The interior of the school bus is awash in blue light, lumbering through the Villa Esperanza neighborhood on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on a chilly November evening. Tinny rap music in Spanish plays on a cell phone. The kids ride the bus in their uniforms: white polo shirts with green collars and khakis. The guys favor lots of gel; the girls, ponytails. Most students will have walked home from school in the dark, which is often when things go wrong. We are in Km 29, which is Artistas Asesinos territory, a street gang aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel.
The bus leaves the paved highway and rumbles over hard dirt roads in the desert. It’s a slow ride. A girl gets off the bus and picks her way over the uneven dirt beside the road. The bus driver turns off the lights, plunging the landscape into darkness but for the glow of Juárez. When he turns the lights back on, she is running.
You accept the evil here in faith. Faith, after all, is belief in the unseen. It’s the opposite of hope but the same muscle. You don’t see it, but you know it’s there. We eat tacos al pastor later that evening, back in the city. We hear war stories. A friend mimics the bang bang of shooting, making a rifle with his hands. A patron behind me, waiting for his takeout, wears a gun on his hip. The restaurant is half full, and our waiter becomes inattentive, hurrying to another table. Our friend realizes that seated at the table behind us are members of a local cartel comprising dirty cops, La Linea. The patron waiting on his takeout is a state cop. In the Juárez of yesterday, this might have lead to a restaurant littered with dead bodies. Cuidad Juárez is changing.
The drug war in Juárez saw some 10,000 men, women, and children die since 2007 — 359 homicides reported in October 2010 alone — a disproportionate chunk of the nearly 60,000 reported for the rest of the country. At stake: access to the American market, worth close to $40 billion. That money, and the violence that inevitably comes with it, moves beyond class boundaries — society itself fell apart over the past six years here. Extreme violence became totally normal, a fact of everyday life.
Throughout the war, cartels actively recruited young people. Teenagers — Los Ninis (ni estudian ni trabajan, neither work nor study) — were the most vulnerable, some drawn to quick money and status. And now it’s considered done. Some credit could go to former President Felipe Calderón’s Todos Somos Juárez’s program (We Are All Juárez), introduced in 2010. The federal government invested $263 million in 2010 and $138 in 2011. Security ate up 18% of the money, the rest being pushed to other areas like health, education, and social development. The results, on paper, are impressive, though flawed. Some feel the cessation of violence has more to do with the Sinaloa cartel winning the war or the combatants merely taking a breather. Regardless, as of last year, Juárez is no longer the world’s murder capital, a distinction passed on to San Pedro Sula, Honduras; now it’s No. 19.
Juárez struggles to provide for its 1.5 million residents, and nowhere will its failings be more evident in the future than in schools and the next generation of young people, who came of age during the drug wars and don’t know much else. The system meant to look out for them is broken, but, amazingly, they — and the adults charged with looking after them — are not.
There is what Colegio de Estudios Científicos y Tecnológicos (CECyT) principal Elsa Hernandez Gonzalez, 45, a slight woman with dirty blonde hair and copper lipstick, called “an infrastructure problem.”
CECyT 14 is home to some 200 students and consists mainly of portables and one actual classroom. The water comes from cisterns. The facility is shared — one school uses it in the morning, and CECyT 14 has the less than enviable afternoon shift. It’s dark by the time the 200 students leave school. Most of them will walk home. When they’re gone, a staff member will lock the gates.
A teacher for 23 years, Elsa had just spent two years working in a government office before choosing to return to school, a testing grounds for the future of the city and the country. While we were in Juárez, she’d learned CECyT 14 had been given land on which it could build its own school, potentially up and operational within a year. Her students will, as they do now, include both drug dealers and victims.
The school system in Ciudad Juárez is but another front in the war on not just drugs, but the fatalism that permits the industry to flourish. To that end, Elsa is a principal and counselor and administrator and conduit for love and surrogate parent, essentially the true tip of the spear in the war on drugs. “They see this like a salvation,” she says of her students. “For them we’re like a hope.”
