In April 2007 Ciudad Juárezthe sprawling Mexican border city girding El Paso, Texaswon a Foreign Direct Investment magazine award for North American large cities of the future. With an automotive workforce rivaling Detroits and hundreds of export-processing plants, businesses in Juárez employed 250,000 factory workers, and were responsible for nearly one-fifth of the value of U.S.-Mexican trade. The trans-border region of 2.4 million people had one of the hemispheres highest growth rates.
Just three years later, as many as 125,000 factory jobs and 400,000 residents have vanished. More than ten thousand small businesses have closed, and vast stretches of residential and commercial areas are abandoned. It is no surprise that the Great Recession temporarily shuttered factories and forced layoffs in a city intimately tied to American consumers. Mexicos economy contracted by 5.6 percent in 2009, far worse than the United Statess negative growth of about 2 percent.
But Juárez has suffered from much more than recession. Its murder rate now makes it the deadliest city in the world, including cities in countries at war with foreign enemies. On average, there are more than seven homicides each day, many in broad daylight. Some 10,000 combat-ready federal forces are now stationed in Juárez; their armored vehicles roll up and down the same arteries as semis tightly packed with HDTVs bound for the United States. Factory managers wake up in El Pasoone of the safest U.S. citiesand go to work in the plants of a city bathed in blood.
To Americans the most notable killing was the March assassination of a U.S. consular employee and her husband on their way home from a childs birthday party. Witnesses say their car was chased down a boulevard that once symbolized peace between the United States and Mexico and mutual prosperity. It rammed a curb within yards of the bridge to El Paso. Though the killing took place practically under the noses of armed forces stationed in the highly sensitive area, just a few bullet casings were recovered from the scene, indicating that the executioners took their time to clean up and cover their tracks.
Three weeks later the army arrested the alleged killera member of a gang aligned with the Juárez Cartelbut almost no one believes this crime will ever be solved. And with good reason. In recent years less than 2 percent of Mexican homicide cases have concluded with the sentencing of the perpetrator. In Juárez alone, there are some 200 unidentified corpses dating back to January 2008. As of June 2010 Juárez is in its 30th month of open warfare.
Can Juárez be saved? Will the factories reopen, as they have after past economic downturns, or is the city too dangerous for the business of making legal consumer goods? The economic questions are, perhaps, beside the point. For even if legal manufacturing returns, salvation may remain a distant goal. The economic modellow-wage export-oriented assemblythat investors celebrated also helped Juárez become the illegal narcotics capital of the Western hemisphere, perhaps indelibly.
I first got to know Juárez during the 1990s, when I lived and worked there as a graduate student in anthropology. It was exciting then: Juárez was at the heart of debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Coming fast on the heels of the Soviet collapse in 1989, NAFTA launched the current era of globalization. In Juárez I had a front-row seat for the unfolding of free trade.
It was a place of head-spinning extremesgleaming high-tech industrial parks ringed by worker slums. One of the worlds most profitable Walmarts sat within view of settlements without decent water, sewers, or paved roads. Amid the inequalities, however, ordinary, middle-class Juarenses were enthusiastic about their citys future.
I recently returned to Juárez and was unprepared for the citys shocking transformation. Friends cautioned against crossing the border. Some had closed their businesses there, or had moved their families north. A few warily ventured into Juárez, but they always hurried back to the United States before dark. For the first time, I heard the once-optimistic Juarenses lament their city.
The economic model that investors celebrated helped Juárez to become the illegal narcotics capital of the Western Hemisphere.
Some see the roots of Juárezs violence in its recovery from the Mexican Revolution, which ravaged what was in the 1910s and 20s a frontier town. Certainly part of the citys personalityand maybe its pathologycan be traced to that period.
Like its booming neighbor to the north, it needed schools, libraries, and hospitals. Instead it got bars and whorehouses. Because of Prohibition, El Pasoans had to find their entertainment across the border, in the richly appointed American-owned casinos and nightclubs. Juárez of the 1920s was like Las Vegas of the 1950s: elegant, exotic, uninhibited.
