Ciudad Juárez: voyage to the end of globalization

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico (Giornalismo partecipativo and Brecha) — The dream of industrial globalization has turned into a nightmare. Ciudad Juárez, the home of “maquiladoras” [“twin plants”] and the murder of women, standing between the global north and south, is now the most violent city in the world.  In the last two years the war between drug cartels, which has now drawn in the army, has caused 4,600 deaths and 100,000 refugees.

As we were arriving in Ciudad Juárez from the south, the last hour of our increasingly anxious flight was over one of the driest deserts in the world. It wasn’t always that way, say the few native residents.  Juárez had a population of 30,000 in 1930, 300,000 in 1970, 1.5 million in 2000.  The city has lost several battles for control of the waters of the Rio Grande to El Paso, which since 1848 has belonged to Texas.

In the ancient and once-fertile Juárez Valley, only the names remain.  Among them is the “Cotton Field” where in 2001, authorities found the remains of eight women, victims of the city’s wave of murders.  Last November, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Mexico for “indifference.”  It seemed that the women who were raped and murdered, youth of humble working class backgrounds, were worth nothing.  Since the seventies, and even more so since the signing of NAFTA in 1994, an uncountable number of women have come to Juárez to work in the “maquilas,” the foreign-owned export factories that receive special tax benefits, offer workers rock-bottom salaries and few benefits, but provide some hope for a better future.

The deaths meant nothing, just like the 4,600 casualties that Juárez has registered since the beginning of 2008 when the war for control of the city broke out between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels and the Army arrived to play its own part. El Universal reporter Ignacio Alvarado tells Brecha that “65 percent of those involved are younger than 25, and are children or grandchildren of maquiladora workers.” This figure, which sketches a revealing ethnographic profile of the current massacre, also testifies to the utter failure of a model of development. Elizabeth Avalos, a labor union activist and former maquila worker, confirms that “today, for the half million young people who live in Juárez, globalization offers nothing: not education, nor health, nor jobs. They see the drug trade as their only possibility for earning a living and gaining social recognition.”  Drawn in by the cartels, they are pursued by the Army, which arrests them, kidnaps them, tortures or kills them, or simply settles accounts with them at gunpoint. And all this takes place in a completely lawless context, in which the complete breakdown of the judicial system goes even further than impunity, where there are currently only 150 open murder cases currently under investigation.

And what about those other 4,450 dead bodies?  This is the question Brecha asked to jurist Oscar Maynez. “If the murder was committed with automatic or semiautomatic weapons, we take it as a given that we’re dealing with a quarrel between drug traffickers and we don’t open a case.”  Another witness, who prefers to remain anonymous, calculates: “In 2008, 80% of the casualties were murdered by occupation troops [the Mexican Army]. The percentage went down a bit in 2009 because the local drug traffickers, who had been displaced but not defeated, were mounting a counteroffensive.”  Human rights organizations have proven military involvement in at least five cases of “disappearances” of individuals, and there are hundreds of complaints of crimes committed by uniformed troops. “In Juárez,” continues the witness, “it’s not a war between drug cartels where the State has stepped in to restore order, but rather a massacre committed by an army that was sent in to replace one drug cartel with a different, more easily controllable one.”  Here, the legal duty of the state to punish crime isn’t even honored in the breach. The State has simply declined to punish, because it, itself, is involved in the violence.

So, says Maynez, killing has become the simplest way to solve practical problems. “If you owe 20,000 pesos (about $1,700) to someone, it’s cheaper to pay a hit-man 3,000 pesos. Today it’s really easy to free yourself from a troublesome spouse or lover.  A little while ago they killed an ex-chauffeur in his bed.  The guy was a quadriplegic due to a traffic accident. Everything indicates that his employer had him killed in order not to have to pay him workers’ compensation.  But, they haven’t opened a murder investigation on his killing.”

