Human Journalism – best articles from

Majo Siscar · Fotos: Raúl Ibáñez · Traslation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
  • Ciudad Juarez is the most violent city in the world with a murder rate of 240 per every 100,000 inhabitants
  • However, in the midst of this death spree, the citizens look for ways to heal their wounds and prevent the violence from rising in the absence of action from the authorities.

Memorial for the women dead in Juarez in the border bridge between this city and the US. Raúl Ibáñez

In the midst of the spiral of violence that affects Mexico some places are much more hazardous than others. Ciudad Juarez is one of them.  It has the dubious honor of being the most violent city in the world. In the last four years almost 10,000 people have been murdered, one fourth of all the drug trafficking-related murders in the country. The figures are outrageous all over the country, but Juarez reached in 2010 a rate of 240 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, more than triple the deaths that take place in El Salvador, the bloodiest country in Latin America. However, in the midst of this death spree, life looks for its ways. Although about 300,000 people have left the city because of the insecurity, more than a million still fight to survive in this town, marked by being right on the border with the US.

This dividing line has been its source of wealth but also the root of its worst tragedies. In the 80’s the maquilas, manufacturing factories dedicated to export, that took advantage of the cheap labor and the proximity to the US, began concentrating there. The economic development that followed attracted migrants from all over the country. In the 90’s, Juarez was the zero-unemployment town. The possibility of work made the authorities not worry about creating some minimum well-being and the city grew without the proper services or infrastructures. Juarez also became the US’s backyard, not just because the factories were located there but because Americans from the South crossed the border every day to have wild fun, drawn by the cheap alcohol, drugs and sex. Trafficking networks started to flourish in the midst of a climate of impunity and a huge contempt for life and the female gender. In 1993 a group of mothers raised the alarms when they denounced 300 feminicides of young women, kidnapped, raped, mutilated and murdered in the city’s surroundings. And since 2008, when the Mexican government deployed the Army to fight against organized crime, the disappearances and murders of women have multiplied. In the last three and a half years, 903 more women have been murdered and another hundred have disappeared state-wide. Mónica Alanís Esparza is one of them. On the morning of March 26th, 2009, her father, Ricardo Alanís dropped her off like every other day at the University of Ciudad Juarez, where Mónica studied Business Administration.

Olga Esparza, in front of her house with the sign the Committee made to find her daughter, Mónica Alanís, who disappeared in Juarez in 2009. Raúl Ibáñez

After class Mónica told them she was going to a friend’s house and left them a phone number. Her family called over and over, but the person who answered was always a woman who said that she had no daughters and that she did not know Mónica. To this day, neither Ricardo nor her mother, Olga Esparza, know anything. But the uncertainty does not allow them to sleep. Olga had to take medication for months to be able to get some sleep, and still, she wakes up desperate in the middle of the night, wondering about her daughter. She wants to believe that Mónica is alright somewhere, but she does not rule out the possibility that she could have fallen into a human trafficking network, as the organizations in Juarez say is likely the cause of the systematic disappearances of young women that have taken place in the city. The attorney’s office has not solved anything and Olga only finds comfort in her faith and in the Missing Mothers Committee, where women that, like her, have lost their daughters, get together.

“It is terrible not to know what has happened to your daughter. And the authorities don’t do anything”, Olga sums up. “What happened to our daughters? Where are they keeping them? What is the government doing about it? Why so much impunity? Who is behind?”, wonders Evangelina Arce, another mother from the Committee, during a memorial for their missing daughters. Evangelina’s daughter was disappeared by the police in 1998. With their resources, these mothers hand out pictures of their daughters and every now and then plaster the Attorney’s Office’s walls and windows. So they are not forgotten, to see if they can reach Justice’s heart.

