CIUDAD JUÁREZ—Esteban was riding shotgun in his family’s rusted teal minivan when his dad, Lorenzo, suddenly stopped the car. It was odd—a vehicle facing the opposite direction blocked their way on the narrow street. They were just four blocks from home. The then-six-year-old boy with soft eyes and a freckled nose noticed the glass-strewn pavement first. Next, he saw the vehicle was riddled with bullet holes “this big,” he says, peering through a silver-dollar-size circle made with his thumb and forefinger. Last, he saw the two bloodied, dead bodies in the front seats.
“We had passed that same spot just 15 minutes before, and all was clear,” Lorenzo recalls of that evening in 2008. Esteban’s younger siblings, Rodrigo and Ana Clara, ages four and two at the time, slumbered in the back seat. Lorenzo still wonders how the baby slept through the neighbors’ screams. The smell of gunpowder lingered in the air as Esteban, an eloquent, extroverted child, began to cry. His questions started right away and continued for days. “Do you think they had kids?” “Even if they did something wrong, they still didn’t deserve to die, right, Daddy?”
They are tough questions for a first-grader. Yet in Juárez, murder capital of the world, they have become commonplace. Over the past two and a half years, more than 5,000 people (an average of more than five a day) have been killed in an intensifying drug war that has reached deep into children’s lives—kids gather at crime scenes, stumble onto recently slain bodies, are forced to witness relatives’ assassinations, or are killed themselves.
Ten thousand of Juárez’s 500,000 children under the age of 14 have been orphaned, according to El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Juárez-based university and research institution. Of those murdered, 43 were between the ages of 12 and 15. More than 200 were between 16 and 18. It is impossible to know the number of youngsters, like Esteban, who have witnessed a killing or stood close to a corpse that’s still warm.
The impact is lasting and widespread. Children across the border city of 1.5 million suffer from insomnia and nightmares; many have become withdrawn or have been sealed indoors by frightened parents. Even those spared the disturbing firsthand visuals don’t get off unscathed. The violence is all over television, in conversations around the dinner table, and—for at least one child interviewed by Village Voice Media—in the abandoned buildings inhabited by the ghosts of the murdered.
The brutality has only escalated since security forces arrived in 2008 to try to pacify ground zero in the Mexican drug war. Increasing numbers of children have been sucked into the world of crime: Gangs now recruit kids as young as 11, and assassin training begins at 12. In Juárez, eight-year-olds use cocaine.
But after two years of making extortion payments, venturing out only when necessary, and constantly listening for gunshots, juarenses are taking back the city. They are slowly occupying streets and parks once ceded to the drug war and demanding solutions such as early childhood services, hoping that intervention can break the cycle of violence. If the efforts persist and grow, they just might help Juárez escape its fate as a murderous no man’s land.
If they fail, juarenses will likely continue to cross the bridge to neighboring El Paso, Texas, just a bullet’s flight away. So far, the violence and sinking economy of the past two years have led 100,000 to escape north, further aggravating an immigration conflict that has turned the U.S.-Mexico border into a battleground and making any resolution as elusive as putting an end to the drug war.
That fateful day during Esteban’s first-grade year coincides with the beginning of Juárez’s transformation into the world’s most violent city. In early 2008, a turf battle was raging between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. What had always been a brutal rivalry was exploding across the city. Early that year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón had sent nearly 2,500 soldiers and federal police, known as Federales, to restore order.
“We were kind of glad to see the military arrive,” says Josefina Martínez, an editor at Juárez newspaper El Diario and mother of two. “The city had become a drug sanctuary, and we really did think that maybe the military would change that.” But now she laughs at the memory.
Despite the arrival of the first round of soldiers and Federales, the murder rate rose above 1,500 that year. Another fleet of more than 5,000 security officers arrived the following year and was given control over civilian institutions, including municipal police and the prison system. Still, the 2009 murder count reached 2,290.
But the growing numbers painted only part of the picture. The violence changed. Killings were no longer contained to the targets. Murders began happening everywhere: in and around churches, homes, parks, playgrounds, day-care centers, schools, community centers, restaurants, and rich and poor neighborhoods. Every square inch of the city became a potential crime scene—and every resident a potential witness or victim. Juarenses struggle to explain why things changed. It seems the military presence drove the cartels to flaunt publicly the same violence the government forces were sent to quell.
“Before the military arrived, there was always a certain logic to organized crime and the murders,” says Esteban’s mother, Lourdes Almada, who heads Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en Ciudad Juárez, a coalition of Juárez child advocacy and community organizations. “Assassinations were more or less payment of debts, and those who carried them out took care to ensure that there weren’t any confusions.
