Last October I drove from New York to San Francisco with my childhood friend Djavid. We took the leisurely route through the less wintery south. After barbecue in North Carolina, gun ranges in Atlanta, and oysters and beignets in New Orleans, we fetched up on the Mexican border in one of the oldest trading crossroads in North America, the city that looks like the largest truck stop in the world, El Paso, Texas. El Paso is climatically, culturally and spiritually, where the American South ends and the Southwest begins. Bring Your Own Booze strip joints “Tequila Sunrise” and “Non-Stop Beautiful Ladies” compete for roadside space with personal debt restructurers and DUI lawyers and signs for every extant fast food and gasoline chain. For all of its dust and sleaze, El Paso ranks near the safest among U.S. cities with over 500,000 people. But El Paso wasn’t on our list. One of the reasons we chose the southern route was the chance to visit Ciudad Juarez, El Paso’s Mexican sister city directly across the Rio Grande, one of the most dangerous places on earth outside a declared war zone.
A couple of days earlier we had crossed into and out of Mexico via rowboat at Boquillas del Carmen, a tourist village opposite Big Bend National Park in Texas. Boquillas is part old Mexico, part new. It’s the kind of town you can imagine Clint Eastwood riding into behind opening credits, except every house has subsidised solar panels on the roof. At the cantina a grey nomad complained about the violence. “Can’t go to Nuevo Laredo anymore. It just gets worse and worse. Did you hear a couple weeks ago this lady was shopping in Juarez at a department store and got shot dead? Drive-by meant for someone else…” She was the kind of American lady who takes silence as an invitation to keep talking. And talk she did, perhaps not realising, or not caring, that the townspeople of Boquillas—out of economic necessity—also speak English. “You know it’s all drug-related. The cartels just move from city to city, it’s such a shame.” Her words made Djavid and I uncomfortable. We try to be model tourists.
Our guide Felix told us about his cousin who died in a car crash in Texas. He puts a finger to the side of his nose and snorts. The cousin was on cocaine. I notice Felix’s newish alligator boots and sunglasses and suddenly felt like he could procure whatever we asked for. He showed us the hot springs behind the town near his cousin’s abandoned house, which Felix is trying to convert into a hotel. “When you come back, you can stay here, cervezas, senoritas, music, dancing.” On the walk back to the river Felix told us how much school costs for each of his five children, how little work there is in Boquillas; he practically begged us for money. We tipped him everything we had left, around fifteen US. “When you come back, cervezas, senoritas, music, dancing.”
We arrived in El Paso a few days later without Felix and no prospect of enjoying such enticements. We learned that, according to Mexico Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, Juarez has fallen from 1st most violent place on earth (in 2010) to 27th (as of January 2015) – well below Detroit, which holds the 24th spot. With our prospects for perverse bragging rights already diminished, we left our credit cards and large bills in the car in El Paso and paid fifty cents to cross the famous Rio Grande, here reduced to a five metre wide drainage canal bound in concrete. On the other side there was less colour, more concrete, more dust, more grey. We put on our tourist faces. A strange malaise overtook us.
PULL QUOTE: I reassured myself that kidnappings require at least a couple of days of planning.
It seemed like most important thing at that moment was to appear as if we knew where we were going. I reassured myself that kidnappings require at least a couple of days of planning. We ignored the taxi touts and clothes hawkers, and the temptation of a bar dedicated to the New York Yankees, and strode with false confidence towards nothing in particular. Signs along the road advertised the ever-changing exchange rate – then 13.36 pesos to the dollar. Our pretext for coming to Juarez—cheap beef tongue, or lengua, tacos—suddenly seemed idiotic. We had no idea where to go. Three teenage boys wearing Juarez Christian Mission polo shirts walked in front of us.
“Let’s ask them.” said Djavid.
But we didn’t.
“Let’s ask someone.”
“I don’t know.”
We went into an indoor market, bought bottled water and listened to the cashier’s rapid-fire instructions on where to find lengua.
“He says turn right, then left and it’s down a street and we should see it.” Djavid said.
Like most US/Mexico border cities, Juarez was transformed by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), drafted and signed by President Clinton in 1993. NAFTA eliminated almost all tariffs between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, allowing large U.S. companies to open manufacturing plants, or maquiladoras, in Mexican border cities to take advantage of cheap labour and looser regulation. Workers from rural Mexico flooded into those cities for jobs. Hundreds of unsolved, unpunished murders have occurred in Ciudad Juarez since the early 1990s. Nearly all of the victims were poorly paid young female maquiladora workers, the infamous femicides of Juarez.
