July 27, 2009
6:07 p.m., July 15, 2009
My friend Don recently wrote about his experiences in his visit to China and shared pictures of his six month stay. That article inspired me to write about my own experiences. I want to share what it’s like to work in the deadliest city in Mexico, and one of the deadliest in the world.
The thing that struck me the most about Don’s article was that the Chinese perceive us as being very violent. They have undoubtedly heard stories about the school shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech. I don’t blame the Chinese for thinking we are violent people. I think they are right.
Road sign on US-54 South before entering Mexico.
Homicide rates are calculated as the number of murders per 100,000 people. The rate in Asia is one of the lowest in the world, currently at 4.0. South Africa has the highest rate at 31.7 and the world average is currently 7.6 .
Sources, City, Rate per 100,000
 Juárez, México 100.4
 Detroit, MI 41.1
 Oakland, CA 31.2
 Cincinnati, OH 23.1
 Los Angeles 20.8
 Dallas, TX 13.5
 San Francisco 12.2
 Boston, MA 10.4
19] New York City 6.2
 Seattle, WA 4.7
 El Paso, TX 4.6
 Austin, TX 3.0
From the chart above, one can begin to comprehend the gravity of the situation. The rate in Cd. Juarez, the place where I work and spend most of my day was, according to my calculations, 100.4 in 2008. That is three times higher than South Africa, three times higher than Oakland, and an order of magnitude higher than the world average. This year the rate has gone up 45 percent. In the past seven months, 1,400 people have been murdered in the city of Juarez.
The morgue in Juarez is filled with dead bodies and there are not enough police officers in the city to process the bodies much less respond to other types of petty crime. Police officers ride in the back of pickup trucks, sometimes 10 or more to a single vehicle. The Mexican army is also here and they have setup checkpoints throughout the city, but for some strange reason, that does not prevent murder. The violence continues, the only difference being that we have become accustomed to the situation and dead bodies are no longer newsworthy.
The reason behind the bloodshed are the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels fighting for the most lucrative smuggling routes into the United States. The United States fuels the demand for drugs and Mexico supplies them. The United States tries to combat drug smuggling but ironically supplies Mexico with the firearms, mostly copies of Russian AK-47 rifles or “cuernos de chivo” as they are called here. The copies are manufactured in the United States and can be easily obtained and shipped to Mexico. The ammunition and even some of the guns are available at Wal-Mart. It is a full circle business and it is booming.
El Paso now has a large FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) field office but it was not always that way. In the 1980s, most drugs were smuggled directly from Columbia to the United States through Florida.
That has all changed. According to an FBI agent whom I spoke with and who will remain anonymous, the president of Mexico back then, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, struck a deal with the Colombians. The deal was to allow Mexico to take care of the smuggling in return for a share in the profits. Now instead of going straight to Miami, the drugs cross Mexico and come to Juarez and El Paso. We are just now paying the price for something that started brewing 25 years ago. Mexico wants a bigger piece of the pie and is finding ways to get it. It is the law of supply and demand.
Where is Juarez anyway?
The city of Juarez is located in Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas. The two cities are right next to each other and flying over on a plane it looks like one big city. It is interesting to note that despite the proximity, El Paso is one of the safest cities in the nation.
I should also explain what I’m doing here. I’m an immigrant. I was born in Juarez, Mexico but I grew up in El Paso, Texas. I’m a naturalized U.S. citizen but I chose to work in Mexico. I carry my passport with me at all times and I cross the border each day. Some of my relatives live in Juarez and some live in El Paso. Some of my friends live in El Paso and some live in Juarez. I have been doing this for over nine years and I am not prepared to leave. I am one person with two nationalities.
Going to work
On my way to work in the morning, I cross one of the international ports of entry. I usually take the bridge known locally as the “free bridge” because there are no tolls to pay. The official name is “Bridge of the Americas” and it is known in Mexico as “Puente Internacional Cordova.” It is one bridge with two names. Beneath the bridge run a couple of roads and the “Rio Grande” or as it is known in Mexico, the “Rio Bravo.” It is one river with two names.
Welcome sign on the bridge.
As I go down the other side, it is obvious I’m entering a third world country. I see the lack of resources, the unsafe road conditions, and the lack of organization. The roads and the buildings are in disrepair. There is no standardization, no order, and no cleanliness.
