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 to power in 1993—after the cartel’s previous chief was gunned down in a Cancún restaurant—was marked by 27 executions in Juárez. Then, during one month in late 1994, as Carrillo consolidated power, the Diario de Juárez reported that 38 people had been “disappeared.” Earlier this year, even before Carrillo’s death, the paper counted at least a dozen drug slayings. If the numbers sound extraordinary—and no doubt would be in most American cities—they had become little more than background noise in Juárez. “It was always about the narcos getting rid of their own,” one Juárez reporter explained to me. “The public never saw blood.”

Certainly the public never saw anything like the August 3 massacre at Max Fim, a showy night spot topped by a red pyramid on Juárez’s most Americanized thoroughfare. The place was packed with a festive crowd from the bullfights, a Sunday tradition for the city’s see-and-be-seen set. Among the diners that night was Alfonso Corral Olaguez, a reputed member of the Herrera clan in Durango, an old-time smuggling family that had schooled Carrillo early in his career. Without warning, two well-dressed men walked in and aimed their assault rifles at Corral’s table.

A hundred bullets is a fearsome thing, neither discreet nor precise. They struck two targets, Corral and a bodyguard. But they also hit Teresa Elida Herrera Rey, a 26-year-old socialite who had gone to the fights with several girlfriends and was swayed enough by Corral’s charms to join him afterward at Max Fim. As another bodyguard ran for cover, the assailants followed him in their sights, but by mistake they mowed down David Ramírez Rojas and María Eugenia Martínez Joo, two young sweethearts from humble backgrounds who had decided to splurge on a birthday dinner. As the gunmen headed for their getaway car, they unleashed one last burst of lead, killing a top Juárez prison official who had heard the chaos from outside and was running over to lend his help. A newspaper editorial quoted a lyric from the great Mexican folk singer, José Alfredo Jiménez: “La vida no vale nada.” Life’s worth nothing.

Three weeks later, scores were still being settled. A gun battle erupted between two cars, one of them driven by attorney Ricardo Prado Reynal, a partner in Max Fim. He was critically injured but managed to survive and pop off a few rounds himself, wounding one of his assailants. Later that day the wounded assailant sought medical help, persuading four respected physicians from the Guernika and San Rafael hospitals to pay him a house call. There is no indication that the doctors—an orthopedist, a urologist, an anesthesiologist, and, oddly, a gynecologist—had any idea whom they were treating. The next day their bodies were found piled atop one another; the marks around their necks suggested asphyxiation, as if choked by a belt or a towel. “Juárez is a very violent place—a cauldron of criminal and social problems—and we have to respect that,” says Jaime Bailleres, one of Juárez’s legendary street photographers, who has chronicled hundreds of murders. “But that’s only a partial vision of the truth. It’s also a very vital place, a place of opportunity. To understand Juárez, you have to demystify the violence.”

A good starting point is about three hundred years ago, when Ciudad Juárez was the original El Paso, and Texas did not yet exist. To be precise, Juárez was El Paso del Norte, the Pass of the North, a transit point for travelers and merchandise headed across the Rio Grande. Over the years, names were swapped, but not Juárez’s geographic fortune. It is a city that was created by traffic—first conquistadores and missionaries, then cattle and tequila, later drugs and migrants, and more recently, eighteen-wheelers and maquiladora-assembled appliances.

The hope that some of that commerce might rub off, or propel them even farther north, has lured hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to Juárez from the nation’s impoverished heartland. Their sprawling colonias built from cardboard and tin keep stretching the city’s boundaries and swelling its population to a number that cannot be calculated—1 million? 1.5 million? 2 million?—but is said to make Juárez the largest sea of humanity on any international frontier. Those who are lucky earn $5 a day in the foreign-owned plants. Others beg on the streets or at noisy topless bars named for distant dreams: the Hollywood, the Las Vegas, the Hawaiian. Alarmed by what is heading their way, U.S. authorities try to push back, to “hold the line,” as the Border Patrol’s El Paso strategy is called—a move that succeeds largely in increasing the value of what can be smuggled across. “Juárez is a sandwich,” says Astrid González Dávila, the president of Comité Ciudadano de Lucha Contra la Violencia, a citizens’ committee against violence. She does not deliver the punch line, but it goes something like this: “And we are the baloney.” Under pressure from both sides, Juárez’s infrastructure has crumbled, its institutions riddled with corruption. The police make laughably little progress in solving any of the drug killings; indeed, they appear complicit in more than a few. Despair, even when dulled by alcohol, flows freely. Tucson writer Charles Bowden, who is working on a book about Juárez, calls it a “city of sleepwalkers.”

And so I took it as quite a civic achievement when, during the hottest part of a 95-degree day in August, some one thousand protesters filed into the streets, a silent procession in the name of peace. Relatives of the most recent victims led the way, the faces of surviving loved ones cradled in their arms. The wife of Dr. Javier Quintero Heredia, whose body had been discovered the day before, cried until her lipstick was smeared. “The narcos won’t hear us,” said Father José René Blanco, who guided the marchers from Borunda Park, down the Avenida 16 de Septiembre, to the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, “but maybe God will.”

Later that evening, my final night in Juárez, I walked up to the apartment of Carmen Lupe Joo de Martínez, whose 27-year-old daughter, María Eugenia, had been among the Max Fim victims. I wanted to know whether she shared Father Blanco’s faith, whether the public show of outrage had done anything to assuage her pain. Before she would consent to an interview, however, she had one condition—a favor, really, which I was asked to grant without knowing what it would entail. I said I would try to oblige. She led me to the kitchen, where I was left in the care of Leticia Jaguez, a family friend and an evangelical healer, who promised to inoculate me with a dose of what she called her spiritual medicine.

“Close your eyes,” Leticia said. “Open your palms.”

I looked for a graceful exit, but it was too late. Jaguez moved close to me, holding my wrists tight, using the tips of her fingers to rub in a few drops of holy oil squeezed from a plastic vial. I tried to peek, but she was just inches from my face, her breath a hot rush of mumblings about my lost soul and God’s infinite power. At last she stuck a hand on my forehead and gave a pretty solid push—the signal for me to collapse under the Almighty’s weight. I had to take a step backward just to keep from being toppled.

If Carmen was disappointed by my resistance, she did not look surprised. Back on the living room couch, next to a candle that burned for her absent daughter, she answered almost all of my questions with the same response:

“We live in a culture of death.”

“We have ears, but we cannot hear.”

“We have eyes, but we cannot see.”

“We are the living dead.”

“We are the living dead.”

“We are the living dead.”

Jesse Katz is the Houston bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.