“Suddenly, you had kids witnessing executions or being shot themselves as they tried to flee with their father,” Almada recalls. “Reality blew up in our face.”
Martínez, the newspaper editor, motions to a wall across from the entrance to her son’s primary school. “Right over there, cartel tags started appearing,” she says. Before 2008, territorial markings were never so close to a school. Then the extortion began. In December 2008, teachers throughout the city’s 900 schools were sent a clear message through the coded markings: Hand over your year-end bonuses (normally equivalent to a month’s salary of $450 to $1,000), or students will suffer the consequences.
“It was a new low,” Almada remembers, shaking her head. “But that’s the thing about Juárez. You think you’ve hit bottom, and then it just keeps getting worse.”
Eleven-year-old Alfonso was returning from buying a soda at his neighborhood corner store this past April when he saw a friend pounding on the triple-locked metal gate of a house. “Come quick,” he remembers hearing. “Pablo has been killed.” Alfonso’s grandmother, Rosa, tried to stop him from venturing around the corner to the spot where his favorite cousin was likely dying, but the fifth-grader couldn’t help himself. He turned onto the adjacent street and saw 19-year-old Pablo blood-soaked in a car. Neither Alfonso nor his three friends beside him breathed. “We didn’t hear any shots,” Rosa says. In Juárez, that’s code for a knife killing.
Alfonso is big for his age, and his bangs are long enough to almost cover his wide, dark eyes. He sits on the edge of the couch in his family’s living room. The large curtains are drawn, and plastic flowers and fake-gold-trimmed furniture dominate the décor. Though there’s a sweetness to him, Alfonso’s sadness is palpable. “He was like our other brother,” says the stocky boy who wants to be a chef, glancing toward his older brother, 16-year-old Raúl, who’s perched on a stool across the room. Alfonso continues, “He would take us downtown to hang out and was very protective. You know, like, always worried that something would happen to us.” His voice is barely audible above the hum of the air conditioner, and he’s aware of the irony of what he’s saying. His eyes linger on the floorboards: “When I listen to the music that he liked, I get sad. Sometimes it makes me want to cry.”
When Alfonso is out of earshot, his mom, Laura, says, “He’s become very nervous. When his older brother or I am late coming home, we find him in a corner, shaking.” She attends a grief support group for parents and is thinking of taking him to one for children. Alfonso says he’s willing, but he’s also clear: “I want to leave Juárez.”
He’s not alone. A recent survey shows more than 60 percent of high-school-age youths say they plan to leave Juárez as soon as they can. Since 2007, nearly 250,000 residents have fled the city. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it’s estimated that 100,000 have moved a few miles north to neighboring El Paso. Most remain there but maintain ties to the city that was once their home. Others inevitably head north or west, deeper into Texas and the Southwest.
Those who can afford to take the short trip across the bridge have the money to keep the family afloat. These wealthier juarenses also have more reason to flee, because they are increasingly victims of Juárez’s other two main crimes: kidnapping and extortion. Small and large business owners alike must pay for “protection” to be left alone. Dotting the city are the charred ruins of businesses that don’t pay; the common punishment is to burn the store down, often with the owner inside.
“Here, people trade in fancy cars for crappier ones,” Almada says, because an expensive new car is a kidnapper’s magnet. Walls around houses go up daily, and security guards multiply on sidewalks, but nothing seems to discourage the abduction-for-ransom schemes. “See this four-block radius?” Almada asks while driving through a particularly nice part of town. “Eighteen kidnappings in one week earlier this year.”
Those who can’t make it north go south. Many return to their hometowns. Juárez boomed between 1980 to 2000, when its population ballooned by nearly 1 million as the maquila factories—North American Free Trade Agreement-spurred manufacturers of everything from dresses to car parts for ready U.S. export—became one of northern Mexico’s most reliable employers.
Now the recession has claimed more than 90,000 jobs, and the violence has spread. Lacking work and living in fear, 150,000 have headed south—some with the help of other Mexican state governments. During the ’90s, factory owners sent buses south to transport workers to Juárez by the thousands. These days, states such as Veracruz send buses to Juárez to bring their people back.
Those who stay live an altered reality. “I am scared most of the time,” Alfonso says just above a whisper. Pablo’s murder was not the first time death came to the neighborhood; two years earlier, there was a drive-by shooting right across the street. “That didn’t really matter,” Alfonso says, shrugging off the incident. But ever since Pablo’s April killing, Alfonso doesn’t leave the house unless he has to.
“Of course, everyone stays inside,” says Clara Jusidman, president of Incide Social, a Mexico City-based social research and advocacy organization, who for years has been studying violence in Juárez. “The city is in the middle of a civil war. If you’re inside, you believe you’re less likely to be collateral damage.”