Urban planning is something that people here are unfamiliar with. I step out of a nation where everything is structured and easy to understand and into a 3rd world country where everything is chaos, where nothing makes sense and where everything seems wrong.
Debris on the Mexican side of the international bridge.
Hiding the facts does not help the situation and so I take these pictures. I think facing the problem is the only way we will ever be able to make things better. Armed with my camera, I try to document and educate and I try to show the truth. But I’m not a journalist, I’m an engineer and there is only so much I can do. Others have tried to speak up but they have been threatened or kidnapped or killed. Freedom of speech is a luxury that one cannot afford in this country. The risk is too great. The risk is your life.
The sleepy customs official reading the comics section of the newspaper waves me by and only meters away, I come upon a military checkpoint. The checkpoint serves no purpose. They delay us and make us wait for no reason at all. The Mexican military has succeeded in demonstrating that they are inept. Whether they lack the resources or are just not really trying is beside the point. The point is it is all just a charade. It is a big circus act, like everything in Mexico, just lies and lots of pretending.
One of the soldiers carries a handheld device attached to a long antenna. No one knows what the device is for, not even he, the soldier carrying knows what it does or how it works. How could he know if he has never gone to high school and has never been taught to ask questions? The soldier was told to walk around with the device in his hand so he does it. Witnessing this pathetic circus act makes me feel sad and angry at the same time.
Mexican military checkpoint.
The Bigger Problem
To give you an idea of what goes on in the city, just look at the newspaper on any given day and read the headlines. The following is a snapshot of a single day’s events taken from El Diario . Keep in mind that all this happened within a time span of 24 hours:
• Five people were murdered at different times throughout the day this morning and into the afternoon…
• Three young men were arrested after crashing a van and fleeing the scene. The men were armed and fired on the police before being arrested…
• One dead body was found floating at the Acequia Madre near the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood. Two others were found injured in that same area…
• One dead body was deposited in the Obrera neighborhood…
• All six members of a family nearly died as they slept. Unknown perpetrators poured gasoline down one of the home’s air ducts and then threw a match to ignite the liquid. The fumes and flames reached every room. Three people sustained 2nd degree burns. The most seriously injured was a 7 year old boy, Héctor Daniel Camacho Esparza…
• Four young men were stabbed last night at the corner of Lázaro Cárdenas and Puerto de Palos; three died and one is in critical condition…
• School was back in session today at the Secundaria Federal. The school had been closed since Friday after two homemade bombs were thrown onto the school grounds…
• The Bancomer bank on the corner of Lara Leos and Paseo Triunfo de la Repbulica was robbed this afternoon…
• A .22 caliber rifle was found abandoned on a public street…
• Three men were detained after having injured several female victims…
The problem in Juarez has spread beyond just homicides. These headlines don’t even include all of the carjackings which are too numerous to report and all the kidnappings which are never reported. There is no one to turn to for help since the police are often the ones orchestrating the kidnappings.
About a year ago, when the problem first started getting really bad, my company hired an ex-CIA agent to give us some advice on the situation and to tell us what to do. He told us that the problem is far worse than we think. He told us that Mexico is the country with the highest number of kidnappings in the world and that the last thing we should do is go to the police. He gave us tips on how to take care of ourselves and he succeeded in making us all paranoid.
Since then, I have already met one person who was kidnapped and lived to tell about it, and another who was almost kidnapped but was able to get away with her children. Those people like many other rich entrepreneurs who have been recently threatened, are now seeking asylum and living in the United States. I personally know four people at work whose car was taken from them at gunpoint.
I’m cleared to pass the military checkpoint and I keep driving down the familiar path of potholes and flooded streets. I still have 10 miles before reaching my destination and on my way I pass a huge billboard on the Cuatro Siglos Avenue. The sign says “Serve your community” and has a picture of a police officer holding a rifle. Who would be crazy enough? The sign is a marketing strategy, a desperate attempt to correct a problem and that has been brewing for many, many years.
Billboard trying to entice people to join the Juarez police force.