Older Juarenses speak of the post-Revolution city as if it were two: by day Juárez was a quiet Mexican town modeling itself on the progress it saw in the United States. At night it morphed into a world of exported vice and carnal pleasure. The growth of Fort Bliss during World War II and El Pasos lingering blue laws reinforced that split personality.
In the late 1960s an experiment in export-oriented manufacturing seemed to give Juárez-by-day the upper hand. Under an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments, American firms set up shop across the border and imported materials duty-free from the United States. The companies employed Mexican labor to transform those materials into finished goods for export back, also duty-free. The firms, called maquilas by the locals, found favorable conditions: third-world wages, a government that promoted unionization in name only, and no oversight of the treatment of manufacturing byproducts. Moreover, maquila managers could work overseas during the day, and return home at night, thereby avoiding Mexican poverty, environmental problems, and crime. Success begets competition. The trickle of U.S. firms that abandoned their costly Midwestern labor forces became a torrent in the 1980s.
But while Juárez-by-day had triumphed for the time being, Juárez-by-night had not been tamed completely. Factory managers loved their assignments: they enjoyed the comfort and security of their El Paso homes, and, when they wanted, the thrill of Juárez nightlife, including the venues that everyone suspected were fronts for drug money.
In the summer of 1992, during my first visit to Juárez, a change was snaking its way through the citys impoverished working-class settlements. Deteriorating rural economic conditions, together with relatively high maquila wages (typically $5-7 a day) prompted a huge immigration to Juárez. The steady stream of potential workersmore than a hundred new residents arrived each day in the 1990skept wages down and the costs of housing and services up. Despite their improved conditions, then, workers could enjoy few benefits from their labor. They struggled to meet basic needs, including fees for schooling that would qualify their children for factory work once they were old enough to earn a living.
All the families I met relied on at least one factory salary. But there were plenty of unemployed, too. Mostly young men, these idlers were the right age to be working or in school, but instead they hung around wearing baggy Dickie pants, hair nets, and other insignia of cholo (gang) affiliation. My research assistant, a former Catholic catechist, taught me to recognize and steer clear of the real cholos, who were dangerous, and to salute and acknowledge the others, who were just posing.
The settlements blanketing the steep ravines of the mountains surrounding the citys center had no infrastructure to speak of, but they did have corners. And boys hung out on those corners day and night. They huddled on their haunches in winter and they lolled in whatever shade they could find in summer. They were guarding turf; they menaced the school kids and factory workers forced to cross their paths, sometimes beating them bloody.
Some idlers were getting high, though not from illegal narcotics. Rather, they mined stolen factory materialspaint thinner, acetone, and buckets of solvent-soaked rags used to wipe down finished televisions. They would distribute sniffs to their neighborhood buddies.
But in the mid-1990s life for these young men began to take on another character. A friend who worked in drug treatment told me that she and her co-workers were scrambling to identify new addictions, as banned drugs supplanted the inhalants.
On a 1996 tour of settlements, my friend showed me some of the places where dealers had set up shop. They were not selling injectable narcoticsa syringe was an extravagance in these desperately poor communitiesbut drugs that could be consumed directly. She spoke of pills, though their identification was elusive. These small retail outlets laid the groundwork for the harder stuff that would soon follow. Over time I realized what the idle kids were up to. They were working, perhaps earning only pennies, for the new dealers.
My observations in Juárez reflected a shift in global drug markets that began far from the city. As globalization of manufacturing ramped up in the 1980s, it did so in parallel with dramatic changes in the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal narcotics. In the early 90s the global pressures that disrupted the trade routes for cocaine that ran from Andean jungles to U.S. consumer markets converged on Juárez.
This was not obvious then. The local change that seemed most consequential for Mexicos future was the 1992 election of an opposition party member as mayor of Juárez. Francisco Villarreal Torres, owner of a small chain of house-ware stores and a political outsider, campaigned on promises of good governance and clean conduct. His election proved the viability of the National Action Party (PAN), which went on to win the 2000 presidential election, thereby ending 70 years of one-party rule.
Villarreals true rival once he took office was not his political opponent, but Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the subordinate, rival, and successor of famed rural drug lord Pablo Acosta, who died in a 1987 shoot-out with Mexican and U.S. forces. Carillo Fuentes moved operations from the sparsely populated Big Bend region of Texas to Juárez, a relocation that mirrored and exploited the globalization-driven economic success of Juárez.