PULL QUOTE: Hundreds of unsolved, unpunished murders have occurred in Ciudad Juarez since the early 1990s.
At the back of the taco shop a huge, half-carved cow’s head sizzled on top of an oil drum, next to a pile of offal. They were out of lengua but they had cachete (cheek) instead. The shop next door was a grocery with huge tubs of dried chillies in all shades of red, green and yellow. We ordered some barbacoa as well and sat down at the plastic table on the footpath. For less than five US dollars we had twelve tacos between us.
A stumbling old man with missing teeth sat down next to us. “Que es este?” He pointed at our plate.
“Barbacoa.” Djavid replied.
“No. Perrocoa, woof, woof.” Perro means dog. He cackled at us, and the mouth of the woman at the far end of the table curved upwards slightly.
“Es bien.” said Djavid.
The cop on the corner chatted with a chef on smoke break. The barrel of his M-4, an assault rifle often used in war-zones and school shootings, swung disconcertingly close to horizontal as he gestured and laughed. Cops were everywhere. (Later on, the thought crossed our minds that they have may have been everywhere we were because of us.) Never having had a reason to distrust cops, my instinct is to feel safer when they are around, but many people in Juarez do not. Institutional corruption in Mexico extends to the police force, which often enables cartel violence when it is not actively participating itself.
After our dog lunch, Djavid took panorama shots of the streets with his smartphone. When we looked at the photos later we noticed nearly everyone in those photos was staring at us. We saw no other tourists the whole four hours we were there. I am average height but in Juarez I felt about eight feet tall. Djavid has spent months living in Nicaragua. I’ve been scared out of my mind in Johannesburg and Lilongwe. In childhood we learned the art of buying illicit fireworks in Tijuana from Djavid’s Dad. We’re relatively seasoned travellers but the menace in Juarez seemed to come straight out of the smoky dry air and crawl under our skin. We felt constantly noticed, constantly assessed and extremely unwelcome.
We thrust our chests out and strode with purpose back through the diagonal streets towards the zocalo and the main cathedral. The cathedral has a colonial facade but the other three walls are modern with long thin stained glass windows separating panels of pebbled concrete. It is neither imposingly spectacular nor exotically humble but at that moment a church never felt more welcoming and sacrosanct. Inside a service played to a packed house. Within the church gates we felt safe and took photos with abandon.
Back on the main drag to the border we found a coffee shop near some corporate looking glass buildings. The door was jammed in the frame and required several shoulders to open. The air-conditioning was broken.
“Not many gringos around here.” Djavid said to the senora. She disagreed.
“No, there are lots. They come and sing here at night. In Spanish.”
She wore a black dress printed with large red, green and yellow flowers. She leaned against the bar with her chin in her hands, eyes down, as if apologising for the shop. Her bookshelf held works by Balzac, Shakespeare, and Octavio Paz. The cappuccino came with whipped cream. It was too sweet and too cold. The lady looked downcast as Jason Derulo came on the radio.
Djavid and I walked back towards the border. The taxi touts called out again. Since we’d arrived the dollar had fallen slightly to 13.28 pesos. We didn’t have exact change to put in the border turnstiles so we bought some tamarind candy and crossed back in to Texas. For several blocks on the El Paso side all shopfront signage is in Spanish. The people are Hispanic, including U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. The lingua franca is still Spanish. The only difference I noticed was better footpaths and rubbish bins. As we drove back to our El Paso motel Djavid put on “Rocking the Suburbs.”
Juarez: Laboratory of Our Future, a book of photographs by Charles Bowden, shows the Juarez that we didn’t see: the bodies of murdered city officials, children playing soccer in polluted fields, the long walking commutes of maquiladora workers. Published in 1998, the book’s observations have held true. Labour and dangerous working conditions are outsourced to developing countries to lower the price of consumer goods in established markets. The human toll of overproduction and overconsumption is made invisible to western consumers. In the closing words of a speech he gave just before he signed NAFTA into law in 1993 President Bill Clinton said: “We are ready to compete and we can win.”
I would be lying if I said Djavid and I weren’t titillated and a little bit proud of ourselves after our trip to Juarez. It felt like a test. The fear, being so far from our day-to-day day experience, had been exhilarating. To us the danger was perversely romantic and in hindsight existed almost entirely in our heads. A quote from Octavio Paz applies to us; Americans “have not looked for Mexico in Mexico; they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes, interests—and these are what they have found.” We went to Juarez seeking menace, and, after four hours, that is what we carried back across the bridge.
Lucas Smith is a writer and PhD candidate from Melbourne.