, which I gather is a monstrous palaver in a desert that is already 20 to a bed. By this reckoning, death is merely the laborious encore to a month’s rollicking entertainment. However, it is not uncommon for bodies to be displayed in public spaces, spreadeagled and lashed to monuments or hanged from bridges, often with a warning notice, or narcomanta, expounding the nature of the victim’s offence and promising further diabolical tableaux. Generally, those chosen to make such statements are denied the dignity of their head, hands or penis. Bert claims to have known Hugo Hernandez, who died hard at the hands of the Sinaloa cartel: cut into seven pieces, his face stitched to a football. “Who does that? They are the worst. Animals. And the government helps them. We’re just defending our homes.” Bert looks a conflicted man, one who knows either he’s lying, or that the truth has forsaken him, and, despite his prodigious intake, he is flagging: a tic, like a flinch, sucks in the left side of his face, and his shoulders, so easily convulsed with bilious humour earlier on, are still. The worry that I will make my end tonight starts to break up; I stop watching the doors and reading body language for the footnotes. I take my leave with a massaging hand on the back of Bert’s boil-pestered neck. Whatever the man’s true station in life, he is a creature of the narcocultura, and the details of his “confession” will shade my nightmares for years to come.
Unrested and suddenly distrustful of the hotel staff, I am staring down coffee dregs across the street when Armando calls early for me the next day. He has retrieved his police scanner from a toy-piled corner and is excited to drive me to the scene of a shooting in Colonia Hidalgo, where a car bomb was detonated, killing three, in July. The emergency services are well ahead of us and the area is taped off, but there is no mistaking the collapsed forms of two men inside a cored Nissan, their heads abut and their mouths open, as though trying to rescue an awkward first date. A small group gathers, casting bold shadows in the picnic sunshine, a few reluctant onlookers fleshed out with local reporters. The latter are reticent, even off the record. It is understandable: journalists are in the cross-hairs, too. Beaded with a fast-food sweat, Virgilio, an agency photographer in his forties, says: “The papers get death threats. Don’t run this, do run that. Police beat us up and take our equipment. This is my fifth camera in two years, my eighth cell phone.” So why do you do it? Again, the rueful smirk tucked deep inside the cheek — the default expression of Juárez. “I have high blood pressure and a weak heart. They will get me before any bullet. Until that happens it pays pretty good.” I give it a week before I search online for details of a double homicide in Hidalgo, but there is nothing. The stories that do appear tend to lack a byline, and the text takes a back seat to grisly images that serve more as a cautionary tale — like a “doom” mural in a Saxon church — than as hard news. But the narcos want more from their press, which is to say less, and the industry has been forced to plead for guidance. Appalled by the murder of a rookie photographer, 21-year-old Luis Carlos Santiago, at a busy shopping mall on September 16, El Diario, the newspaper with the biggest circulation in Juárez, ran an editorial — an open letter to the cartels — with the headline: “What do you want from us?” In gagging the press, the cartels have denied the people their last crumb of comfort: the knowledge of how bad things really are.
Postscript: Six weeks after my visit Armando moved his family to Zacatecas state. He had received threatening phone calls at home and on his mobile. He offered no details except to say that his encouragement of an “Irish” journalist had not been welcome. Armando was philosophical —“It was time; we had fun; luck isn’t for life, it’s for moments and horses” — but the episode brought home to me the dangers to which journalists routinely expose those who help them.
This piece, written on the road between news stories and updated for publication here, was excerpted as the first entry of a two-part drug-war diary in Metro(UK) and Metro International in November 2010