Sept. 3 was Elsa’s first day back to school. That afternoon, a single student wearing a nice jacket amid a sea of green and white and khaki caught her attention. She wasn’t the only one who noticed it — after school, a few Artistas Asesinos jumped the student while he was walking home, beating him in the sand. Alerted to the assault, Elsa had a colleague drive her to the scene. When she got there, she went straight to the heavily tattooed gang member who looked to be in charge and confronted him. He claimed the student stole the jacket. She turned on the student: “Tell me if you stole this jacket,” she said, “because if you did steal this jacket, then we have a problem.” The student admitted he had. Elsa turned to the gang member and told him that killing a student would shut down her school, and that if the school was shut down, the hope of the gang member’s brothers and sisters, of others like the boy he’d been, would disappear. “I need the opportunity to give them a chance to have what you didn’t.” The gang member softened. He hugged her and promised his protection. “I don’t want your protection,” she said. “I just want to do my job.”
Her second day wasn’t an improvement: Elsa got a call at home telling her the state police were there to arrest a student named Daniel, who had allegedly participated in the murder of a boy — they had cut off his ear and burned him alive. She insisted the police wait for her and rushed to the school. She looked over the arrest order and had the heavily armed officers wait further while Daniel’s father was notified. The victim’s ear was later found in a classmate’s bag.
Daniel’s sister, also a student at the school, called her brother in prison. “He wanted to know what I did,” Elsa says. A message was given to her: “Tell the director we’re sending someone to kill her.” The school was closed for three days.
The following day, the boy’s father, upset, returned to the school asking for his son’s inscription fee back. “He wanted to know why I didn’t let him know so he could sneak the kid out a back door,” she says. “I gave him a hug and said, ‘I will cry for Daniel and the love of God is big.’” The father returned the hug.
One morning, we stop for burritos, washing them down with Mexican Coke, still made with cane sugar. We buy a copy of El PM, a daily tabloid nicknamed the Carnicería (meat market), a sort of collective memory of the drug war. “!Macabarón!” the front page announces, a play on the words “macabre” and “cabrón,” Spanish for “bastard.” Twenty bodies were pulled out of a clandestine mass grave, or narcofosa, the day before. The likelihood that their killers will be found and prosecuted is slim — 97% of murders go unsolved in Juárez. A photo of the bodies and the pit takes up two-thirds of the front page. A blonde in her bra and panties fills the remaining space.
There is both nihilism and hope in the normalcy of routine. Of pattern. Even in spite of the economic climate, there is hope in going to school. There may not be hope in reading the newspaper, a daily affirmation of the cheapness of life, but as long as you can learn, can change, then perhaps there is hope.
Sandra Lechuga Granados, 22, lives a block away from school. It’s her first year at CECyT 14 — and her first back after years out of school. It hasn’t been easy returning at her age; most of her classmates are 16 or 17. Her home is furnished modestly: a large sofa, a TV and satellite box, polished concrete floors. A toy gun rests on the counter beside a pumpkin and a water cooler, a Bible sits open to the Psalms, King David’s cries out to God. It’s another bright day in the late fall, and the desert is chilly, as is the house. Spending time away from her 1-year-old son Ulysses Matteo has been trying.
“Before I’d started school, we’d never been separated,” Sandra says. “I went a whole week without seeing him.” Today he tumbles around the house with a runny nose, making growling noises.
Two months ago, Sandra “saw a kid get killed,” she says softly. “The bullets were close. I didn’t want to go anywhere.” It underscored a point made years earlier: On Jan. 30, 2010, some 20 gunmen secured a block in Villas de Salvarcar. They walked into a birthday party and killed 15 people, one of whom was her husband’s cousin. The victims were mostly student athletes. (The massacre would force the state to acknowledge the violence and prompt Calderón to start Todos Somos Juárez.) Sandra knows violence can touch her, yet she continues to attend classes, having her husband drive her the short distance to school. She isn’t blind to the state’s failures. “People know who the criminals are here,” she says. “When they report it, nothing’s done.”
School is nominally free in Mexico; however, there are inscription or registration fees. CECyT 14 is considered one of the cheaper schools. Sandra and her brother split the fee of 950 pesos, or some $75, every six months. Uniforms are extra.
As we talk, Sandra pulls out her tests — an experiment in recycling, the pages colored with pencil crayon. These are the things within her control. “I’d like to go to university and I’d like to study medicine,” she says. By March, looking after her son will force her to drop out of school. She plans to return in August.