Acostas business had focused on smuggling Mexican pot and heroin across the border to U.S. buyers. Distribution was in the hands of informal dealer networks, from which, reportedly, Acosta only infrequently took a direct cut. With two significant changes to Acostas business model, Carrillo Fuentes would turn cocaine into the cornerstone of a multinational, vertically integrated enterprise with diversified products stretching from the Andes (and other source sites) to United States (and other) markets.
In the past, Colombians had used Mexican marijuana smugglers to transport only a small portion of their merchandise; the main trafficking routes wound through the Caribbean. By some estimates, cocaine importation and money laundering accounted for a third of Miamis economic activity in the 1980s. But the 1993 killing of Pablo Escobar decapitated the Medellín Cartel, and, beginning in 1991, the Cali Cartel was weakened by seizures and arrests (though its leaders remained at large until 1995). When the U.S. Department of Justice began to seize Miami bank assets and prosecute the Colombian traffickers lawyers, the Mexican cocaine trade picked up pace and volume.
Trafficking drugs is effectively a licensed affair, the exclusive and protected rights to which are controlled by the military and the police.
Seeing his opening, Carrillo Fuentes shifted from bagman to distributorthe first of his two innovations. He also took advantage of another vacuum: in the years prior to his rise, the prosecutorial assault on crack-cocaine in the United States had jailed and killed thousands of street-level dealers and their bosses. Carrillo Fuentes filled that void with his own retail agents in U.S. cities.
Like any vendor, Carrillo Fuentes looked for new markets and new products. And like transnational firms that sprawled across the city, he saw a business opportunity in the booming factory-worker population of Juárez. His second innovationperhaps the single action most responsible for the rise in violencewas to call an end to drug traffickers long-standing voluntary prohibition against local sales.
Local-market development began modestly enough. Sometime in 1990 or 1991before the Colombian cartels had ceded their supremacyresidents in a handful of Juárezs scrappy, tar-paper-and-adobe settlements found their first samples of a narcotic previously limited to export markets: cocaine. It was neither pure nor of high qualitycut several times with talc and baking powderbut it was coke, for the first time, for the Mexican masses.
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, long-time human rights attorney and director of the citys prison from 1995 until 1998, described to me the explosion of tienditas, retail drug outlets. According to de la Rosa, in 1990 there were fewer than 50 neighborhood dealers. By 1995 the number had climbed to 300. The current estimate exceeds 1,000. Some of these tienditas are distribution centers, employing as many as 50 roving peddlers. And the city is now saturated with dealer-addicts, the fivers who sell just enough (about five hits) to cover the costs of their own high. Charles Bowden, in his new book Murder City, estimates that as many as 25,000 Juarenses may be involved in petty drug sales. At the height of the Great Recession, that meant one drug dealer for every four or five employed factory workers.
But this explosion of corner dealers was not responsible for the citys dramatic transformation. That change came with the system of dealer protection. Each corner dealer works not only under an officer in the cartel, but in tandem with a beat cop. The cop protects the dealer and his gang against encroachments by other neighborhood gangs. The tiendita system is thus a logical extension of the rules of the Mexican drug plaza, the long-established formal arrangement between traffickers and security forces.
When foreigners talk about the Mexican drug business and the drug war, they talk about cartels carving up territory among each other and then going after each others turf. Mexicans, by contrast, begin with the plaza, a government concession sold to a preferred bidder. Trafficking drugs is effectively a licensed affair, the exclusive and protected rights to which are controlled by the military and the police.
In the tiendita system, it is not only locally licensed dealers who send their earnings up the chain of command. Beat cops, too, pay their supervisors and commanders. Hence the Juárez name for what the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) calls the Juárez Cartel: la líneapolice line.
Chronically underpaid Mexican police traditionally have made their living livable with bribesthe famous mordida (bite). But historically they did not defend violently their right to bite. Street drugs changed that. De la Rosa told me that in the mid-1990s, only two of the citys then-estimated 500 gangs were known to be armed. Now, 80 percent of them are.
