Life and death in Juárez, the world’s murder capital

Ciudad Juárez, 16 September
The executioners burst through the gates of the Anexo de Vida (Annexe of Life) drug rehabilitation centre at almost the exact moment that Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, and mayors across the country, including the one in Juárez, rang bells to proclaim the 199th anniversary of independence from Spain.

Next morning the courtyard was still full of the bittersweet stench of fresh blood congealing in pools. The killers threw a grenade into the first room on their right, occupied by a 16-year-old guard. They had soaked up his blood into the soles of their boots and stamped it around in footprints that anyone who cared to might examine. But no one did care to.

The carnage divided, along each side of the courtyard. To their left, the killers entered the room of the centre’s director, who made it outside, where the pond of his blood putrefied on the cement. Next were the quarters of his deputy, a woman. Her blood was flecked across a floral bedspread and smeared the sofa on to which she collapsed.

The death squad moved past the main dormitory, to which a former patient returned to pick up the tools and shoes he left behind the previous night. ”I slept over there,” he said. ”We were watching the boxing on TV. We heard the explosion, then shooting, and hid under the mattresses. The whole thing took no more than about two minutes.”

Outside the Enfermería, the medical centre, was another pool of blood and the wall was pitted with bullet holes. Inside the infirmary was a puddle of blood by the door, but whoever shed it forced a desperate way out. His blood was splattered across the bullet-riddled wall as he staggered outside to die in a spot now labelled Cuerpo F (body F). To the rear of this clinic reception were bunk beds, more blood, and a label reading Cuerpo H. There was no record of Cuerpos A, B, C, D, E and G—

This killing of between 10 and 13 people (the number varied according to the source ) on the celebration night of El Grito (the ”independence cry”) helped take the number of executions in Juárez in September above 300. That gruesome threshold was also crossed in August, so that these became the bloodiest months in the city’s history, escalating the tally for 2009 to more than 1 800. In 2008 a total of 1 ,600 died.

Another morning in Juárez, population 1,6-million and as of this month the most murderous city in the world. Another 12 victims died on the first day of October, five in one machine-gun attack.

Last April the mayor of Juárez, José Reyes Ferriz, pledged that this city would become ”a national model” in combating drug violence. And last week at a conference in El Paso, across the Rio Grande in Texas, he insisted that corruption was being rooted out and the killers were being apprehended.

Juárez is supposed to be the showcase of Calderón’s declaration of war on Mexico’s drug cartels, a city now occupied by 10 000 troops and legions of paramilitary federal police, as well as the state and municipal forces, columns of which have traditionally been aligned with the Juárez drug cartel.

But the carnage has intensified despite successive military reinforcements in March, May and June. What is going on in this border metropolis?

Gustavo De La Rosa is a leading member of the team of investigating ombudsmen working in Juárez for the Chihuahua human rights commission, the state offshoot of a national government agency. Last week he became the most senior public official to flee Mexico for El Paso, after threats to his life.

Many people have fled Mexico’s drug war to seek asylum in the US, but they faced threats from the narcos; De La Rosa was threatened by, and is in flight from, the Mexican army. On his second night in exile, De La Rosa ate a meal with his son and daughter before bidding them goodbye, across the bridge. ”Thank God they haven’t threatened my family,” he sighed. He is now planning his next move away from Juárez.

”I have to work out what to do,” he said, ”consider the risks, whether to return or live with the fact that my work will disappear”. The ”work” includes cases in which he believes the Mexican army is responsible for some of the plentiful homicides and disappearances.

An intermediary in Juárez through whom De La Rosa communicates with the military commander, General Jorge Juárez Loera, urged him to stay away from the city.

”The threat was direct,” said De La Rosa. ”I was told by soldiers while pulling up at a traffic light that if I did not leave I would be killed. Later I learned that the general had told my boss, ‘Get that man out of Chihuahua’.”

