Echoes of Chiapas on Mexico’s Northern Border

from Frontera NorteSur

Approaching Ciudad Juárez from the south, passengers on a commercial bus got a hard look at the world’s most violent city. Halted at a checkpoint outside the city limits, the bus was inspected by Mexican soldiers before being allowed to proceed. Heading into the crime-torn city, the bus chugged past the twisted piles of steel and mounds of rubble that pock-mark junkyards. Federal police, who arrived in reinforced numbers this month, roamed about on motorcycles or in pick-up trucks.

At the city bus terminal, Mexican soldiers forced passengers to open their bags. Next in line, an official from the National Immigration Institute asked to see identifications. For those travelers heading on to El Paso, Texas, just across the border, additional inspections awaited before departing the bus station: the random red light/green light search conducted by Mexican Customs and a mandatory one conducted by more Mexican soldiers whose probing hands methodically combed through personal belongings.

Off to El Paso, the bus skirted the Camino Real Hotel, where just the previous day President Felipe Calderón spoke to an elite gathering about what might be termed Plan Juárez.

Officially, the federal government’s Plan Juárez is touted as a comprehensive response to a multifaceted crisis that has transformed this border city into a war zone between competing criminal gangs.

Plunging into Ciudad Juárez, the bus roared by the endless campaign posters for the Chihuahua gubernatorial campaign and the hefty billboard boasting of the success of the recently completed Conejos-Medanos aqueduct, the privatized water delivery system managed by one of Carlos Slim’s companies.

Zipping through light traffic, the bus glided by empty commercial buildings where “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs proliferated. Fences, gates, iron grills and barbed wire stood out as architectural amenities.

Aesthetically, Ciudad Juárez is a landscape of exclusion and enclosure, with even the view along El Paso’s Paisano Drive on the other side of the Rio Grande blocked by a new fence constructed on the US side.

To keep bus passengers in the mood, a local radio station, 107.5 FM, “La Zeta,” blasted romantic songs and hot cumbias. Ads promoted the opening of a new disco, and recurrent spots from the Federal Electoral Institute proclaimed, “Our Democracy Grows.”

Suddenly, as the bus entered the final approach to the Bridge of Americas leading into El Paso, the traffic came to a halt. Emerging from the shadows, a Mexican soldier scoured commercial trucks with a hand-held drug detection device. Another soldier soon jumped aboard the bus and ordered all the men to get off with their carry-on bags. “Routine revision,” he barked.

One by one, each man was hand-patted and his bags searched. No incriminating evidence was found, and the women passengers were not searched. In all, the bus passengers traveling through Ciudad Juárez that day were stopped, searched, carded or green-lighted/red-lighted six times before arriving to US Customs, where a final ID check and baggage scan was carried out. Anyone surviving the Lucky Seven was now on US soil.

Plan Juárez
Despite the deployment of thousands of Mexican soldiers and a reinforced contingent of Federal Police ostensibly to suppress the criminal gangs, violence has only worsened in Ciudad Juárez since January 2008, when the long-simmering drug war exploded in fury. More than 4,600 people have been slain, and anywhere from 30,000 to 420,000 people have fled from a city that was nudging 1.5 million inhabitants prior to the war, according to wildly varied estimates.

Although it is impossible to know the exact number of refugees due to the silent and secret nature of the population flight, 100,000 or more people might have simply slipped across the Rio Grande to El Paso. Others have fled north to New Mexico or south to Veracruz, among other refuges.

Ciudad Juárez residents had long been fleeing the insecurity of their city, but the 2008 war turned a steady trickle of refugees into a torrent of expatriates.

Coinciding with the deepest economic crisis in decades, about 10,000 businesses have shut their doors in Ciudad Juárez since 2007, according to the Mexican employers’ organization Coparmex. Another business association, the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, estimates that at least 2,000 businesses have suffered extortions at least once. Mom and pop neighborhood stores, the beloved “changarros” of former President Vicente Fox, have been especially hard hit.

The blood of Ciudad Juárez burst onto Mexican national television when 15 people, mostly teenagers, were gunned down at a party held in the Villas de Salvarcar neighborhood on Jan. 30.

Responding to the national outcry, President Calderón rolled out Plan Juárez. Combining a strengthened military and police presence with an initial investment of $50 million in new educational, health, drug rehabilitation and welfare programs, Plan Juárez proposes to reconstruct a shredded social fabric and restore the hegemony of the state.

Headed by Ciudad Juárez native and Secretary of Agrarian Reform Abelardo Escobar, a troika was appointed by President CalderĂłn to oversee a campaign that is officially dubbed “Todos Somos Juárez,” or “We are all Juárez.” The name is an ironic appropriation of the 1994-95 grassroots slogan, “We are all Marcos,” which emerged in support of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.

