WALKING THE BRIDGE FROM EL PASO into Ciudad Juárez, America’s number one narcocorridor, means stepping into a world that is many times more vibrant and violent, richer and poorer, yet still strangely invisible from the other side. A vendor hawking crucifixes runs from the police. A preacher waving a Bible shames three painted girls. The rust-colored hand of a beggar pokes out from beneath an Indian shawl. A four-year-old boy in a Joe Camel cap wanders the streets after midnight while his father sings $2 love songs. And then there are the dead bodies—the famous and the infamous and the anonymous gunned down in restaurants, stuffed in trunks, dumped in the street, sometimes choked with wire or burned by acid, often with their hands taped, legs bound, and heads hooded, all in the name of feeding our appetite for drugs. They’re piling up so fast this summer that the Diario de Juárez keeps a running count. The Order of the Day…Another Victim, shouts a typical headline.
News of these horrors only occasionally filters north of the Rio Grande, especially not in the English-language media, a fact that contributes to the comforting perception of such events as the distant woes of a distant land. Yet not thirty feet from the border, just a five-minute stroll across the international bridge, Juárez is being convulsed by an unprecedented wave of bloodshed—a compressed version of the social collapse that threatens just about all of Mexico. “I have no faith,” says Norma Ortega, a 34-year-old mother of three, whose husband was abducted ten months ago by uniformed thugs. Ortega says this while sitting in the shadow of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, while the Bishop of Juárez delivers a sermon inside, demanding a halt to the violence. “As far as I can see,” Ortega says, “there is no authority. There is no law.”
In the span of one month the tally is horrifying. Four doctors are kidnapped, strangled, and dumped unceremoniously in a pile by the side of the road; gunmen pump five bullets into a lawyer during a maniacal car-to-car shoot-out that zigzags down city streets in the middle of the afternoon; seven men, including a banana importer, disappear in one day, allegedly rousted by paramilitary troops; assailants saunter into an upscale steakhouse, spraying more than one hundred rounds from their AK-47’s and killing six people in what police call the single deadliest act of violence in modern Juárez history—then they mow down three businessmen in front of a popular tavern next-door. “We are accustomed to seeing people lose their lives here,” admits Juárez’s coroner, Enrique Silva Pérez, as he sips coffee from a mug oddly adorned with the words “#1 Doctor.” But the autopsies he has performed this summer are different. The victims are the sort who do not often cross his surgical table: college students, government officials, other doctors. “It’s a bitch,” he says with a sigh.
In all, at least eighteen people in Juárez have been executed in gangland-style hits since the Fourth of July. On that day, the godfather of the Juárez cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, was dealt the most surreal death of all, succumbing at age 41 to the aftereffects of a marathon of liposuction and plastic surgery presumably undertaken as a permanent disguise. For much of the nineties Carrillo was the undisputed Lord of the Skies, renowned for pioneering the use of Boeing 727’s to transport mountains of cocaine from Colombia to within a few miles of the Texas border. From his base in Ciudad Juárez, he swiftly grew into Mexico’s preeminent drug smuggler, if not the world’s. Carrillo was “the filet mignon” of narcos, says George McNenney, the U.S. Customs chief in El Paso, and he should know: On McNenney’s watch Carrillo managed to fly, drive, trot, and slog more narcotics into the U.S. than any human being alive; one of his tractor-trailers delivered nearly two tons of cocaine to New York earlier this year hidden inside 60,000 pounds of Mexican carrots. “He was a evil genius,” McNenney says.
Yet if people had expected Carrillo’s demise to be celebrated as a sort of Independence Day for the people of Juárez, they badly miscalculated one of the fundamental axioms of his trade. Drug users in the U.S. spend an estimated $49 billion a year to get high. With a demand that voracious, how can the ingenuity to supply it ever be in doubt? The only question is who controls the pipeline. Right now, the Mafias of Mexico are trying to settle that leadership crisis in the most decisive way they know how. “It’s sort of reminiscent of the death of Stalin,” says Sam Ponder, the lead U.S. Attorney in El Paso. “It’s not like they have a constitution or bylaws or elections to help them achieve a peaceful transition of power.” Although officials have identified a few obvious heirs to Carrillo’s throne, neither U.S. nor Mexican authorities can say whether the violence is being generated by external rivalries or in-house ambitions. One theory is that the flashy Arrellano Félix brothers from Tijuana are coming east, muscling in on the Juárez cartel’s turf. Another scenario has Carrillo’s 36-year-old brother, Vicente, or maybe longtime Carrillo confidants Juan José “Blue” Esparragoza Moreno and Eduardo “the Blond” González Quirarte, directing an internal purge—just as Michael Corleone did in the final, operatic scenes of The Godfather.
In either case the brazen nature of the gunplay is a startling departure from Carrillo’s smartly low-key reign. He was famous for buying off, as opposed to knocking off, his presumed enemies, developing an unparalleled degree of “narco-political power,” says Phil Jordan, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dallas office and its El Paso Intelligence Center. For instance, he had close ties to Mexico’s former drug czar, General José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, who was charged with being on Carrillo’s payroll earlier this year—shortly after his U.S. counterpart, General Barry McCaffrey, praised his “impeccable integrity.”
Carrillo, of course, could still be ruthless when it served his purpose. His rise