De La Rosa’s flight complicates a shorthand version of Mexico’s drug war, which began in December 2006 after Calderón dispatched the army to try to break the cartels’ power and end smuggling to the US — a war that has since cost about 15 000 lives. The simple account is that a federation of narco cartels, each with its own plaza, or turf, along the border, broke up into rival syndicates, which violently contested and divided up the frontier region bordering Texas and Arizona.

But in Juárez, the murderous kernel of the war, the city has imploded into a state of what one of the few journalists left working seriously here, Julian Cardona, has for some time reported as ”criminal anarchy” rather than a neatly mapped cartel war; what De La Rosa calls ”martial law, without the law”.

Juárez has long been a laboratory for the entanglement of legal and illegal markets. It was the pioneer city for maquiladora factories that line the border — sweatshops manufacturing goods for US companies, paying wages that create a developing world economy conveniently across the river from Texas. A decade ago Juárez became famous for the widely publicised kidnap, violation, mutilation and murder of hundreds of young women, many of whom worked in the maquiladoras.

And the city was the bastion of another pioneering multinational corporation: the Juárez cartel — during the 1990s, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the biggest single trafficker of narcotics in the world. The cartel and maquila managers were neighbours in the richer neighbourhoods, their economies inseparable.

Recently both markets have changed dramatically. The quantity of drugs smuggled across the border is now dwarfed by that to supply catastrophic domestic addiction. The Juárez cartel thereby fragmented into a federation of criminal enterprises called La Línea, running street gangs called the Aztecas. Against them, other gangs contest both the export and domestic markets.

The result is a lethal lack of order, even among the criminals of Juárez. Antonio Brijones, former member of a gang called Calle Jon, who now tries to redirect criminal energy into positive social action after many of his friends were killed, said: ”No one knows who they are selling drugs for, who they are killing, or for which cartel.”

This splintered market creates even more addicts cutting and selling drugs to feed their own habits. The Juárez-born journalist Ignacio Alvarado says, with hollow humour: ”The collapse of the old narcopyramids has made the drug business much more democratic. There has been de-monopolisation, outsourcing to the street and stimulus to the free market — which of course generates great freedom of opportunity.”

Meanwhile, at the top of the tree, managers of the maquiladoras — faced with recession and competition from Asia — needed fewer workers, spewing their surplus humanity (which flocked here from all over Mexico) into the new narco-economy of ”opportunities” for murder, extortion and kidnapping.

But who are the death squads and who are their victims? In hiding, initially holed up at a motel near the border — the lights of Juárez twinkling to the edge of the desert horizon beyond — De La Rosa sought to give an answer. He noted that ”the majority of those killed or kidnapped are malandros: down-and-outs, urchins, petty criminals and addicts” — waste products of the Juárez marketplace. ”People of no value in this war,” he said, ”no use to any cartel; desperate, below poverty whose death has no explanation, except as part of (and he uses this term limpia social, social cleansing) the extermination of the lowest of the low.”

Last April General Juárez Loera, commander of the 11th military region, to which Juárez belongs, all but endorsed De La Rosa’s view when he urged the assembled media at a press conference: ”I would like to see the reporters change their articles and where they say ‘one more murdered person’, instead say, ‘one less criminal’.”

De La Rosa mapped out what he saw as the dramatis personae of execution in Juárez. ”First, there are sicarios working for the cartels — who fire a few bullets, or 60 bullets, through a small hole at their specific target”. Then there are barrio-based gang killers, who federate against one another on behalf of the cartels.

But then, said De La Rosa, ”there are execution squads, another breed forensically killing malandros, planned assassinations of the unwanted. And if we look at exactly how they are done, they are experts in killing characteristic of training by the army or police.

”I do not think these killings are the work of sicarios, because I don’t think that anyone would want to pay the money the cartel sicarios charge to kill malandros. Sicarios kill members of the rival cartel; you wouldn’t need a sicario to kill malandros in a rehabilitation centre or abandoned house taking drugs.

”I’m not saying,” insisted De La Rosa, ”that the army is directly killing these people. But, in a city living in a culture of delinquency, soldiers become part of that culture. I kept a map and watched how these squads move across the army checkpoints without hindrance. Until I was told to stop.”