In the state of Chihuahua in 2010 a woman was killed every 20 hours. But this impunity that allowed feminicide to repeat itself also let all forms of crime roam free. Because of its border location, Ciudad Juarez has always been home to the smuggling of all kinds of goods, from American clothing to alcohol during Prohibition. With the rise of drug trafficking in Mexico, Juarez became a highly disputed spot for the different cartels. Violence escalated in 2007, when the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful in the country, started the fight for this piece of border with the local cartel. From about 20 murders a month there started to be almost 50. In 2008, to control them, the federal government sent in the Army. In a year and a half more than 10,000 soldiers and policemen arrived, the biggest operation in all the country. However, the next year, the murder rate increased to 3,111, almost a dozen every day, in a city with a population of 1.3 million people. This could be explained by the official version put out by president Felipe Calderón himself and that was worded more brutally by the general in command of the city, Jorge Juárez, to the press: “instead of saying one more dead, say one criminal less”. With this motto the Army did not fight crime, it let the criminals kill each other. But that is not the way it happened.

Candles in memory of the victims of this war inside and against drug trafficking in the church of San Lorenzo, in Ciudad Juarez. Raúl Ibáñez

That is how the families of the victims of the wave of violence, whose relatives had nothing to do with crime, explain it. Such as José Sánchez, who sold clothing brought from the other side of the border in a market. The morning of May 29th 2008 he went with his wife and children to take his nephew to the emergency room. Tired of waiting, he went outside to smoke and started chatting with a man who was leaning on a tree. Suddenly a group of hit-men arrived and the other man ran off. José stood still because he had nothing to be afraid off and he was shot down. There was a military checkpoint 20 meters away, but the soldiers did not do anything. The hospital, however, did react, and closed its doors when the gunshots were heard. José was left there, lying on the ground, with no medical attention. Three hours later, they opened up and his wife and children saw José’s body, bleeding out. They still have not gotten over the shock. Neither has his mother. “He did not deserve such death. Who are they to punish a person, to take away their life?”, Guillermina Sánchez wonders with dismay. The government offered them psychological help but she was frightened. “When they kill someone you love with no reason you feel fear and that fear paralyzes you”, she tells. Now she attends a grief workshop in her neighborhood to ease the pain José’s death still causes her, ran by the Family Center for Integration and Growth, one of the many social organizations in Juarez that do group therapy for people to overcome the loss of their loved ones.

“When they arrive they are in shock, they cannot express their feelings, their eyes wander, their faces. During the workshop that wound, that anger comes back. Some faint, some run off, because the loss is too big. But we work so they can free their sorrow, their guilt”, explains the thanatologist and facilitator of the workshop Guillermina attends. Therapy is not the magic remedy against sorrow but it helps the process. “She taught us to, when we are very sad, stand in a place we have chosen, embrace ourselves and think about the ones we miss and that they are with us. And I do. I go to my room with the poem he gave me on my last birthday and I embrace myself and I think he is embracing me. And I do feel it and it does comfort me”, Guillermina tells.

Like her, hundreds of families are suffering these losses, so many that even the Pan American Health Organization described what is happening in Juarez as a “humanitarian disaster”.

“The violence in Juarez has been made very visible, but people are not aware of the effects it has on the living. Most of the population lives with anxiety, there are a lot of people with post-traumatic stress disorder and grief very difficult to work and elaborate on. Young people who did not complete their life cycle, unexpected deaths that ruin those who survive”, explains Gabina Burciaga, a psychotherapist for another one of the organizations that organize workshops on grief, human growth and education for Peace.

