Baghdad, Mexico

It’s time we saw El Paso’s sister city for what it is—a war zone.
Baghdad, Mexico
YEAR OF THE DEAD: The casualties in Juárez in 2008 exceeded the number of U.S. troops killed in the bloodiest year of the Iraq war.
Illustration by David Hollenbach

A story about Juárez made the rounds in El Paso last summer. Surrounded by guards, a well-dressed, impeccably polite man enters a restaurant. He apologizes as the guards round up cell phones and cameras. No one is allowed to get up as the man sits and eats. When he leaves, he apologizes again and pays the tab for everyone. The man is said to be Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel.

This is an urban legend. No one who tells it was there. I’ve heard it several times from people who said a friend of a friend heard it from a firsthand source. Also, the story has likely been told elsewhere about other outlaws. Versions of this story were probably told in Al Capone’s Chicago.

Here’s something that is true: Last year in Juárez, more than 1,300 people were murdered. That number includes at least 8 people killed during a prayer meeting at a rehabilitation center in August, where the machine gun fire lasted fifteen minutes and eyewitnesses reported that soldiers parked nearby did nothing; 4 men gunned down in October at an amusement park filled with civilians; and in November, a headless body hung from an overpass, a burned, headless, handless body dumped on the sidewalk in front of a police station, and 16 people killed in a single day, including 7 executed beside a school’s soccer field. Yet only a handful of people have been brought before a judge for any of these crimes.

The legend and the truth combine to explain something fundamental about what is happening in Juárez, a city with an international reputation for cheap labor, murdered women, and drug cartels. There is a total breakdown in civil order. To put the death toll in context, in 2007, the bloodiest year of the Iraq war, 904 U.S. servicemen and -women were killed. As in Baghdad or Ramadi or Fallujah, the violence in Juárez has spared no one. Almost everybody I know who lives or does business across the river has a story about a crime he or she experienced, a relative who was kidnapped or a friend who was carjacked. A friend of the family told my uncle that one of her relatives was killed but that, to prevent reprisals, police advised her not to report it as a murder.

No one is sure what to believe or who is in charge. Well, that’s not entirely true. Whoever has a gun trained on you is in charge. In a city where the law holds no sway, this raw exercise of power provides at least an illusion of order. For example, other than the cartels, the military has the firepower. When Mexican president Felipe Calderón sent 2,500 troops into northern Mexico to help keep order and clean up the corrupt police forces, the public reaction could be summed up in two ways. One was fear of yet another group of armed men acting with impunity. The other was a shrug. Many people have the understanding that the military, or at least elements of the military, is involved in the violence. According to one theory, the troops are in Juárez to help Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel finish off the Juárez cartel.

That might be the only way order can be restored. Not to stop the drug trade, a ridiculous idea, but to at least get the business back to where most of the killing takes place among those involved in the trafficking.

Juárez has always been a rough town, and bodies rolled in blankets in the desert or stuffed in car trunks are part of the local business. So is an occasional outburst of public violence, as in the rash of killings following the 1997 death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the man who took the Juárez cartel to the peak of its power and perished in a Mexico City operating room while undergoing plastic surgery to alter his facial appearance.

But nothing like these new killings in my 25 years in El Paso. Perhaps nothing like this since the Mexican Revolution.

Those on the inside saw it coming. In May, when the explosion of violence was still relatively fresh, an e-mail circulated among some Department of Homeland Security officials citing a bleak Drug Enforcement Administration report that predicted that “the situation in Juarez will be very bad for at least 6-8 months.” The e-mail was part of a string that also included information about a Mexican police officer seeking asylum because “the Cartel/Narcos have announced to everyone that this coming Saturday, May 24, 2008, there will be a lot of dead police officers and it’s going to get very bloody in Cd. Juarez.”

I used to have a talk radio show here in El Paso, and when the violence began, I said that it was nothing for civilians to get worked up about. It was just a battle among violent businessmen that would sort itself out, as it had before. One day, a caller berated me for putting my head in the sand, arguing that the violence would spill over to El Paso. It has not, although dozens of victims have been treated at El Paso’s Thomason Hospital, and there were reports in August that the cartels had sanctioned killings in the U.S. But from the relative safety of El Paso, I can see that less than a mile as the crow flies from where I live, something terrible has happened to Juárez.

Juárez and El Paso are twins, bound by a river. The Rio Grande does more than define a boundary here. In fact, this crease in the rocks where the water turns from south to southeast is not so much a boundary as an axis, a point where roads come together and deals are made. Goods naturally move through such transfer points—counterfeit toys, cigarettes, meat, avocados, toilet paper, purses, auto parts, furniture, coupons, medicines. Not to mention cheap pot, cocaine, even meth.

The passage of men and products through this axis goes back as far as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal

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