Ciudad Juárez, the sprawling, industrial border city where Pope Francis ended his six-day, five-city tour of Mexico last week, is the city that first opened my eyes and broke my heart.
In 2003, I visited Juárez, on the border with El Paso, Texas, to write about the infamous spate of sexual killings of impoverished young women. Standing in the corner of the cinder-block home of a woman named Irma Monreal, I stood frozen in place as she described her fifteen-year-old daughter Esmeralda’s disappearance, the agonizing wait for answers, and the shock and grief when her disfigured body was found dumped with seven others in an abandoned cotton field in the middle of the city. “It’s something you’ll never understand,” she said through heavy sobs, unable to describe her agony in words. It was my first taste of the depth of suffering that befalls this seemingly tragic place again and again.
Growing up in an impoverished Texas border community myself, I wasn’t unaware of the realities of inequality and social marginalization. But Juárez taught me the direct relationship between power and suffering—one of Pope Francis’s great themes. It taught me that tragedy, poverty, and powerlessness are all intertwined: the more poor and powerless you are, the more vulnerable you are to things going badly in your life.
Juárez as it exists today is an American idea. In the mid-1960s, after the United States deported Mexican guest workers it hired during World War II, Mexico found itself with an oversupply of unemployed males. American business consultants helped the government design a plan that would attract foreign-owned manufacturers to the border in exchange for cheap labor and no tariffs or duties charged on their imported equipment or exported products. The Border Industrialization Program, NAFTA’s precursor, had buses rumbling to Mexico’s heartland and returning with workers who were ready to take part in this new promised land. But they came only as that: workers. Neither the Mexican government nor the maquiladoras—most of them American—took care to properly plan and develop Juárez or attend to its social and educational needs.
It was an experiment in sheer capitalism with no buttressing support system. It created a savage inequality that yielded its detritus in the form of human life. Government corruption and impunity, combined with the unfettered, relentless drive for financial advantage, produced a successful business model and a human and social disaster. Given its location next to the United States, both licit and illicit goods gain a high value when they cross the international border, so the system also bred a parallel universe of organized crime despite heavy policing at all three levels of government.
Ironically, the more the United States has fortified the border, the more violent it’s turned, as territorial conflicts create higher stakes. Noam Chomsky once called Juárez “the laboratory of our future.”
Then things turned worse: a dispute over drug markets began in 2008 with the systematic killing of police commanders and ended four years later with more than 10,000 lives lost, making Juárez the so-called “murder capital of the world.” In 2010, in the same prison where Pope Francis met with male and female inmates last Wednesday, I spoke with a 24-year-old young man named Benjamín, who described how uniformed soldiers had taken him from his home and tortured him for hours in a safe house, beating him with two by fours; applying electrical shocks all over his body, including his tongue and genitals; and giving him drinking water that eventually made his insides bleed, which led doctors to suspect it was laced with acid. The army dumped him in prison with false drug and weapons charges, presumably to boost its operation’s numbers. Some of their other victims simply never reappeared.
Death was everywhere those days, and it left a multiplying effect among families and the community. There is less murder in Juárez now, but the social and psychological fractures it produced will be seen for years to come, and perhaps for a whole generation. The city’s original problems have not gone away, either. In December, some 120 workers were fired from a maquiladora where they made printer cartridges for Kentucky-based company Lexmark, after they tried to unionize and demanded a 35-cent-per-day raise on their roughly $32 weekly salary. As juarenses walked to the Papal Mass last Wednesday, they crossed boulevards with government banners on overpasses that announced the latest young women to go missing.
The news of Pope Francis’s visit brought tremendous hope and joy to the city. No doubt the pope understood the symbolic power of his trip, intended to simulate the migration journey north. His day-long stay in Juárez focused on some of the most marginalized groups in society: prisoners, laborers, and migrants. He had witnessed the plight and soul of Mexico’s indigenous peoples in the south, and the traces left by drug trafficking and illegal migration throughout the country. But he knew he was now coming to the epicenter of suffering. The message was not about the suffering itself, but about the structures that produce it—specifically, his now-familiar critique of economic liberalism.
