(Click on the photo for a better view)
Each morning as I open my front door, I am greeted with a panoramic view of Ciudad Juarez. I am separated from my neighbors in the Colonia Popular by a frontage road, the I-10, the Union Pacific rail line, the Border Wall, the Rio Grande, and a state highway in Juarez. There are also a number of Border Patrol units, a helicopter that ceaselessly roams the skies over my apartment complex, and, on occasion, Mexican soldiers driving past in troop transport trucks.
All the same, in between the parade of highway busyness and national security apparatus, I can see children playing on a see-saw and folks lined up to catch a bus. Ciudad Juarez is very close to me.
Each morning, when I open my computer, I am greeted by the front page of El Diario, one of Ciudad Juarez’s newspapers. Today’s photo is accompanied by an explanation: “As a policy, we do not publish offensive photographs, but things have gotten so bad here that we are making an exception. By publishing this photo, we are sending out an urgent message to the world about the barbarous circumstances in which we along the border are living.”
The photo is of the body of a man. His hands have been cut off, and are lying on his chest. His face has been digitally smudged, but not the edges of the hands. It is in full color. It is very hard to look at. It is impossible not to consider.
The public display of the mutilated body was a warning by the drug traffickers. The newspaper, with its photo, helped them spread the message. We are all terrorized.
For an El Paso resident, this is not the worst part of the story. The real horror is found in the paragraphs that follow, in which the reporter explains that this man had been kidnapped from El Paso, and taken to Juarez, where he was murdered. According to the reporter, El Paso school children were arriving home on the school bus when they saw three armed men taking the victim from his home and putting him in a car. A spokesperson from the El Paso Sherriff’s office confirms that “narco-violence has arrived in El Paso.”
Actually, narco-violence has long been in El Paso, although perhaps not in such a grisly and immediate manner. A physician told me of a mother missing a well-baby checkup because someone in the family had been murdered in Juarez. Last month, a man was assassinated, “cartel-style” in an upscale El Paso neighborhood. He had become an informant against his former narco associates. His murder was just down the street from the residence of a former El Paso police captain.
Sad, but not unusual, was the family that fled from Juarez after witnessing a murder in broad daylight. “The assassins then shot our neighbors. One of the neighbors turned toward my wife and held her—the bullets went through him, and, although she was badly hurt, she survived. Another of the assassins ran up to my ten year old, put a pistol to her forehead, but then the leader of the gang said, ‘No! Don’t shoot the little girl!’ They drove off, but we think that they will come after us, so we are afraid.”
Now the violence has reached a new level. In broad daylight, men can come across the river into one of the nicer neighborhoods of the area and kidnap someone. They are not interested in hiding their crime; to the contrary, they want the publicity, which the newspaper supplies, necessarily.
As I share the news with my best friend, she notes that she used to hate the sound of the helicopter flying back and forth across the city. "It's like we are in a warzone," she said. After a few months of witnessing so much of the Juarez violence, she had begun to look at the helicopters in a different light. She entertained the hope that the Border Patrol would be able “keep the evil over there.” But when school children witness kidnappings and the most mundane aspects of daily life (a well-baby checkup at the local clinic) are interrupted by mayhem, it is clear that containing this sort of violence is very much like trying to hold water in your hands. You cannot.
The faculty from the University of Texas/El Paso has announced its sponsorship of a gathering at UTEP on September 21-22 for the purpose of rethinking country’s policy on illegal drugs. They are putting an urgent call out for new ideas. May God bless that meeting, and may they find someone in Washington and in Mexico City that will take the ideas seriously.
In the meantime, the residents of El Paso are reminded, once again, of our connections to our sister-city. We too will now be looking over our shoulders, watching suspiciously when an SUV with darkened windows turns into the neighborhood. We too will pray in the way that people from Juarez have done for years, that our children not become collateral damage in this demonized violence.
The greatest fear is that the worst has yet to come. I look out across the way to Ciudad Juarez and wonder if the demons that bring this violence can be recognized. Probably not. They in fact look like you and me. Human beings. Someone’s son, someone’s father or uncle.
A young woman stops by and asks me if there are any apartments for rent. We talk for a while. I discover that she is a teacher here in El Paso, although she lives in Juarez. "But not any more," she confesses, "The violence has made me physically ill. I have to leave." Later on I discover that her mother had been shot to death "by mistake" when this teacher was but a child. She fears now for the life of her father, who is a local television personality, but she feels driven to leave her home.
After she leaves, I peer down the way. A Ford Explorer with tinted windows has turned on our street. I quietly go back inside the apartment. I carefully close the door.