Nor is there any open investigation of the death of Alfredo Portillo, the son-in-law of Marisela Ortiz, leader of “Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa” [“Bring Our Daughters Home Again”].  Marisela, who spoke to Brecha at the school where she teaches classes, is considered the “Mother of the Plaza de Mayo” of Juarez, due to her struggle against the murder of women.  Alfredo, along with university instructor Manuel Arroyo, farmworkers’ leader Armando Villarreal, journalist Armando Rodriguez, Josefina Reyes and seven other human rights workers, together with uncounted nameless neighborhood organizers and social activists, labor unionists, students and dissident youth, make up the list of the dozens of “political assassinations” in Juárez that neither the government nor the media admit or investigate.

The murder of these social activists is falsely blamed on “random shootings” or “private quarrels.” “They must have done something” is all that is said about them. Those responsible for these crimes are often not drug traffickers or common criminals, but rather the Army itself. Human rights organizations have proven military involvement in at least five cases of “disappearances,” and there are hundreds of complaints of abuses committed by troops.


Juárez is enormous. Urban sprawl out into the desert is unlimited. Dozens of Army and Federal Police patrols run up and down the broad avenues, each pickup truck carrying eight men wearing ski masks, armed to the teeth and aiming in all directions. Troops patrol in camouflage, while Federal Police are almost all dressed completely in black. Their presence is oppressive, and roadblocks obstruct traffic in a city where the wish for normalcy clashes with reality. I hadn’t even been in the city for two hours before armed troops forced me out of my car for a body search.

Most private automobiles don’t have license plates but do have tinted windows, which only helps to increase the constant sensation of danger. On the streets, there are old U. S. school buses that come to end their lives in Juárez.  The faces of the passengers are a mixture of all the different indigenous peoples of the entire country. Any trip is long, between residential neighborhoods, giant shopping centers, and enormous vacant lots that one finds even in or near downtown. It takes hours for city residents to get to their jobs. Almost certainly, many of them participated in the important community struggles that took place years ago to get basic services. Lights, water, and little else: that’s all that remains of the “Juárez dream.” 

The Columbian urban expert Edwin Aguirre, a researcher for the Colegio de la Frontera Norte [Northern Border College], offers an interesting perspective: “Since the seventies, the population of Juárez has quintupled.  In those four decades, not one single new preparatory school has opened.  All we have are the ones that existed in the seventies.” In the Mexican school system, preparatory school is the equivalent of high school, and gives access to the university. What seems clear is that nobody even imagined that first and second generation newcomers to the city could ever achieve the social mobility to dream of university studies. “They were never even seen as citizens,” says Oscar Maynez. “The whole city was grown based on the interests of a few great families.” 

People don’t live where it would be best to live, but rather where it is convenient for the owners of the city: the Zaragoza’s, the Fuentes’, the Vallina’s.  In 21st century Mexico it is easy to recognize the outline of the “oligarchic republic” which characterized 19th century Latin America. For Ignacio Alvarado, “PRI or PAN [Mexico’s two largest political parties], it doesn’t matter. All the mayors, governors and police chiefs are always creatures of the Chamber of Commerce.”  When, in the seventies, drug trafficking replaced traditional border smuggling, “it was a business for young people of the upper middle class, subordinated to the DNS [the PRI party’s political police].” The drug industry in Juárez thus functions as the structural expression of the city’s ruling class, as just another form of primary accumulation, along with money laundering and smuggling. You export drugs, you import weapons, and you pay bribes on every bit of it.

In the historic downtown, along the banks of the Rio Grande and the wall that George Bush built and that no Barack Obama will tear down, the majority of the old hangouts (bars and night clubs) are closed. Even up to 2006, the shell of old Juárez was the center of a binational night-life scene.  Thousands of Americans crossed the border to have fun, get drunk, lose money in the casinos, or buy cheap sex in the brothels. When we cross the bridge to El Paso (which boasts of being the second safest city in the United States), we have to wait two hours in line in order to undergo humiliating border formalities. When we return to Mexico they don’t even check our passports.