I meet Tania Lucia Gonzalez Ortiz at a youth center. There are Christmas decorations on the walls, and two teenagers are practicing breakdancing while their friends sit outside, most of them smoking. While her friends wear tight jeans and baseball hats, favoring a style informed by skateboarding, hip-hop, and emo, Tania’s presence seems almost out of place — pretty and preppy. She lives on the west side of the city in the Ordaz Diaz neighborhood, in the shadow of Sierra Juárez where stones painted in giant white capital letters say “CD JUAREZ LA BIBLIA ES LA VERDAD LEELA” — translating to “Juarez, the Bible is the truth, read it.”
At the height of the drug war, the cartels recruited gangs, and the gangs turned to the Ninis, using some of them as their talent pool. To be young then was to be a suspect. Every kid knows another kid who’s killed someone. And the drug trade spread through the barrios, the gangs preying upon themselves. Tania, like most of her friends, is a Nini. At 17 and out of school for two years, dropping out when her family could not afford the fees, she’s unable to work or return to school, caught in an at-risk limbo. “No payment, no diploma,” she says. Mexican law is quirky enough to protect minors while also hindering their progress — children over 14 may work, though requirements are strict. Tania, for example, could work at 17 if she’d graduated from high school and had a medical certificate, but she hasn’t been in school since she was 14.
A few days later, we meet at her family’s home, cumbia playing in the background. Around the house there are doodles of flowers, of logos for skateboard clothing companies like Volcom and DC. Tania spends most of her time inside, her mother doing her best to keep her away from that world, though they live in the middle of it. “I’ve been thinking about making bracelets I can sell, and maybe if I’m smart enough, make some paintings I can sell,” she says. “I’m not sure, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do anything with my life.” Her father, Rogelio, is silent, watching, his elbows resting on his knees. He’s worked all day in a maquila making parts for Harley-Davidson. His wife is at work. Guarding Tania is their other full-time job.
It’s a 45-minute ride on public transit from Tania’s house to the closest school. I walk the neighborhood with Lidia, a former social worker and mother of one of Tania’s friends. She knows the minutia of the community, what girls like Tania and her peers face. There are drugs and boredom, violence and history.
Lidia points out a house where a friend was killed, a gully where another was killed, a corner where she and her daughter were robbed. The neighborhood is full of ghosts. Up on the mountain they used to dump bodies behind a water tank, she says. There are lights there now. These things are more real than the promise of school or the possibility of a future outside of the neighborhood. “It’s all illogical,” she says, “the violence, the peace.”
There is also a beautiful new park complex nearby. A product of Todos Somos Juárez, it’s impressive, polished, and stands out in the neighborhood, a centerpiece of light in the darkness. Men play soccer on a field sitting above common areas, a few couples walk on the paths. There is AstroTurf and freshly painted walls and floodlights bathing the ground in light. Bars on railings are missing; it’s not uncommon for people in the community to take them for their own property. In my time in the neighborhood I never see the Ninis use the park. They cluster in a friend’s unfinished room playing handball, watching a friend skateboard, and passing around a pipe smoking weed.
A recent Human Rights Watch report documents 249 disappearances during the War on Drugs; 149 are believed to have been committed by people employed by the state. The true number of those who’ve disappeared, the report says, is likely much, much higher. The disappearances continue.
We meet Alma, 39, and her mother, Simone (their names have been changed at their request), 64, in a small bungalow in one of Juárez’s older neighborhoods. Shoes hang from power lines, gang graffiti and Bible verses compete for space on the walls. They’re searching for Alma’s son, 20-year-old Mario Alberto Salmeron Rangel, who was raised by Simone and hasn’t been seen since Nov. 16 — eight days ago. They pull out photos of him. He has two tattoos: a marijuana leaf and the word “gone.” He smiles at graduation, between his parents. In another, he’s Photoshopped into Jesus’ heart. They’ve searched for him everywhere they can think of: down by the river along the border where many homeless people live, the various rehabs around the city, abandoned houses. They’ve called the prisons, the hospitals. At 15, he started smoking weed and huffing agua celeste, the street name for tannery chemicals, popular for its low price. His mother and grandmother put him in rehab, but took him out when she realized he was being beaten, in what seemed to be part of the get-clean regimen. He went from winning a chess championship at school to being vacant. Mario wasn’t in a gang, Simone says, “he was in his own universe.”