His first stop at the Cereso prison in the city’s far south was a striking image: Rows of men and women stood like soldiers in rank, heads bowed and dressed in the same dehumanizing uniform of gray sweatshirts and pants. “We’ve lost several decades thinking and believing that everything is resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating, brushing off our issues, thinking these measures really solve the problem,” Pope Francis told them in Spanish, his native language. “The Divine Mercy reminds us that prisons are a symptom of how we are doing as a society, they are a symptom in many cases of silences, of omissions that have produced a culture of disposability. They are a symptom of a culture that has stopped betting on life; of a society that slowly has abandoned its children.”
At a gathering next with representatives of labor unions and the business class, his smiles were big and welcoming, but the directive stern: “I wanted to meet with you here in Juárez because of the special relationship this city has with the world of work . . . The reigning mentality puts the flow of people at the service of the flow of capital, provoking in many cases the exploitation of workers as though they were objects to use and discard.” The shared responsibility of unions and employers, he said, was to “generate spaces of work that is dignified and truly useful to society, and especially to the youth of this country.”
The Mass, held on the former fairgrounds of a park along the border, which is marked by the Rio Grande River, was the long-awaited event, and would be a binational celebration—Mexican and Central American migrants stranded on the American side were invited to watch and listen through the border fence, and tens of thousands more people, whom the pope directly acknowledged, watched via satellite from the stadium of the University of Texas at El Paso.
For the 200,000 people who attended the Mass in Juárez, the wait lasted as long as eight hours. More than half of the attendees, the ones closer to the stage, had no seats or shade—they just stood in a slight breeze under the desert sun or sat on the dirt, shielding their heads and backs with extra shirts, hoodies, pieces of cardboard. Emergency response groups attended to dozens of people suffering from heat stroke.
But the crowd rose and cheered as news of the pope’s arrival spread. When they spotted the white popemobile, they jumped up and down and waved at the messenger of peace and recorded with their cell phones as some embraced each other with visible emotion. His energy was magnetic and palpable.
The Mass itself was more solemn and muted than those held in the four other cities the pope visited. There were no colorful cobblestone plazas or sizeable indigenous communities in beautiful native dress; in Juárez there was only dirt and hope. A hope that coexists with the aftershocks of violence the city is still working through. Before starting the service, the pope walked up a ramp on the river to a monument of three crosses memorializing those who’ve died trying to make it to the United States. The spectators in two countries grew quiet and prayed with him.
The first reading in the Mass and Pope Francis’ homily highlighted the biblical story of Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire that was briefly the world’s largest city, until it began to consume itself. “The great capital had its days numbered, since the violence it had generated was unsustainable,” Pope Francis said. God sent the prophet Jonah as his witness and messenger. “Go, he told him, because within forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed. Go help them to understand that with that way of treating each other, regulating and organizing themselves, all they are producing is death and destruction, suffering and oppression. Make them see that there is no life for anyone . . . Go and tell them that they’ve become so used to the degradation that they’ve lost their sensibility to suffering. Go and tell them about the injustice that has settled into their gaze.”
“God’s mercy,” he said, “entered into their hearts revealing and manifesting what is now our certitude and our hope: There is always a possibility of change. There’s still time to react and transform, modify and change, convert what is destroying us as a society, what is degrading our humanity.”
Mexico was Pope Francis’s twelfth Apostolic Journey, and he was visibly moved and marked by it. “Mexico is a surprise,” he said as he closed the Mass in Juárez. “I can assure you, there were moments when I felt like crying, to see so much hope in a society that has been so hurt.”
Ciudad Juárez responded with the same emotion. “You have looked at us with tenderness,” Bishop Guadalupe Torres Campo told him. “You’ve shown interest in us. Today, with your paternal presence, we feel blessed and accompanied by Crist, the Good Samaritan, who has stopped to heal his people.”
Whether the message will endure or even communicate to the Mexican or American governments, both of which are caught up in campaigns defending themselves, is to be seen. Mexico’s treasure is indeed the resilience and faith of its people—an enduring faith in the possibility of something perhaps still indiscernible, but better. For a brief, fleeting moment during Pope Francis’ visit to the border, it was possible to imagine that such goodness could be real.