‘We’re not going to die, are we Dan?’ asked my friend Joe, a CBS radio reporter, shortly before we crossed from El Paso into Juarez, Mexico, murder capital of the world.
‘Nah,’ I replied. ‘Our guide is a priest. It’s a Sunday. The Narcos will respect that.’
I was lying to make him feel better. In February a sacristan in Juarez had been murdered, one of over 1000 drug related slayings in the city so far this year. Elsewhere in Mexico priests had been beaten and butchered: for the cartels, nothing is sacred. And no sooner had we met Father Michael, an 86 year old veteran of World War II, than he assured us his priestly status and the holiness of the day offered no protection: ‘Most killings occur during daylight… and they increase on the weekend.’
Father Michael had lived in Juarez for almost two decades, witnessing the city’s decline from industrial centre/wild party town to post-apocalyptic dystopia, complete with ancient US school buses rattling around Mad Max-style. We toured the rubble: ‘This is where the souvenir stalls used to be; the bars and clubs were here… and this is the red light district.’ A lone prostitute squatted in the bulldozed wreckage, haunted by the ghost of tricks past. God, on the other hand, was thriving: Juarez cathedral holds six masses on a Sunday, each service heaving with sinners both great and small, all of them seeking divine mercy. Suddenly a jeep containing masked men with machine guns zoomed past. ‘The Federales (the Mexican equivalent of the FBI) …’ said Father Michael. ‘President Calderon sent them to end the drug war. I’m from Chicago. I remember Al Capone… prohibition was a disaster.’
Father Michael’s house was located in a dusty, impoverished neighbourhood of adobe dwellings. Inside it was decorated with headshots of ‘martyrs’ of the Latin American regimes he had lived under: the unblinking dead stared down at us from the walls. As an enthusiastic ex-inhabitant of multiple oppressive and lawless states, he well understood the rules of survival and immediately explained what he couldn’t do- criticize the Mexican government. It was open season on the USA however: indeed, he explained, many of Latin America’s problems were the result of ‘oppressive’ US policy. The drug war was absurd; everything should be legalized; Marx had supplied the best analysis of society and history; the ultimate problem facing the world was “the corporations”. ‘The people must take control,’ he explained
Next the Father organized for a few friends to meet us. Among them was ‘Felipe’, a former policeman who railed against Mexican politics. ‘The drug war is a fraud! President Calderon sent in the army to punish one side but not the other! He is the brother-in-law of Chapo Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa cartel!’
‘Is that confirmed?’ I asked.
‘No, but there are many reports…’
The military and the Federales were worse than the cartels, Felipe explained. ‘In the past, if you didn’t cross the Narcos, they left you alone. Once Calderone sent in the army everything changed. The violence destroyed the local economy so people started running protection rackets. They would kidnap you for money. The cartels pay more than the government so corruption is rife. The soldiers have quotas so they arrest people just to fill them. Many simply disappear, never to return. The families don’t know who took them. Was it the Narcos? The Federales? The army? They are too scared to ask. It is chaos.’
Felipe paused. ‘Actually… who are you guys?’
‘I work for CBS radio…’ said Joe.
Felipe turned green. ‘Don’t say my name! Just… I’m a former policeman from the Chihuahua region. That’s all!’
He left, only to return ten minutes later, wild-eyed and pouring with sweat, pleading with us not to reveal his identity. The threat of violence is an immensely effective tool of control: I had never seen this level of terror before, not even travelling in Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s most repressive dictatorship. His fear, too, was contagious- after five hours in Juarez, listening to an endless litany of horrifying stories I was now extremely concerned about the journey back to El Paso. Father Michael had left for Mass, I couldn’t remember the way to the border and neither Joe nor I spoke Spanish. This trip was the stupidest thing I had ever done.
Fortunately Father Michael’s colleague, a 76 year old nun named Sister Peggy had business in El Paso. Rather than take us straight back however, Sister Peggy decided to lead us first through the ‘Valley of Snakes’, a cluster of ramshackle huts and hovels, all of which looked like ideal locations for having your head sawn off by masked men wielding kitchen knives, as is the local custom. Cheerful, spry, and almost entirely desensitized to violence, Sister Peggy told me about her neighbours. ‘Even before the war, there were lots of killings and overdoses here….The people in the house one behind ours, they’ve been killed a few times. The first family that lived there, they got killed over drugs. A relative from Houston came and took over but he was killed too. I’m not sure who’s there now…’
Turning a corner, the death tour continued. ‘A girl was found raped and stabbed over there… And see that bus stop? That’s where a man was stoned to death in front of his son for being an informer …. Just down there local children were playing soccer when killers shot somebody in front of them. The police saw everything, but let them escape.’ Sister Peggy indicated a two storey building across the street: ‘That’s a pharmacy. The owner was kidnapped, and his family were told to pay 100 000 pesos to get him back. They came to me, panicked. They couldn’t go to the police, or the kidnappers would have killed him. They raised the money but I don’t know how…’ The squalid misery of everyday life in Juarez was palpable. ‘You should come back,’ said Sister Peggy. ‘Stay a few days…’
Multitudes of eyes followed us through the Valley of Snakes, albeit less hostile than confused: No outsiders visit Juarez any more: what are these freaks doing here? I was relieved when we reached our bus stop. Stay alive another thirty minutes and I’ll get out of here, I thought, striving to vanish into the shade.
Suddenly a jeep containing black clad Federales turned the corner, heading straight towards us. Extremely nervous, I reflected upon the wisdom of Calderon’s policies. Rights and wrongs of the drug war aside, dressing a bunch of young males like ninjas and handing them machine guns didn’t seem like a good recipe for stability. And indeed, a day later I would learn that 23 people were killed while I was in the city. What would happen if the Federales decided to “disappear” me? Would they care about my foreign passport? I doubted it. I looked at one of the ninjas, wondering: Whose money have you taken? Who have you killed?
To my horror, Sister Peggy raised her arm and waved.
‘They’re just boys, really. They have mothers too…’
Beaming, the kid lifted a hand from his assault rifle and waved back.
Originally published in The Spectator, 25th September 2010