Echoes of Chiapas surround Plan Juárez. A second member of the troika is iconic National Action Party (PAN) politician Luis H. Alvarez, who served as a point man in the Mexican government’s unsuccessful dealings with the Zapatista rebels.

A textile industrialist by profession and a Chihuahua native by birth, Alvarez has served as mayor of Chihuahua City, federal senator and president of the PAN. With former Chihuahua State Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez now at the helm in the federal attorney general’s office, prominent Chihuahenses will have a key hand in steering Plan Juárez.

President Calderón’s plan has received decidedly mixed reviews. For instance, Dr. Felipe Fornelli Lafont, coordinator of directors for the Ciudad Juárez municipal government, wondered aloud how adding 270,000 people to a government-run medical insurance program will play out in a city already beset by insufficient services and a shortage of medical professionals.

“Where are they going to attend them?” Fornelli questioned. “The infrastructure doesn’t exist.”

The father of Rodrigo Cadena, one of the victims of the Villas de Salvarcar massacre, Adrian Cadena told a Mexican television host he was living the “saddest moments of my life.” Cadena said he trusted Mexican authorities, but stressed that he and other Villas de Salvarcar parents will carefully monitor Plan Juárez. Calling for improved educational access and better sports facilities for youths in Ciudad Juárez, Cadena criticized local schools for charging enrollment and tuition fees.

“If there is some way to relieve the pain, it is to see that young people get professional training,” Cadena said.

Civil society activists are divided over participating in the citizen committees formed to help shape Plan Juárez. At a Feb. 17 appearance in Ciudad Juárez, his second visit to the city in one week, President Calderón was shielded by a cordon of soldiers and federal cops.

Outside the Camino Real Hotel, university students and members of the National Front against Repression demanded the resignation of Calderón and the withdrawal of the Mexican army, which has been accused of hundreds of human rights abuses in Ciudad Juárez during the last two years. Besides roughing up five local reporters, federal policemen detained several demonstrators.

Chihuahua state lawmaker Victor Quintana and labor/human rights activist Cipriana Jurado, both prominent critics of the military’s presence and members of the opposition PRD party, were excluded from the Feb. 17 meeting with CalderĂłn.

Disproportionately impacted by the violence, some youths are protesting in the streets or boldly declaring their disgust with political leaders. During a February 22 visit to a high school attended by three of the Villas de Salvarcar victims, Chihuahua Governor José Reyes Baeza was scolded by angry classmates of the murdered students.

A tearful 17-year-old identified only as Daniel, questioned the governor: “While you are here, they are killing many [people] outside. Who can tell me that when I leave school I will not be kidnapped or run across a store which is shot up because they did not pay the [extortion] quota?”

Juarez is Mexico…and the US
Villas de Salvarcar thrust Ciudad Juárez, a place viewed by many residents of the Mexican interior as a remote, god-forsaken hellhole, into the national spotlight. For days, the massacre and subsequent government response dominated the headlines and airwaves. A columnist and political analyst for the Aguascalientes edition of the national daily La Jornada, Fernando Rivera has a friend in Ciudad Juárez who is shutting down his business and moving to El Paso. Rivera wrote a column in La Jornada this month entitled “Juárez is Mexico.”

In an interview with Frontera NorteSur, Rivera said a grave situation exists in a city that has “more deaths than Iraq” but is located in a nation where “supposed freedom and democracy” prevail.

Concerned the Ciudad Juárez Syndrome could take hold across Mexico, Rivera cited the recent cases of two youths from Leon, Guanajuato, who were accused of being hired killers.

“They were ready to die for $200 every two weeks or $400 every month,” Rivera said. “I’m not afraid of the Mexico I am going to leave my son. I am afraid of the Mexico I live in,” he added.

A media critic, Rivera expressed skepticism that national coverage of Ciudad Juárez will extend beyond President Calderon’s trips before reverting back to trivial obsessions like the condition of singer Alejandra Guzmán’s buttocks. Rivera compared Ciudad Juárez to Chiapas in 1994, when the Zapatista uprising resulted in an infusion of government money but little or no structural change in the social, political and economic order that provoked violence in the first place.

What’s more, the writer added, killings like the 1997 massacre of scores of civilians in Acteal, Chiapas, have largely gone unpunished and left a bitter legacy of criminal impunity and historical denial.

“We can’t be like ostriches with our necks stuck in the ground and our bodies above it, and evade responsibility,” Rivera asserted. “We can’t forget Juárez. They are my countrymen. They are Mexicans.”

