Lost in the Void

Jonathan Littell on the seamy life of Ciudad Juárez

‘Over Sixty Hours without an Execution.’ When PM, the biggest tabloid in Ciudad Juárez, can’t find a corpse to put on its front page, it has to come up with something. On 21 November last year it announced that ‘the city has just experienced an unusual outbreak of peace … the longest for three years. Newspaper statistics show that from 29 December 2008, fifty hours passed without a killing. From 29 October 2009, Juárez recorded 41 hours without any violent deaths.’ Luis, a local journalist who meets me at El Paso airport, across the border, jokes about it: ‘Today, Juárez is very calm. Boring even. We used to have fifteen or twenty deaths a day. Now it’s just three, five, seven.’ The term ‘boring’ is relative. The first cover of PM that I see shows a photograph of a corpse whose head is no more than a skull: the man was burned with acid ‘while still alive’, the article says. It gives the usual details: name and age (José Gallegos, 22), circumstances of the crime (‘kidnapped at 2 a.m.’), relatives’ reactions (‘screaming in horror and despair after seeing the condition in which their loved one was found’). Police investigators will take statements and collect the body, but there will be nothing else: no follow-up, no investigative report, no arrest, no trial, not even a rudimentary explanation of why unknown persons saw fit to immerse José Gallegos’s head in acid. In subsequent issues of PM, his photo will be replaced by photos of other corpses. ‘What drives people crazy,’ Roberto Alvarez Gutiérez, a municipal police officer, explains, ‘is that there’s no follow-up. The files pile up and nothing is resolved. Sometimes mothers have to carry out their own investigations.’

That’s how things go here; it’s the norm. Every day someone is killed, every day people disappear and life goes on. When you cross from El Paso in the evening rush hour, three lanes of cars queue to go over the bridge. Flower and newspaper sellers walk from car to car, pedestrians cross on a walkway surrounded with barbed wire, and a sign announces that ALL WEAPONS ARE FORBIDDEN IN MEXICO. In this direction the wait is short, twenty minutes at most, whereas in the other direction you have to plan for two or three hours in the queue, especially during the holidays, when the people of Juárez go shopping in the States (even though Americans earn on average ten times more than Mexicans, everything is cheaper on the US side of the border). Beyond the bridge Ciudad Juárez unfurls, a vast rectangular grid of sparkling lights. The bridge leads to the Avenida de las Américas, an ordinary avenue with streams of cars, shopping centres, petrol stations; it could still be El Paso if it weren’t for the multicoloured buses, the camiones, and the omnipresent stench from the sewers. In the new city centre, groups of well-dressed young people congregate in front of bars, clubs and restaurants, where buskers play mariachi music or corridos for an audience that’s half middle-class, half drug dealers. It’s only recently that people have started going out at night again, and a number of establishments are still closed because of the cuota, the street ‘tax’ paid to the narcos for protection. Two years ago they asked for too much; many bars didn’t pay and were torched, while others closed and waited for better days, which are slowly returning. There are no soldiers on street corners or checkpoints, as there were in 2010, but the federal police still patrol, and the local police, the municipales, drive around with never less than two pick-up trucks loaded with cops in bulletproof helmets and vests, automatic weapons ready.

18 November: ‘Eliminated by a Sicaria!’ For the Romans, a sicario was a Jewish assassin who killed with a dagger; today, in Mexico, he is a hitman and prefers firearms. Despite the astonishing female robocops of the municipales, Ciudad Juárez is better known for its dead women than its female killers. There were so many of them, from 1993 onwards, that they invented a word for what was happening in the city – ‘feminicide’. Roberto Bolaño based 2666, his last and greatest book, on it. For the past few years, though, the topic has taken a back seat because twenty or thirty times more men than women are now being murdered: during my two weeks in the city, the only women killed were the other half of couples, collateral damage. But women continue to disappear even if their bodies – which used to be tossed into dumpsters or left in empty lots – are no longer found. The town centre is plastered with ‘missing’ posters: ‘ESTEFANIA HERNANDEZ GALLEGOS, 18, disappeared 14 November 2011’; ‘MARISELA GONZALEZ VARGAS, 26, disappeared 26 May 2011’; ‘ESMERALDA CASTILLO RINCON, 14 – Help us find her.’ It’s pretty much always the same ones: dark-skinned, working-class girls from poor neighbourhoods, the morenitas as they’re called, factory workers or prostitutes, or both. Middle-class young women don’t go out at night, or only in cars; if daddy has some money, they live on the other side, in El Paso. And since the vanished almost never turn up again, theories run wild. People talk of sex slavery – as if Mexican brothels had any trouble recruiting – or kidnap: anything to avoid admitting that these girls are dead.