Some kids stop going to school, although Alfonso says he never left. The day after Pablo’s death, his homeroom teacher saw the boy crying alone in a corner of the schoolyard. He felt a mix of rage and despair, the sixth-grader remembers. Alfonso confided in the teacher, and she took him to the school’s psychologist, one of a fleet of professionals stationed on campuses across the city who deal frequently with trauma, though they often have no specialized training. Alfonso began regularly visiting the shrink. “That helped,” he says, nodding his head in apparent sincerity, but he no longer goes to his appointments.
More than anything else, he finds solace in his family—a close-knit group, most of whom live within a few blocks of each other. Alfonso says he has nine cousins, though it’s not clear whether Pablo is still included in that count. They all recently came together for a Father’s Day celebration. “That was a hard day,” Laura says. Such gatherings are likely to be harsh reminders of their loss for a long time to come.
Laura says keeping Alfonso inside is her only choice, though she admits it’s no way to raise kids. “We have to put up with that for now,” says the 40-something hairstylist. “It’s got to change at some point, but the solution is not going to come from the politicians. All they do is send more Federales, and look where that’s gotten us.”
It’s a post-lunch sugar rush. A dozen wired four-year-olds climb on top of each other in the front classroom of the Independent Popular Organization (OPI), a day-care center in Juárez’s poor Poniente neighborhood. Face paint smears as the youngsters jostle for position, and by the time they settle into a circle, Spider-Man looks more like a ripe strawberry than a superhero.
The question put to the group is universal: What do you want to be when you grow up? The answers are stingingly Juárez: “A soldier!” The boy barely finishes his thought before another chimes in. “Me too!” the second boy yelps, throwing his hand into the air as if offering to enlist right then. A third takes a different slant. “I want to be a policeman in El Paso,” he states, lips pursed with seriousness. The rest take their time to think about their responses but eventually fall into line. By the time the circle is done, it’s clear that every male kid—if childhood dreams were fulfilled—would be packing heat daily.
Juárez’s Federales and soldiers are ubiquitous. The former are dressed in dark blue, the latter in green. They respond at crime scenes and man checkpoints. But mainly, they circle the city, stuffed into the back of pickup trucks, masked and standing erect with rifles pointing outward. On an average day, residents cross paths with more than a dozen patrols. For adults, they inspire rage and fear. But in the eyes of a child, these men are life-size G.I. Joes; Juárez is a videogame turned reality.
Mikaela Castillo, who’s been the director of the day-care center for years and has heard this chorus a thousand times, shrugs: “At least they didn’t say assassins.”
But few of the children will grow up to be Federales. “In Juárez, your only choice is narco or the maquila,” says Susana Molina, an activist who helped revitalize a once-desolate public park. And maquilas are no dream job. The sprawling factories are infamous for deplorable working conditions, low wages, and long hours. “Narco,” Molina says, referring to narcotrafficking, “offers a better life.”
Even if Juárez were to give up its murder capital reign, it would still be deeply troubled. Education is substandard: 68 percent of five-year-olds—about 65,000 children — do not attend kindergarten. Juárez has the highest drop-out rate in the country—29 percent—and students begin leaving as early as the fourth grade. About 45 percent of those between the ages of 13 to 24 are neither enrolled in school nor have formal employment.
“What can you expect when the maquilas’ starting salaries are the same whether you have gone to school or not?” Jusidman asks. “There have to be other economic opportunities for Juárez residents if this city is ever going to change.”
And Juárez will remain a thorn in the side of the United States. Juárez and El Paso comprise the largest binational metropolitan area in the world. Thousands legally cross back and forth daily—living on one side and working on the other, or doing errands across the border. Ironically, the recent Juárez crisis has not been all bad for El Paso.
“El Paso has been witnessing a boom,” says Cesar Fuentes, a researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte. He says the Juárez exodus has led to economic growth in El Paso. “People used to go to Juárez on a Saturday night because there were better restaurants and bars. Now those are opening up in their own town, and so you don’t cross anymore.”
Remarkably, too, El Paso has remained almost immune from its cross-canal city’s violence. The Texas town is considered one of the safest cities in the States. Yet in an eerie forewarning one day this past July, a bullet fired in Juárez hit El Paso City Hall. This summer, both Mexican and U.S. governments reiterated their belief that border security is high priority. But Mexico’s outlandish crime rate—28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the past six years—continues to make a mockery of any talk of solutions, especially because the U.S.’s appetite for drugs feeds the cartels.