This local retail model was highly successful, and it quickly became the industry standard. By 1997 it was dispersed widely across the industrial north. Carrillo Fuentes had risen in seven years to become Mexicos wealthiest and most powerful drug trafficker, with a fortune estimated at $25 billion. His assets included General José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, the Mexican drug czar. In February 1997, just weeks after his appointment to the job, an investigation revealed that he had been on the Cartels payroll. Carrillo Fuentes also bought shares in a Mexican bank, a move that helped simplify his money laundering efforts.
When Carrillo Fuentes died while undergoing plastic surgery that summer, a violent power struggle predictably followed. But by todays standards it was mild: a mere 72 deaths over eight months. Now, about a hundred are killed every two weeks in Juárez.
The narcoguerra following Carrillo Fuentess death introduced Juárez to message killings: bodies tortured, dismembered, and stuffed into boxes, car trunks, and barrels. Also new and shocking were the open-air executions: gangland-style killings at jam-packed restaurants. At the time, such crimes were rare enough that the media could follow them up and report on their continued lack of resolution.
The battle for succession remained mostly isolated to the top command in both the Cartel and the police (the probable first victim of that narcoguerra was a high-ranking federal police officer, killed by commandos just four days after Carrillo Fuentess botched surgery). With the confirmation of new leadershipAmado Carrillo Fuentess younger brother Vicente, according to conventional wisdomthe killing abated. But it never went away. And it never went back underground. Restaurants and bars became safe again, but killings continued in the neighborhoods where tienditas had taken root. There, factory workers lived tensely with the growing groups of tough, largely unemployed men and boys who moved constantly in and out of alliance with the more organized gangs.
There are 6,600 gun shops in the four U.S. border states. Of the 11,000 guns turned over to the ATF in 2009, almost 90 percent were traced to U.S. gun shops.
Meanwhile the city continued to gorge on the profits of local and international narcotics sales. Though few admitted it, everyone knew how the gaudy houses that popped up in the old moneyed enclaves were financed. Ditto the origins of the flashy princesses who began to grace the newspapers society pages. City elites chose to overlook the excesses of the trafficking business. We tolerated the narco, an uppermiddle class friend recently told me. That was our mistake. I asked her why conventional, conservative-Catholic Juárez put up with the traffickers. Look at all those businesses up and down the Avenida de las Americas, she said, its all money laundering. But it gave us restaurants to enjoy and boutiques to shop in.
The price of permissiveness grew increasingly steep. In 1993 a no-nonsense retired accountant named Esther Chavez Cano noticed routine newspaper stories on the discovery of female corpses. The details were gruesome: some were found tortured and raped, almost all were tossed to the side of a road, as if they were litter. Chavez Cano began a newspaper column in which she demanded action and accountability. Her writing campaign soon launched a social movement that garnered international attention for the same city that was then proudly boasting of its manufacturing triumphs. She and those she inspired tallied 427 women dead or disappeared between 1993 and 2007, an undeniable symptom of the citys violent alter ego.
But these horrific killings of young women eclipsed a more prosaic body count: that of the men who turned up dead all over the city with increasing regularity. It is easy enough to see how the murdered girls and women focused the worlds attention on Juárezs perverse, misogynistic, and violent appetites. Nonetheless, for every publicized female corpse there are ten overlooked male counterparts, according to government data. Whatever the explanation for the high numbers of women killed, the one incontestable fact is that the killing of both women and men began in earnest the very year that the DEA says cocaine trafficking shifted from Miami to Juárez. This was not a coincidence.
I moved away from the border in 1999 but returned to visit in 2001. I caught up with two friends, also academics, who had been raised in the citys toughest neighborhoods. We met at a cute bar on the corner of Avenida de las Americas and Avenida Lincoln. It was the kind of place then multiplying around town: refrigerated air, an impressive sound system, and swanky drinks. It shared a parking lot with a California-style sushi bar that in 1997 had been the site of the dinnertime execution of a businessman with suspected drug ties.
We talked about cholos. Todays cholo is different, one of my friends remarked. Yesterdays cholo used to compete with merely his attitude, his fashion, and his posture. If the cholos really needed to fight, they fought with what they had available: rocks, stones. And then they got knives. But now some of them have guns. Today, some would be nearly all, but as recently as 2001, guns were rare.