“It’d be like if we were sitting here, he’d smile, but he wasn’t smiling at us — he was smiling to himself,” Alma says. We push the photos of Mario around on the table. His story isn’t uncommon. Ninis are the logical albeit extreme version of the young and restless — in Juárez it’s still possible to disappear into the ether. The women occasionally lapse into speaking of him in the past tense.
Seven children watch TV in the next room. “The ugly thing in this world is the not knowing, the hoping, the waiting,” Simone says. “It’s the thing that makes you crazy all night.” Their dachshund, Daisy, wanders into the room and barks. Alma and Simone cry. “The horrible things you’ve seen here, what can you think?” Simone asks. “We read the newspapers.” A few months later Mario returns home. He’d been arrested and detained for two and a half months for crossing the border illegally into El Paso. Alma puts him in rehab.
The offices of El PM and El Diario are nearly barren. Back issues of the papers are an encyclopedia of human suffering, of bodies dumped facedown in parking lots, of severed heads left next to a curb, of bodies hanging from lamp posts, a man with a hole in his head facedown in his plate of carnitas. There is a persistent belief in Ciudad Juárez that one of the cartels, in a frustrated boast, painted a wall in the city saying, “There’s No One Left to Kill,” but there is no photo of the sign. The images, which once appeared at a close to daily rate, are overwhelming. They suggest that while the living still walk, the various forces have done their best to kill everyone. (In early March a group of armed men, masked, shot up the entrance of El Diario.)
For months, Ciudad Juárez existed in a limbo: With President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party voted into power last summer, the fate of Todos Somos Juárez was in doubt. We go to the Federal Police building in an anonymous industrial park in Juárez. Inside the Mesa de Seguridad, the Safety Board discuss the victories of Todos Somos Juárez. Charts of statistics are flashed on LCD screens. A journalist sitting at the back of the room mimes fellating an imaginary partner. While there has been a notable drop in violence, a year or so out from having the highest murder rate in the world doesn’t exactly give Juárez first-world status like El Paso, a world and stone’s throw away.
Everyone in Juárez knows someone who’s been touched by the drug war. A journalist at the back of the room has a relative who was beaten by the police. We follow him across town to a quiet suburb where children play in the street, mothers push a baby buggy. His relative, Daniel Hernández Favero, a short, slim man with close-cropped hair, meets us at the front gate. A grandmother and two mothers sit in the dirt yard. Their children play on wooden steps. The women watch us warily as we go into the house.
Daniel, 50, is missing most of his teeth. He holds his bottom row and moves it back and forth. The remaining teeth will soon be pulled. A few short weeks ago the general laborer had all of his teeth, before the police came.
“I was sleeping,” Daniel says. “One came and put a plastic bag on my head. I felt something in my stomach. They held my mouth and kicked me in the stomach. ‘You have 15 kilos of marijuana,’ one told me.” He talks for five minutes before the women, agitated, ask him to leave. He continues to receive death threats and his presence marks them too. Daniel sits in the middle of the backseat, obscuring himself from view, on the drive to another home. A car pulls out from the alley as we near the front of the house. The young men in the tan American car watch while our friend executes a five-point turn in the narrow street. Young men in a nice car in a poor neighborhood is a bad sign. The young men stare as they pass.
Sitting in the kitchen of the second home, Daniel finishes his story. “They put a second bag on and plugged my nose and kept kneeing me in the ribs. I felt really bad, didn’t know what to do.” The police took him to the basement. “They took the bags off my eyes and I saw the drills. There was five more (police) looking for marijuana. ‘We’re not finding anything,’ one cop said. They tied me to a window. I was calling for my sister.” Police told him a neighbor had tipped them off, and they threatened to kill him while continuing to beat him. They put another bag over his head. “They plugged my nose, they took off my socks and put my socks in my mouth and beat on my stomach, tightening the bags,” Favero says, crying.
No weed was found. When they were done, they drove him away and threw him out of the car and down a hill. There were hospital visits and a public interview with journalists. A photo shows his head swollen, unrecognizable. The story is reported as police getting the wrong house. “My entire life has become ugly,” he says. “My sister doesn’t want me here.” Daniel is planning to leave Juárez and hopes the death threats will stop. He doesn’t appear to have anything other than a dwindling number of friends. What’s certain is that Favero and his family are scared. Material items indicating any success with drug dealing are nonexistent. The municipal police haven’t been investigated. This is routine. You are beaten and almost killed and the state doesn’t blink.