In El Paso, Brecha met with Gustavo de la Rosa, a human rights defender who was threatened with death and has been a refugee there for the last several months.  Gustavo is the object of an Amnesty International solidarity campaign, and continues to work full time for his city. “Water consumption figures don’t lie. In the last two years, about 100,000 people have left Juárez. The upper middle classes have moved to El Paso. The workers have returned to the rest of Mexico, to Oaxaca, Durango and Veracruz.”  Some 25% of the houses in Juárez now stand empty.

Elizabeth Avalos warns, “Hunger is stalking the poorest ‘colonias’ (shantytowns), something that was previously unheard-of here.  The violence is destroying jobs in every sector, including informal employment, which in other times of crisis was the fallback for many people. The maquliladoras that are left are paying salaries of 500 pesos a week (about 40 dollars) and hiring people on 15 day contracts.”

In two years, 80,000 jobs have been lost in the maquilas, out of the 280,000 that existed only a couple of years ago. This is not just a fluctuation, like the crises of 1982 or 2000. As a result of the neoliberal destruction of the job market and the international crisis that Mexico is suffering (Mexico’s Gross National Product fell by 6.5% in 2009), in the midst of an economy that is totally dependent on the United States, Juárez sums up the tangled limits between legality and illegality, politics and crime, business and drugs. The city no longer represents any kind of hope for the exploited landless farmworkers of the country’s interior. 

State of siege

From the moment he was elected president, Felipe Calderón has declared war on drug trafficking.  His strategy was not one of investment in civil society and in legality, but one of militarizing territory, making use of the controversial Mexican Army.  The Army has recently faced internal issues, and has been repeatedly accused of being deeply involved in drug trafficking itself.  This was proven by the fact that on December 16, 2009, in Cuernavaca, hundreds of kilometers from the sea, in the state of Morelos), the U.S. DEA had to resort to the Navy in an operation to arrest and liquidate “ABL,” alias “the Chief of Chiefs.” That same night, [alleged cartel boss] Beltrán Leyba was waiting to have supper with an army general, the region’s military commander.

Starting with operations in 2007 in the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Baja California, going on to Chihuahua in 2008, 45,000 soldiers were mobilized around the country. The lynchpin of this strategy is Juárez, the country’s main drug center, where almost 40% of the casualties in the drug war have occurred, without in any way stopping the bloodletting.

January 31, 2010 was a turning point in the history of the war in Juárez. Fifteen young students were murdered at a birthday party in a poor neighborhood to the south of the city. One or more of them were allegedly “involved in something,” but most of those gunned down were “normal kids.”  This time public opinion, which had been terrorized into silence by the daily escalation of the situation, finally reacted.

Calderón and his Minister of the Interior, Fernando Gómez-Mont, on their repeated visits to the city during the past month after years of absence, were confronted by major protest demonstrations in which they were accused of being politically and judicially responsible for the Juárez catastrophe.  The president offered even greater militarization of the city, as well as a few million pesos of investments after decades of oblivion.  Too little, too late, commented the right-wing Mexican dailies. 

On the other hand, major international media have avoided getting mixed up with this country, a faithful ally of the United States. This is the case with El País, of Madrid, Spain, which regularly praises Calderon’s “triumphs” in the drug war.  Calderon’s policy is one of “high-level simulation,” responds Marisela Ortiz. During his visit to Juárez, the president was dressed-down by Luz Maria Dávila, mother of two of the young students who were murdered, a symbolic act helping to show that “the emperor has no clothes.” 

Forced for the first time to show their faces, Calderón and Gómez-Mont claimed, without anyone believing them, that the army is not one of the principal causes of the violence. Nonetheless, every one of the experts that Brecha interviewed in Juárez agreed that the Army and the Federal Police not only take sides in the war, but have imported new forms of criminality such as kidnappings and the “protection” racket, crimes which only work to aggravate the economic crisis and have contributed to the closing of over 5,000 small businesses.