In a separate interview, Dr. Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, told Frontera Norte the violence in his sister city had personally impacted students from Ciudad Juárez who attend the US campus.

The author of a new book chronicling the deep-rooted narco-culture that permeates both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez (Drug War Zone, University of Texas, 2009), Campbell said Villas de Salvarcar could mark a watershed in the violence that was allowed to rip apart the Mexican border city.

“It was sad to see killings without any protests,” Campbell said. “The Villas de Salvarcar massacre has finally prompted people in both cities to organize, to pressure, to do anything they can.”

Together with other intellectuals and civic leaders, Campbell supported a Feb. 9 resolution of the El Paso City Council that condemned the Ciudad Juárez violence and urged Washington to make Mexico a foreign policy priority.

But Campbell was also skeptical that Plan Juárez and “whirlwind” tours by President CalderĂłn and other politicians could succeed in rebuilding a city that is fast becoming what amounts to a vast and violent holding pen for the poor.

“What they need is a Marshall Plan for the city,” Campbell contended. “What they’re getting is a few bones.”

The Pharaoh of Vice
The decay of Ciudad Juarez is evident to any pedestrian who saunters across the Santa Fe Bridge from El Paso to the once-bustling but now subdued Avenida Juárez. A shuttered door with a painted image, dripping red in simulation of blood, sums up the scene: “Sufferings because of these hired killers.”

Hanging next to the message, a faded poster appealed for information on the whereabouts of 43-year-old Manuela Juárez Varela, one of hundreds or even thousands of people reported vanished and forgotten in the border’s mean bowels. Down the street, a big electronic bulletin flashed news of the latest decapitations in Michoacán to the south.

Behind the Avenida, off to the right, stands the remains of the legendary Mariscal red light district, which is getting razed for gentrification.

Once the cross-border center of fun, foolishness and fraud, the Mariscal is a shell of its former self. Displayed yards from the walls where a painted Frida Kahlo butterfly and anti-femicide graffiti blend into a semi-psychedelic, gender-conscious street mural, a missing persons’ poster for 17-year-old Jessica Monserrat rose up over the rubble.

Across the street, the collapsing Pharaoh-like head above the entrance of the old Las Vegas Club signaled the end of an old empire and the possible beginning of a new one.

A man who billed himself as a “security guard” complained the urban renewal will throw many people out of work—barmen, sex workers, fast-food sellers, flower peddlers and the like. “The situation is going to be bad for people who work here,” he predicted.

A hint of what could be in store for the new unemployed was found on the nearby Santa Fe Bridge. On a late Friday afternoon, usually a peak travel time back to El Paso, the bridge was eerily deserted. At one point, not even a single car was spotted on the hump of the crossing that unites the world’s most dangerous city with one of the safest ones in North America.

While beggars were always part of the bridge scene, the panhandlers seemed more numerous and desperate than ever before. Almost tugging at walkers’ shirt-sleeves, insistent voices refused to take no for an answer and kept pleading for a few pesos.

Back in the news cycle, Ciudad Juárez television stations and newspapers resumed their daily barrage of guns, guts and gore. A man named JosĂ© Guadalupe Chávez was shot and killed at a mechanic’s shop. A 19-year veteran homicide investigator for the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office, Enrique Castañeda Ogaz, was gunned down elsewhere. An additional victim was slain in broad daylight practically under the noses of the soldiers and federales stationed in and around the Santa Fe Bridge.

As US soldiers from Ft. Bliss rubbed shoulders with trendy, young juarenses in El Paso’s thriving nightclubs, the US media flashed images and sound-bites of wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Growing tensions over Iran and the Israeli Hamas assassination scandal were other stories. Locally, two El Paso-area men were arrested for kidnapping another man on the US side and delivering him to Ciudad Juárez for slaughter.

But the big story of the day, repeated over and over, was Tiger Woods’ public apology.


This story first appeared Feb. 23 on Frontera NorteSur.


Todos Somos Juárez

Plan Estrategico de Juárez

From our Daily Report:

Ciudad Juárez marches against narco violence, militarization
World War 4 Report, Feb. 15, 2010

Juárez worse than Baghdad?
World War 4 Report, March 12, 2009

Mexico: sentences overturned in Acteal massacre
World War 4 Report, Aug. 16, 2009

Mexico: Calderon targets Chiapas
World War 4 Report, Dec. 18, 2006

See also:

from Frontera NorteSur
World War 4 Report, February 2010

See related story, this issue:

by Marcelo Ballvé, New America Media
World War 4 Report, March 2010


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, March 1, 2010
Reprinting permissible with attribution