The victims’ relatives work their grief in the group sessions organized by social organizations in Juarez. Raúl Ibáñez

Iris is eight years old. Two months ago she celebrated her first birthday without her father. She is the eldest of 4 siblings, who were orphaned last September 17th. Her father was murdered a Saturday night when the bar where he partied with his friends was fired at. Her mother, Yuvia Muro, insists on telling her and her siblings that it was an accident, but at school the other kids have already told her that her dad was murdered. And Iris has already seen a couple of shoot outs on her street. Yuvia also takes her and her seven year old brother to a grief workshop for children in the Family Center for Integration and Growth. Silvia Aguirre, the head of the centre, affirms that children go through “double grief”. “They lose the dad and they lose the mom, who first shuts herself in her own sorrow and stops being the mother the child knew, she is locked up, asleep, she spends the day crying or working double shifts and has no time or strength left to give them the necessary attention or to cook”, she narrates. In fact, she tells how in the last school they have worked in, 210 of the 320 students who attended had lost someone very close: fathers, brothers or cousins.

Regarding this Burciaga calls for official measures that tend to the population’s psycho-affective situation, to the living. “We live in crisis, an emergency that is not being considered as it should be”, she says. A year and a half ago the alarms went off. Fifteen students were massacred while they had fun at a house party. The slaughter caused such a stir that it forced the Mexican government to expand its strategy against insecurity. The president implemented the We Are All Juarez program, 160 actions to fight violence in schools, parks, hospitals, cultural programs and more surveillance. But the toll did not get better in 2010. 3,111 people died. A year and a half after the implementation of the program the citizenry is still not convinced.

“There is progress, the problem is that as long as the situation of violence continues, it is like patching up a sinking ship. The government lacks clarity to understand that they have to give priority to the programs that have the most impact on mitigating violence, integrated support systems for the victims before paving the streets. We have to create a different meaning of life, one that generates hope because it is necessary to deactivate the circles of violence”, points out Hugo Almada, professor at Juarez University.

The official strategy forgets the new actors in the war, young adults and teenagers. This lack of attention is made up for by organizations such as CASA, the Advice and Promotion Youth Center, that works in more than 20 neighborhoods with women and kids, like Abraham Barrasa, who at the age of 21 is his neighborhood’s youth promoter. He joined CASA to study secondary school by distance-learning after years of “lazing around” the neighborhood, as he puts it. Now he not only has advanced in his studies, he teaches other kids like him about car mechanics and bodywork, two things that managed to motivate him enough to get him off the street and away from his gang. Before that, he had repeatedly been offered jale, slang for joining organized crime. The criminals offer kids 1000 Pesos, about 60 Euros, to kill someone, compared to the 50 they make in the maquila for almost 60 hours a week. “It’s tempting for the guys that, like me, don’t do anything. They pay you to mess around. And you try to get a job in the maquila but they don’t hire you if you are under 16, what do you do?”, asks Barraza. He chose to leave gangs 5 years ago, when his girl got pregnant. Now they live together and they have a 4 and a half year old son, José Ronaldo.

Ernesto Martínez, in the middle with a blue shirt, and Abraham Barraza, to the left in the CASA facilities. Raúl Ibáñez

“You don’t last long in there. I know some guys who got into jale and they killed a guy, and one week later all four of them were shot dead in a car”, tells Ernesto Martínez, another one of the young men regular to CASA. Ernesto is 28 and was a construction worker until six months ago. With the crisis and the flight of residents, construction plummeted and now he is thankful for having been able to get work in the maquila, because they are also in crisis. He has two daughters to raise with his ex-wife and it is hard, he assures. Although he too has been offered work as a hit man or dealing drugs, he refuses. “Why would anyone want to get into trouble? Now there’s three guys I know in prison and others are dead. I’m better off here, learning about computers and electricity and spending time with my friends”, he confesses.

“A lot of these guys come from traditional circles of poverty. Their parents worked in the maquila, they grew up in logic of survival, where everyone worked all day, there is no one to take care of the children and there are no institutions either. Until two years ago there were only two public high schools for the whole western district, which has 700,000 inhabitants. There is also a lack of public spaces for young people outside of shopping malls. For example, there are 4 theaters and 321 maquilas, there are no cultural spaces for children… CASA’s goal is to train them so they can get a job, study, become motivated, and monitor them so they don’t fall into other things” explains Isaac González, one of the coordinators.