As I continue on my way down this dangerous road, hoping not to get caught in the crossfire, I have time to think about and consider another root cause, one that goes back a lot further than the last Harvard educated Mexican president. The root cause that I’m thinking about goes back to the invasion of Mexico by the Spaniards, by the Conquistadores. When the Spanish came to America, they did things a lot differently than the English. The English came to America and began killing everyone in sight. What the Puritans did back then makes the Holocaust - pardon the expression - look like a walk in the park.
The Spanish had a different idea. They decided to exploit the Indian tribes. The Spanish figured it would be easier to take the gold back to Spain by lying and cheating and letting the Indian tribes fight amongst themselves and die of disease and enslaving those that survived. The Indians were no match for the Spaniards with their armor and swords and horses and they were put to work in the Haciendas.
Pedro de Valdivia founding of Santiago de Chile.
But those remaining Indians were not segregated and put into reservations like they did in the north. They mingled with the Spaniards and they reproduced and they formed a new culture, one that is not entirely Spanish and not entirely native, they formed what we call “mestizos,” from the Old Spanish word for “mixed.” The Spaniards destroyed the native religion and language but they did not erase it completely. The old mixed with the new and created a unique culture.
This new culture had no need for science or technology or industry because they had plenty of slaves to do the work. Mexico was introduced to feudalism and to this day, Mexico remains a country with a feudal system disguised as a democracy. Technology never evolved here because there was no need for it and there is still no need for it as long as there is a continuous supply of poor, uneducated workers that can be exploited.
I continue on my way to work and turn on Avenida de las Torres past a junkyard, then a shopping mall, then a school, then a warehouse and finally, as I wind down the snaking road, I come upon a corn field.
Off in the distance, looking toward the east, at the end of the field, I see a house that looks more like a palace. It looks like the haciendas that were once occupied by the Conquistadores in the 1600s but this is the present.
A house on Avenida de Las Torres, Juarez, Mexico.
I turn my head to the left, and see a world of contrast, a poor neighborhood with dirt roads and makeshift homes. I witness people living in improvised sheds sometimes made out of cardboard. There are none of the things that are taken for granted in the United States such as indoor plumbing, gas piping, and drinkable water. This is how most people in Juarez live. People living here don’t see the inequality and the injustice because they drive by it every day and have become accustomed to it and think, “oh well, that is just how things are.”
A house on Avenida de Las Torres, Juarez, Mexico.
Poverty is not the problem, it is the symptom. The problem is an inability to share and to distribute the wealth. Mexico has land, resources, and even oil. One of the richest men in the world, Carlos Slim, believe it or not, is Mexican. The problem is that only a few people in the country control all of this wealth. The oil belongs to Pemex, the phones belong to Telmex, and the railroad belongs to Ferromex. Privatization does not mean taking it from one person and giving it to another. A handful of individuals control most of Mexico and keep all the money for themselves instead of using it to repair roads and road signs and schools and to build libraries. The only way to move into this elite group is by having fair skin and knowing the right people.
I am only about a mile from the plant and I come upon a car blocking the road surrounded by soldiers and police officers. My first thought is that it’s another shooting but it turns out to be just a traffic accident. The soldiers are there to protect the police who are afraid of being killed.
Routine traffic stop.
Finally, I arrive at the plant. I swipe my card and iron gates open slowly. The security guard recognizes me and lets me through. I feel safe again surrounded by iron bars and security personnel. I swipe my card 2 more times before being allowed entry to the second floor. I try to forget about the nation’s problems, the living conditions, the children selling candy in the streets, and I try to concentrate on my work.
At lunch time, we gather at the cafeteria and talk about the day’s events. There is no shortage of stories to tell. One engineer talks about the time he was with a group of co-workers at the San Martin nightclub, located across the street from Juarez police headquarters, when suddenly a gunman came into the club and fired about 17 rounds, killing two people. The club reopened a couple of hours later. Others tell about the time they were stopped in their own neighborhood blocks away from their home and had their car taken from them, in broad daylight, at gunpoint. One person talks about the time he was kidnapped coming home from the city of Jimenez. He was held captive for seven weeks and finally released. He was one of the lucky ones. These are not things I have heard on the news, these are people I know.
Signs like this one can be seen on the highway. The sign shows suspected kidnappers and offers a reward of “up to” 1 million pesos (77,000 USD) for information leading to their arrest.