Gustavo de la Rosa, the Chihuahua state human rights investigator, lives close to Costco. Not long ago he had 12 bodyguards, but today he has none, and his home’s front gate and door are left open. Inside, the light green cement walls are adorned with a painting of Christ with “Viva La Paz” written on it beside a framed photo of Al Pacino as Scarface. Sitting in his bedroom, phones hanging from a string on either side of his neck, the 65-year-old isn’t surprised by Daniel Favero’s story or the story of missing Mario Rangel. With all the players in Juárez, it could be anyone, including the state itself. “The pain of the citizens is that the one sector that has most violence is the municipal police. We have confirmed that this year the municipal police have 127,000 detainees. This is 10% of the population,” he says. “The real cartel in Juárez is the police.”
De la Rosa says he believes that Todos Somos Juárez, which he calls an extreme social experiment, will be cancelled. There were victories: A reported extra 14,500 scholarships were given in Juárez (around 1,500 new students enrolled), and the murder rate dropped. Days later, Nieto indeed canceled the program. It remains less clear, though, if this will simply mean programs will continue with different names and similar funding.
And there is a peace in Juárez: People are out eating in restaurants, drinking in bars. A girl can punch another girl in the head for going out with her ex and it can be just that, not a prelude to a bloodbath. What no one can know is if the peace is real, lasting. “Just like [the] first World War was preparation for the second World War, the peace has come because they’ve exterminated each other,” says de la Rosa. “And the 5,000 in jail, these people could be the reserves for the second gang war. I hope it’s not like that.”
This drug war has seen the United States contemplate going into Mexico with its army, and place Forward Operating Bases, the same type of bases which have dotted Iraq and Afghanistan, in Honduras. It’s seen every idea short of an approach which would acknowledge that its religious belief in capitalism, whereby supply and demand are commandments, is clearly a major force at work. There is little left to do but address the fact that America is but a gaping hole with a growing demand for intoxicants.
The cost of living in Juárez is as much as 90% of what it is across the border in El Paso, minus the well-paying jobs, and rule of law. This is the impotence of the Mexican state sitting next to its biggest customer.
Elsa sits in her office — it’s quiet while the students are in class. There’s a theme running through each of her stories. Whether dealing with a confrontation with a gang member or a father who might be stirred to revenge, she handled herself with equanimity. Each situation ended with a hug. A similar story, where municipal police robbed a student, stripping his car of anything of value, was not. “You can’t trust the police; they’re often part of the problem,” she says.
Her response, her closing hug, is indicative of a larger motivation. She says, “Here I go with love and vocation.” Vocation, in Christian theology, is acting on calling, the idea that one is created by God in love and given a gift, a talent, to use. There is something sustaining in that hope, in her and her staff, teachers who will help pay for student’s needs. It’s also a poor substitute for good governance, a working police force.
People like her and de la Rosa hope for what would be considered normal north of the border. The geographic divide between Manhattan and Brooklyn is bigger, more imposing, less arbitrary seeming. This reality, that normal is upside down, that black is white, that murder is as normal as breath, that wanting to do more than simply survive, has made them, essentially, activists.
We spend our last night in Juárez with Manny and Alejandro, friends of Tania’s. Alejandro, 16, is a Nini and Manny, 22, is working in order to support his girlfriend, who’s pregnant. We walk up into the hills in the Sierra Juárez barrio, past a barking dog who triggers what sounds like every dog in the area until there is a full chorus. Half the railing on the side of the highway is missing, used for a New Year’s Eve party. Lights stand over the highway. Bodies have been dropped here before — it’s not far from the water tank. The lights have changed that. We climb a larger hill where a homeless man is rumored to live in a cave. Alejandro grabs a rock as he approaches the mouth of the cave; he’s scared the man will attack us. A man, dreadlocked and covered in blankets, comes out and walks down the path, away from his cave, wordless.
We walk higher into the hills over rivulets where water has run. A haze sits over the valley. The lights dance. The divide between the United States and Mexico is near impossible to pick out.
Photographs by Dominic Bracco II from the series Life and Death in the Northern Pass.