Today in Juárez, economic, social and political life is simply unviable. Nobody expects anything from the upcoming gubernatorial and mayoral elections, and the PRD, the center-left party which gained 20% of the vote in 2006, was down to 2% by 2009. UNESCO has condemned the fact that even schools are forced to pay “protection money” for each student, if they don’t want their classrooms to be riddled with bullets. Young hit-men train and demonstrate their manliness by shooting random victims in the street. In the school where Marisela Ortiz works, a giant sign invites students to use the buses: “Don’t risk your life.”  Even the funeral industry, the biggest growth-industry in town, is in crisis after numerous cases of threats, attacks, kidnappings and murders during funeral services. “Secret” burials are becoming common. Elizabeth Avalos concludes, “Thirty years ago, we in the social movements warned that this model of development couldn’t lead anywhere else except to the present situation. They never listened to us, and this is what they sowed.” 

“El Chapo” Guzmán’s war?

It is not easy to sum up the present state of the drug war, or to foresee the duration of this out-of-control violence. What is clear is that the government is doing precious little against the Sinaloa Cartel.

Joaquin Guzman Loera, born in 1954, known as “El Chapo,” chief of the Sinaloa Cartel, is probably the biggest drug lord in the world. According to the American magazine, Forbes, he has accumulated a fortune of more than a billion dollars, and he is among the 40 most influential people in the world.  Arrested in 1989, he managed to escape from the high-security Puente Grande prison in 2001, just after the rightist PAN party gained power in Mexico. The one who could have arranged his escape could well have been the Attorney General of Mexico under the Vicente Fox administration, Eduardo Medina-Mora. Now, it appears that the U.S. DEA is the only agency interested in his capture, while Calderón, a president who has never mentioned corruption in one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, seems to be in no hurry to arrest him.

The logic of the “joint operations” [of army and police] in Chihuahua and in other states theoretically follows the strategy that was agreed upon with the DEA during the opening days of the Felipe Calderón government: exterminate the smaller cartels, and “control” the major ones. Nonetheless, the Mexican government “misinterpreted” the DEA line, and rather than “controlling” the Sinaloa cartel, seems to be collaborating with it.

Multiple investigations and testimony collected by Brecha tell the story of a war where El Chapo’s side sets foot in Juárez only when it can count on military support. The Army, the governing party, the PAN, and the Federal Police in Juárez may be, according to different takes on the question, either allies or subordinates of Guzmán, and only with this aid can they place their own people into positions formerly occupied by now-largely liquidated gangs, such as the “Aztecas.” What is certain is that whoever decided to unleash the war for Juárez-El Chapo, Calderón, the Army, or the DEA-two years and 4,700 deaths later they have not yet managed to win.  

If “El Chapo’s” cartel is considered the businesslike, professional side of the drug trade, the Juárez Cartel, implicated in a number of murders of women, appears to be a traditional criminal structure that lacks the capacity to manage the country’s biggest business. Nonetheless, the Juárez Cartel is still the home team, and the price of betrayal is death.  Being that it still controls the local police and an infinite supply of cannon-fodder in the sons and grandsons of the maquila, they have been able to resist the first onslaught and even to counterattack, using guerrilla tactics. In this context, the meaning of the massacre of the students on January 31 would be to create a media event so that their “ally” Calderón would put an end to the militarization of the city.  With a Juárez flooded with soldiers (as much as 50,000, according to some sources), it would be possible to do away with the Juárez Cartel, but at a cost in deaths, rapes and disappearances perhaps unprecedented in the violent history of the country. 

Meanwhile, the levels of violence continue to escalate, and in Juárez a mother may die simply for having a car that resembles one that belongs to a drug trafficker wanted by hit-men. There are even those who say, “It would be best for Juárez if El Chapo would win, and then pacify the city his way,” like the Viet Cong in Saigon. Of course, the death-toll would be in the thousands, with hundreds of thousands more as refugees.  But this is open warfare that the world media complex is not interested in reporting, because it reveals the reality of globalization, with civil society completely demolished. If anything that makes a profit is good, victory will smile on the Chapo Guzmans of this world, the world’s most modern globalized business-leaders.

Translated by O. Williamson

Photo: Mexican security force in Juárez.  Jesus Villaseca P/Latitudes Press/CC