De La Rosa was in effect fired. He had opened detailed investigations into 10 homicides he believed were committed by the army and 14 kidnappings or disappearances. ”These cases,” he said, proceeded in theory ”from my office to the state prosecutor, thence to the military authorities in the city and an internal army investigations office in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. From there, not a single file ever got to the examining judge”.

By day Juárez is a city that appears almost normal — this is not the Sarajevo or Grozny that visiting reporters expect. Shop windows are prepared for Halloween, the local Indios football team struggles against relegation, children shriek with glee at a fun fair and there are custom car races across the parking lot of a Del Rio supermarket making the air smell with smoke from screeching tyres, not gunsmoke. The singer Sarah Brightman was performing in town.

By night, it was always a place of naughtiness and dancing girls. But now they dance pretty much to one another, under Juárez’s self-imposed curfew, when after dark bars or rehabilitation centres are attacked by gunmen and death squads respectively. Two weeks before the Independence Day slaughter at Anexo de Vida, another 17 recovering addicts were executed at a rehab centre called Aliviane. The previous week, 40 were killed in three days.

The mutilation and torture of those kidnapped in the continuing drug war — whoever it is between now — is ever more inventive: decapitations are de rigueur and a certain Sergio Saucedo was brought forcibly from El Paso a fortnight ago, had his hands chopped off and carefully placed on the chest of his body, found next morning. Last week even a waif washing car windscreens at traffic lights was executed.

As the heat of a desert sunrise bears down on the breeze-block walls of the Visión En Acción asylum, casualties and refugees from the most dangerous city in the world begin another day.

Marisol was a topless waitress before drugs fried her brain, Becky was a nurse, despite being raped at 14, before she killed someone and was jailed, and another man was a serious gang banger. But all three are now commanders of their wards, and take charge of morning showers and changing the nappies of those who wander about the yard screaming and muttering to themselves, like Lucio, made blind by the narcotic cocktails he was taking.

Manuel is recovering from severe drug abuse: when I met him last year, he was sliding back into visions in which ”the rapper, Mr Bone, tells me to kill my mother and shows me the four little witches”. Now, Manuel is trying to recover through an interest in Thai boxing, but when asked whether he might one day knock out Mr Bone, replies: ”Yeah, but I want to fuck the little witches. They are gringas, blonde and very cute.”

This defiant, miraculous centre was established by Pastor José Antonio Galván, once a street-fighter in El Paso. It is overseen with rigour by an extraordinary man called Josué Rosales — one-time heroin addict who arrived close to death, now transformed into an asylum worker manager and role model ”building back the lives of people who were like me. You need to have been there, and they need to know you have been there”. He adds: ”We are just the little guys. Whoever runs this killing are big guys and only God can beat the big guys.”

These are the kind of people — not the politicians and speech-makers — struggling to save Juárez, who work and sleep in hope for the future they want to build. But who also sleep in mortal fear of who might arrive any night, as they have done elsewhere — whoever they are, behind their ski masks and the automatic fire tearing this once mighty, charismatic and vibrant city to shreds.

Amexica: War Along the Borderline, by Ed Vulliamy, will be published next year by Bodley Head, London; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York; and Tusquets, Madrid –

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Ed Vulliamy
Ed Vulliamy works from EXILE, mental/physical. Writer The Guardian & The Observer Amexica 'War Along the Borderline' The War is Dead, Long Live the War When Words Fail: A Life With Music, War & Peace Ed Vulliamy has over 3853 followers on Twitter.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Sabotage and corruption at Eskom’s worst power plant goes unpunished

A forensic report details how Tutuka power station is being crippled by current and former employees

Champions League final preview: A tale of revenge for Liverpool

The Reds are the favourites this time around, but they must not let emotions of the past cloud their heads when they face Real Madrid on Saturday

Stellenbosch Mafia mindset plays out in racist incidents at Maties

A white student urinating on a black student’s property has brought into focus a strong undercurrent of racism

Stalin’s reign of terror foreshadows Putin’s hold on Russia

Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine has accelerated Russia’s slide towards totalitarian rule.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…