That summer I took pictures of a sixteen-year-old boy. He sported a bandana and an oversized tee shirt depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe and his initials in Gothic letters. He smiled so sweetly and eagerly that he hardly looked tough in his portrait. He and his mother beamed when I brought them copies. She surprised me with the pride she took in her sons apparent cholo ambitions. I had never met such a parent.
That summer I was also surprised by what seemed to me an astronomical increase in the number of kids just hanging out, guarding turf on corners. Neighborhood toughs were now everywhere. And they belonged to a bewildering array of ranked groups, mysteriously nested within hierarchies that most of the teenagers I talked to only vaguely understood.
In 2001 I could see that what was once isolated in the bars and nightclubs and conducted its affairs after hours, had woken up to business in the daytime and set up shop close to home. The gap between Juárez-by-day and Juárez-by-night was narrowing to a sliver.
Today, the sliver has vanished. The Juárez Cartel and its rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, fight each other in the streets, and Mexican federal forces allegedly fight the traffickers. Rumor has it that a third trafficking organization, the Zetas, may have entered the market.
In any case, the violence escalates. There were many milestones along the way: 1993, the year that femicide was first recorded, the year when Amado Carrillo Fuentes reportedly assumed sole leadership of the Juárez Cartel; 1997, the escalation of violence after his death; 2000, when, with considerable fanfare, the FBI announced its mission to Juárez to locate the rumored remains of as many as a hundred victims buried in narcofosas, drug graves (only four bodies were found). Also crucial was 2004. That year, the United States lifted its ban on assault weapons, making it that much easier for traffickers to obtain their arms of choice. There are 6,600 gun shops in the four U.S. border states. Of the 11,000 guns turned over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) by Mexican forces in 2009, almost 90 percent were traced to U.S. gun shops.
Homicides in Juárez nearly doubled from 123 to 234 between 1993 and 1994. The rate stabilized for the next dozen plus years, dipping in some, ranging from a low of 176 in 1999 to a high of 294 in 1995. The 2007 spike to 316 murders generated much year-end hand-wringing, but within a month 2007 appeared to be the calm before the storm. Violence exploded in January of 2008, with 46 killings. The total for February was 49. And in March, when President Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of troops to secure the city, the murder count doubled to 117. Now it rarely dips below those levels. One hundred deaths in a month would be considered a respite. May 2010 saw 253.
Mexicans, schooled in the reality of the drug business, find it hard to believe that security forces can fight traffickers. The two groups are indistinguishable.
The familiar explanation for the spasm of violence that has seized Juárez since January 2008 starts with Calderóns vow upon taking office two years earlier to rid Mexico of all traffickers and his rapid deployment of troops to cartel hot spots. But almost from the start, skeptical observers have suggested that Calderóns forces appear to be routing all traffickers but one: the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a.k.a. El Chapo (shorty). For Mexicans, schooled in the reality of the plaza, it is hard to believe that security forces can fight traffickers; they are, as one journalist put it to me recently in an email, indistinguishable from each other.
Consider the evidence that Mexicans never forget or overlook: shortly after President Carlos Salinas left office in 1994, his older brothers wife was caught using a fake passport to withdraw more than $80,000,000 from a Swiss bank, part of the fortune her husband somehow managed to amass while working as a government bureaucrat. The disgraced ex-president fled into self-imposed exile in Ireland, a country that has no extradition treaty with Mexico.
His successor, Ernesto Zedillo, declared a U.S.-style war on drugs and then appointed Gutiérrez Rebollo as his drug czar, only to find that Carrillo Fuentes was paying Gutiérrez Rebollo his monthly rent for a national concession.
Even the first opposition president in Mexicos modern history is not free of suspicion. Shortly after Vicente Foxs election in 2000, he spent a weekend at the private Cancun retreat of Roberto Hernández Ramírez, CEO of Banamex (Mexicos second-largest bank) and alleged drug trafficker.
None of this explains the extent of Juárezs homicidal violence. One major difference between 1997 and 2008, as Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson pointed out, is that the current war is being fought at every level of the trade, down to the street-level vendor and his protection and tribute network. As Charles Bowden puts it, this is not a war against drugs, it is a war for drugs. One related theory put forward by veteran observer Bill Conroy of Narco News is that the army moved into Juárez to take the concessionaire role away from the police.