U.S. drug revenues are estimated to be as high as $80 billion a year, and the majority of the cartels’ weapons supply comes from the north. “There are 7,600 gun shops within 50 miles of the Mexican border, and they’re selling primarily to drug lords,” former U.S. National Security Advisor Robert Pastor told CNN in 2009. “We are part of this problem, and we haven’t been significantly supportive.”
Vows of tightening these controls have fallen short, however, as any visit to the bridge connecting the two cities makes clear. It takes the average Mexican citizen two hours to pass the tight security checkpoints heading into El Paso. But folks traveling in the other direction can cross the border in minutes, often strolling across the bridge without so much as a glance at what they are carrying.
Teresa Montero, who for the past 30 years has studied the plight of Juárez’s children, often recounts an anecdote from her early years of field work: “One day, I found a two-year-old child chained to a crib [and] left with a bottle of milk for the day,” says the academic director at the Autonomous University of Juárez. “Now enlarge that image to thousands of children, and you have the history of Juárez.”
As it becomes painfully obvious that more policing is not the answer, many parents and leaders are calling for better care for the young—such as Spider-Man and his friends.
“In just a few more years, these kids are going to be sucked into the narco world,” says Leonardo Yánez, an early-childhood development expert with the Holland-based Bernard van Leer Foundation, which funds child-advocacy programs worldwide, including some in Juárez. “Early childhood is the point where a rupture can be made.”
But there are few places for kids to go when their parents head to work, which is often. Juárez has more mothers working outside the home than any other city in Mexico—80,000 formally employed by maquilas alone. Men work too, or have gone north, or are slowly dying off (90 percent of the post-2008 murders are of men). Yet only six of every 100 kids in Juárez have access to a day-care facility. As a result, according to Red por la Infancia, 44 percent of working mothers leave their youngsters alone at some point during the day.
Leaving small children alone in any city can potentially damage them, but in Juárez, the consequences can be grave. “You have kids exposed to inhuman levels of violence,” Jusidman says, “and then [they are] left without care and support to deal with those experiences.”
Through a campaign named Hazlo por Juárez (Do It for Juárez), Red por la Infancia activists are pushing newly elected leaders to fund and expand centers such as the OPI day-care and to double the number of spaces available because, they say, these centers can make a difference in these children’s lives.
“In 2008, when the violence got out of hand, we saw it immediately in the kids,” OPI’s Castillo says. The children became aggressive and talked of extreme violence as a normal occurrence, she explains.
Teachers can make a difference by asking key questions, Castillo says. When a child talks about wanting to murder his peers, Castillo explains, staff can ask, “But that would make your friend cry, right?” or “How do you think his little brother would feel if he could no longer play with his sibling?”
“Now the kids who were with us then are calm again,” Castillo says. But, she notes, “Every time a new kid comes in, we start all over again, giving them special attention until they are able to shed that edge.”
Six-year-old Guillermo’s next-door neighbor is a ghost, “un niño” who inhabits the abandoned two-story brick house across the driveway from the boy’s small three-bedroom home. “I can hear him sometimes,” says the slight first-grader with a buzzcut. “The ghost makes noises but doesn’t speak.” Down the street, there are more spirit neighbors.
Guillermo’s block in the middle-class neighborhood is filled with skeletons of Juárez’s recent population flight: abandoned homes and storefronts with peeling paint and blown-out windows. “Those up there are really mean,” the boy says, pointing toward the second floor of a vacant building on the corner. His gaze lingers momentarily on the darkness beyond one glassless window before he turns away.
The middle child of three casually says, “There are dead people all over Juárez.” He watches the nightly TV crime highlights, and murders are a favorite conversation topic between his older sister and her friends. Unfortunately for Guillermo, the ghosts don’t always like to stay hidden. They sit on benches and lie in the road alongside Hidalgo Park across the street from his house.
But in an interesting twist of fate, the one square block of green that sits 50 yards from Guillermo’s front door is slowly becoming populated by a more lively crowd. “We realized that our city has beautiful spaces but that they had been abandoned out of fear,” says 26-year-old Susana Molina, a hip-hop musician better known in Juárez as Oveja Negra, or Black Sheep. It’s 7 o’clock on a recent summer night, and she’s standing in Hidalgo Park surrounded by scampering kids and the rhythms of Bob Marley. “We decided it was time to leave the house and occupy public spaces as a way of taking our city back,” she says.
It’s a unique experiment: Molina and her friends, a ragtag group of young musicians and artists, began to arrive nightly at the park in the historical center of the city this past April, armed with drums, toys, a stereo, guitars, and soccer balls. “At first, no one wanted to leave their house because they said we’d bring trouble,” she explains. But little by little, families emerged.