The work day comes to an end, I get back in my car, go past the iron gates and back into the streets. I feel vulnerable again and I wonder if someone is waiting for me, following me, studying my habits and the routes that I take. I look at my rear view mirror and change lanes often to see if I’m being followed. I change my route in an attempt to be less predictable. I come upon a road under construction and see a 1 meter drop to the right side, a wall on my left, and nowhere to turn if the car in front of me stops. I realize I’m sitting in a death trap.
Single lane road with a 1 meter drop on the right and a wall on the left.
Finally, I arrive at the bridge again and wait in line with the rest of the thousands of people trying to get back to the United States - back to safety and a better way of life. I see the street vendors and children selling candy, peanuts and gum. I see beggars lying on the street and a man carrying a skinny invalid on his shoulders in 100-degree heat. I roll down my window and give them whatever change I have but every day is the same. For the past nine years I’ve been coming here and it has always been the same. For the past 500 years, the dramatic inequality in this part of the world has always been the same.
Street vendors on the Mexican side of the international port of entry.
Halfway across the bridge, I can see El Paso and I feel safe again. I can see the professionalism, the discipline, the cleanliness waiting for me only meters away. People act differently as soon as they cross the line that divides the two nations. They no longer litter and they stop acting like children and start acting like mature adults. They begin to show respect and consideration. It is funny how a line in the desert is capable of provoking such a drastic change in people’s behavior.
Plaque on the bridge indicating the midpoint between the two countries.
Every car crossing into Mexico is inspected and everyone must present their passport and in the meantime, I sit and wait and continue to think in my air conditioned car, while the beggars carrying their babies breathe in the smell of gasoline in the 100 degree weather.
Sometimes the emotions get the best of me and tears fill my eyes but not today. Today I sit and reflect.
No child left behind
I have already mentioned that money is not the problem and therefore money is not the solution. Throwing money at the problem is like throwing water on a grease fire. Money will only provoke more greed and make people steal more. But if what I am saying is true and the problem is greed and a lack of respect for others, how can it be corrected? In my opinion, the only possible solution is education, education, and more education.
They say that primary and secondary schools in Mexico are better than those in the United States. They say that public high schools in the United States are mediocre compared to those of other countries. They say that students in secondary schools in the United States score lower on standardized tests when compared to students from other nations. I’m sure there are some excellent schools in Mexico but what good is it to have an excellent school in Mexico when only a few rich kids can attend?
In Mexico, by age 14, only 78 percent of all boys and only 72 percent of all girls attend school . That was 10 years ago and today, the statistics for Latin American and the Caribbean remain about the same, one out of every four kids do not attend high school. Compare that statistic to industrialized countries where the number is closer to one in 10 .
I don’t have to look at the statistics because I see it every day. I see the children wandering the streets, with nothing to do, picking up bad habits from the adults. They grow up really fast in order to survive on their own. They don’t watch PBS in the mornings and the schools do not provide breakfast and lunch. In southern Mexico in the state of Tabasco, the schools consist of palapas and the children get all wet when it rains .
In 10 or 20 years, these kids roaming the streets will be the same kind of criminals we see here today. They will be killing and trying to smuggle drugs because they won’t see the value in doing anything else. They were never given the opportunity to become an engineer or a doctor, or a teacher. If the only thing they learned was what they learned in the streets, if all they saw were people being murdered, if no one ever took them to church and no one lavished them with attention, I can assure you, they will become criminals.
All men are created equal
Sending children to school is only the beginning. The next challenge is what to teach them so that they do not keep repeating history for the next 500 years. I propose the following.
In the United States, people understand their rights and they demand that their rights be respected. It is a constant struggle but it is always on their minds. Since the time we are little children going to school, we are taught that all men are created equal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We were taught these words over and over again until they became engrained in our very souls.
In Mexico, the idea that all men are created equal does not exist but that does not mean that it can never exist. In the same way that these words are taught to all children in America, I believe they can be taught to anyone in the world. If we start today, in 10 or 20 years, the people of Mexico will begin to show respect to one another. Racism and male chauvinism so prevalent now, will soon cease to exist.
Corruption will diminish as people will stop taking what is not theirs. Mexicans will stop killing Mexicans and the healing process will begin.
28. Mexico, a comprehensive development agenda for the new era, Marcelo Giugale, World Bank, 1997 29. http://www.childinfo.org/education_secondary.php