Jacob Cárdenas, better known as Vekors, his stage name when raps about the reality of Juarez, works in the same direction. This rapper organizes graffiti and hip hop workshops in the neighborhoods. “We aim for the kids to have a way to express themselves, to make proposals, to be creative. The new generations are the ones who have to change this and they aren’t getting any support”. Vekors has experienced violence up close. In 2009 he lost his older brother, Otoniel Cárdenas, with whom he had discovered rap and life. One day Oto left his house after a disagreement with his father. They found him some time later, wrapped in canvas, with two shots in his face. Music was his escape route. In his first album, Stories of the Mitclán 2007-2010, Vekors sings the chronicle of his city’s latest years. The Mitclán is a sort of hell for the Aztecs. It is the final destination of a path of no return. The valley of the dead, north, beyond the desert, the perfect metaphor for Juarez according to Vekors.

Stories of the Mitclán

Any trip to Juarez is filled with the same stories. The violence spares almost no one. Like a litany of grief, each person talks about how a relative or close friend was murdered, kidnapped, assaulted or, even extorted by the Police itself. Such as a young doctor, who prefers to hide his name, who assures that the federal police stole his car a couple of months ago. He was stopped at one of the many checkpoints spread throughout the city. He was missing one document and instead of giving him a fine they threatened him. When he confessed to being a doctor they demanded a significant bribe he could not pay. Instead they ripped him off his car. He did not report it out of fear. “If I do, the least that can happen to me is the same as to many others, they later go to their homes to beat them up and take away their computer, TV and even the groceries. We suffer constant abuse from the authorities”, he asserts. In 2009, the Human Rights State Commission documented 1,250 abuses by the Army and 40 by the Federal Police and they estimate that these are only 20% of the ones that took place. Hospitals are not safe either. Criminals have gone in to finish off wounded people more than once. Other doctors have been kidnapped and on August 21st two doctors who worked in the Juarez penitentiary were murdered. However, health workers do not give up either. Doctors are organized and they have taken the street several times to protest against the violence they suffer as professionals and as citizens. The next demonstration has been called by the Citizens’ Health Committee for Monday December 13th.

Like them, dozens of organizations are trying to rearticulate the social fabric, using citizen participation, psychotherapy and art. The Pact for Culture is another example. An association that since 2005 looks to fight violence with artistic alternatives. “Culture brings life proposals. It is an option for young people, it is expression, and even a way to survive. You are not going to be rich and famous, but not a hit man or a cop either”, sums up Jorge García, member of the Colectivo Barimbala, a group of jugglers and musicians who used to earn a living putting on street shows until a year ago they started to get fines for their exhibitions in public areas. “It’s a constant fight with the institutions. There are no jobs but they don’t let us work. Artistic expression could be promoted, we could create cultural spaces, but no, they are at odds with culture and the only thing they understand is the politics of repression”. The ban took off after two boys who juggled at a crossroads were murdered.

Jorge García juggles in front of La Cafebrería cultural center, one of the few private spaces to build peace from culture. Raúl Ibáñez

Barimbala is one of the groups that join the Pact for Culture. “Reestablishing Juarez takes very deep economic, social and cultural changes. Changing the culture means raising our voices, creating a different center of development, a city with rights. Enough with the impunity and the model that has been imposed upon us, of maquila industries, of oppression and marginality”, explained Verónica Corcochado, spokeswoman for this association a while ago. As violence spreads, her words ring truer than ever.

Because, as Isaac González, of CASA, reminds us, “delinquency does not grow on its own, there is a crisis in employment, in values, in the lack of a welfare system… Drug trafficking grew because it provided jobs, it guaranteed people’s survival for a while”.

Faced with such horror and government inefficiency, a big part of society looks for ways to make up for so much violence. These are only some of their experiences, out of the many that allow them to survive in the mictlán.