Now hula hoops twirl on two-foot-high hips, and toddlers bang on drums most evenings. Teenagers flirt on benches, moms cluster to discuss rising food prices, and elders hunched over walkers try to keep up with scurrying grandchildren. “This looks like the good old days of Juárez,” a woman passing by remarks to one of Molina’s friends.
That’s just the idea, says Verónica Corchado, a member of Pacto por la Cultura, a campaign by various citizen organizations in Juárez that coordinates this and other events. “A lot of people have given up hope in our city and have left,” she says. “But there are those of us who aren’t going anywhere. So after two years of shock, we decided we needed to start living again,” the redhead explains. The plan is to replicate the Hidalgo Park pilot project around the city. It—along with film series, art exhibitions, poetry readings, and anything else, Corchado says—might help Juárez residents enjoy life again.
“It’s also a form of protest,” she adds. Corchado and Molina strongly believe that staying inside is not only a normal self-defense mechanism but also the result of government intimidation. “The government enhances the climate of fear, because if there is no one on the streets, then there are no witnesses to what goes on,” Corchado says. She remembers that when the military arrived, TV ads encouraged people to stay at home, and traffic light poles were adorned with informational posters about how to duck-and-cover in the event of a drive-by.
In Juárez, rumors circulate that President Calderón is in bed with the Sinaloa Cartel and that the city’s militarization is an effort to crack down on the cartel’s rivals. Indeed, most recent corruption arrests of high-ranking officials have nabbed those linked to Sinaloa, and while more than 500 members of rival cartels have been taken into custody, Sinaloa’s leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, remains free.
Pickup trucks filled with Federales slowly circle Hidalgo Park several times throughout the evening. “They’d stop and harass us if there weren’t so many of us here,” Molina says. But instead, they drive on as the sun sets, and the oppressive June heat finally relinquishes its grip on the day.
Guillermo had crossed the street earlier to wait for Molina and crew to arrive. He sits hesitantly on the sidewalk that borders the park’s grassy middle—until he notices the partially decayed carcass of a tiny bird on the concrete next to him and gets up to move.
Guillermo explains he began seeing ghosts “awhile ago,” though it’s unclear whether that means a few months or a few years in his 6-year-old mind. He becomes animated when telling stories of where and when the spirits appear. The accounts are confusing to follow because he uses the word muertos, which translates literally as “dead people,” to describe the phantoms. But it soon becomes clear that, word choice aside, Guillermo has never seen a real dead person.
One of those muertos was in the park the previous Saturday, he says. Actually, it was only a head, and it was hanging from a tree—likely an unconscious assimilation of the Juárez executioners’ trademark of hanging dead bodies in public. But Guillermo sat on the grass anyway and focused on his guitar lesson. The thrill of learning how to play a C chord apparently meant more than ghosts mulling about, for that night at least.
Esteban—the composed and inquisitive boy who saw the slain bodies in the car as his two younger siblings slept—spent Father’s Day this year at his grandparents’ house, along with a gaggle of cousins, aunts, and uncles. His family, a rare breed of third-generation juarenses on both sides, made a feast, and the kids and a few adults spent the sweltering June day romping in the circular above-ground pool.
The grownups dawdle in the shade between the one-story home and the splashing kids. They gossip, tease, and chat. It’s like any Father’s Day gathering on the continent, except for the Juárez moments: A bug bite scratched open leaves a trail of blood on the neck of a friend from Mexico City. “Look,” someone says, “all you have to do is show up in Juárez and you start bleeding!”
The crowd doubles over with laughter, but the smiles subside as the conversation turns to the stories that are never lacking here: the co-worker shot in front of his wife and children because his brother hadn’t paid his debts; the time when everyone hit the floor at a baptism service because fireworks were mistaken for gunshots; the worries, above all else, of the little ones in the pool.
Esteban bobs in the water as he gives his younger sister, Ana Clara, a ride on his back. He says he learned to swim when he was 6. While on summer vacation, he was in a large pool and his life jacket slipped off. “I got really scared,” he says, eyes widening with the memory. “But the next day, I wasn’t scared anymore. I jumped into the pool and gave my life jacket to my little sister,” he says.
It was the same year Esteban saw the broken glass and the silver-dollar-size bullet holes and the bloodied bodies. But talk to him about his sixth year of life, and the swimming memory is the one that rises to the top. Does he ever want to leave Juárez? “No,” he says, scrunching his face at the suggestion. “Why would I want to do that?”
Some of the names in this piece have been changed, and some last names have been omitted, as requested to protect the identity of those who spoke with the reporter. The Bernard van Leer Foundation helped pay for the trip to report this story.