Ricardo Alanis Santos, for example, gets out his placard at the smallest demonstration to remind the world of his daughter Mónica, who disappeared on 26 March 2009 from the campus of Juárez University. She was a serious, pretty girl, a good student, with few friends. The police went through the usual routine, questioned friends and family, then said Mónica was an alcoholic, a drug addict and a prostitute. ‘It’s a fake investigation,’ Ricardo says, in a singsong, resigned, lost voice. ‘They victimise her but they don’t look for her.’ The Committee for Mothers and Relatives with Missing Daughters, of which he is a member, counted more than 250 disappearances last year. Ricardo quit his job a year and a half ago, because of the financial crisis but also to look for his daughter, and he refuses to abandon hope: ‘I still believe my daughter is alive. We’re trying to put pressure on the authorities to find her. We’re also trying to investigate by ourselves. But we don’t have the money, not even for a soda.’

The maquiladoras where many of the missing girls worked, maquilas as they’re usually known, are American factories where parts are assembled after being imported duty-free. The finished products are then re-exported to the US: electrical appliances, clothing, plastic goods, cars, furniture. Labour is much cheaper in Mexico than in the States, about a thousand pesos a week – around $75. The maquilas have existed since the mid-1960s, but didn’t really take off until 1994, when Nafta came into force, brutally devastating Mexican agriculture and releasing a vast number of agricultural labourers, especially from the south, to come and fill the factories of the north. By the beginning of 2008, according to Forbes, the maquilas of Juárez employed around 245,000 people, most of them young women from the countryside. But the crisis hit them hard: 57,000 jobs were lost that year, more than 30,000 the next; and anyhow China looked like a better deal, as the Mexicans were getting greedy, asking for higher salaries and even social benefits. So now many of these ‘internal immigrants’ – those, at least, who aren’t trying to enter the US illegally – are packing their bags and going home.

In the southern and south-eastern parts of the city, you can see it with your own eyes. Beyond the first cotton fields, the American Wall bars the horizon, a reminder that something does lie beyond all this misery, but something inaccessible. You leave the main road and make your way, joltingly, to Riberas del Bravo, a neighbourhood (or colonia) created by Infonavit, the great state housing programme set up in the early 1970s for the new urban proletariat. Lined up in vast, empty, nearly treeless lots, along streets laid out in a grid and riddled with potholes, the square concrete houses – 36 square metres each, sold for about $13,000, bought with a thirty-year loan taken directly from workers’ wages – are almost all derelict. On a street of twenty or so houses, there might be four or five families left, the inhabited houses recognisable by their well-tended gardens or satellite dishes. The other houses, still painted in leprous pastel colours, pink, green, yellow or blue, and covered in graffiti, have been stripped bare: the ex-inhabitants have taken everything – the doors, the windows, the sinks, the toilets, the sockets. ‘If they could take the house away they would,’ a PM headline blares. The cement of the walls, mixed with sewage water, is cracking and covered with fungus; the gardens have been invaded by brambles and weeds; the electricity meter still stands in front of each house, occasionally blinking. There are no sewers, just a drainage ditch, but there’s no drainage either, so when it rains everything is flooded. Higher up, in Zaragoza, another Infonavit development built on a barren plateau, the street lights haven’t worked since the transformer was stolen; here, too, most of the inhabitants have gone back where they came from, usually Veracruz. ‘That’s where they dump the corpses,’ one of the few inhabitants explains, pointing to the bare plots surrounding the colonia.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in