The story of the two cities of Juárez thus applies to the entire country: what started in Juárez has become Mexico. The attempt to cripple the drug business in Juárez has meant crippling the city; doing the same in Mexico at large may mean crippling the nation.
President Calderón has sought to make his drug war palatable by asserting that the countrys war deadestimated at 23,000 since January 2006 for the country as a wholedeserved to die: their deaths implicate them in illegal activities.
When he first learned about what Juarenses have come to call the massacre at Villas de Salvarcar, Calderón hinted that the thirteen teenagers who died at the hands of professional executioners were common criminals and city low life. He could not have been more wrong. In fact they were honor students and athletes who had gathered to celebrate a friends seventeenth birthday. They had the misfortune of belonging to a football club whose initials, AA, were mistaken for the initials of the Sinaloa cartels local enforcers, the Artistic Assassins. And so, in the middle of the night, while the teens danced in a room cleared of furniture, they were gunned down. Seven hours later, when the first daylight photos were taken, the concrete floor where they died still glistened with their clotting blood.
The escalating war over the Juárez plaza coincided with a particularly unpleasant moment in the global market systemin the midst of massive factory layoffs prompted by the economic downtown beginning in 2007. Locals easily grasp that little of the current day-to-day violence in Juárez has much, directly, to do with any cartel. Look at who dies with grim regularity: a gang of teenage car thieves, a group of former cholos who opened a funeral home, a guy pilfering doors from an abandoned neighboring house. Not all victims are entirely innocentthe city is filled with scrappy, hard-working men and women, some of whom have turned to Juárez-by-night for survival now that Juárez-by-day has so little to offer thembut they are not drug dealers or corrupt police, either.
Accommodating the drug business has become a shockingly ordinary part of life. Working-class parents ask few questions when their studious daughters and sons lose factory jobs while their wayward siblings provide the households only income.
In February I spent a day with the director of a nonprofit day-care organization as she visited centers her group helped to launch. The owner of one home-based establishment related with good cheer being confronted by a nicely dressed middle-aged couple and their armed bodyguard. They advised her to start paying a $1,000-per-month protection fee. She and her family went into hiding for a few weeks before they reopenedquietly, and with great trepidation. The director laughed when I asked which cartel the extortionists work for. People like that dont work for anybody, she replied. They extort for a living because no one stops them! The couple had shaken down the entire block of small family-owned businesses. Little matter that across the street stretched the vast army encampment, home to troops sent to end the citys lawlessness.
Later my guide told me that Juarenses even have their own terms to distinguish between organized crime and opportunistic crime. The most common form of the latter is the secuestro express: a kidnapping that lasts no more than a few hours, just long enough to pressure a family to cough up an affordable ransom, but not long or expensive enough to attract the interests of enterprises that might want a cut.
For decades, the maquilas critics longed for border businesses to be in control, rather than simply in service, of multinational capital. This is the irony of Carrillo Fuentess innovation: he became the Mexican-border trade baron who accomplished all that and more. His generation of traffickers adapted the maquila model to their own use by taking advantage of its infrastructure to move and market their products. No wonder Forbes recognized their achievements by including El Chapo Guzman in its 2010 list of global billionaires.
And what of the maquilas? The signs are not promising: in mid-January university researchers calculated industrial park vacancies at 14 percenta historic high, up from an already-alarming 10 percent the year before. That month a Siemens customs manager was gunned down on his way to work. In October his subordinate had met her end after U.S. officials found drugs smuggled in a shipment. Mid-level staff are frequent targets, prompting some companies to consider extending their security measures beyond plant executives. It is probably just a matter of time before manufacturing firms move on.
What will be left of Juárez then? In El Paso, there are nightclubs, boutiques, fancy restaurants, and thriving industries. That city is growing in ways that seemed unimaginable even a decade ago. Even the mayor of Juárez has fled north of the border, and that was before he received a threat to his life in Februarya severed pigs head marked with his name.
Those who havent abandoned Juárez may be watching the death of it, both day and night.