Editor's Notebook: A Day Exploring Ciudad Juárez
A view from a slum in Ciudad Juárez looking across the violent border town.
Alisa Barba
January 17, 2012

I traveled into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico with Fronteras Desk correspondent Mónica Ortiz Uribe on January 6th.

Why? Why go into one of the most dangerous cities in North America? Why travel halfway across the country to make a foray into the drug cartels' shooting den? Many asked those questions.

My reasoning was easy, simplistic: I regularly ask Mónica to go into Juárez; I often insist she travel to Juárez in pursuit of some of the stories that document the mayhem and brutality of that city.

If my job is to assign her to go, then I should be willing to go as well.

The visit was, if anything, anticlimactic. It was a gorgeous, crisp and sunny day. We drove from the vast, dusty expanse of El Paso, across the border into the vast, even dustier expanse of Juárez, Mexico.

We started off with a visit to the Juárez Chamber of Commerce, where assistant director Guillermo Soria talked with Mónica about an economic revival in the city, specifically with restaurants and nightclubs. Murder rates are down in Juárez, though no official will hazard a guess why. Suddenly, inexplicably, nightclubs and restaurants are booming.

Has one of the cartels, the Sinaloa cartel perhaps, won their bitter battle for control of the drug trafficking corridor? According to the officials, who knows? It’s not worth your life to hazard a guess.

The chamber of commerce office gave us hefty slices of sweet cake - known as Rosca de Reyes - in honor of the Three Kings Day holiday. Mónica politely nibbled at hers; I basically ignored mine. When we got up to leave, Mónica wrapped up my sweet cake "to go...We're going to eat it on the road!" she said.

Apparently my lack of interest in the sweet cake was not quite polite. We ended up wrapping it and scurrying away, eventually giving it to a street vendor, who was happy to have it!

From the chamber of commerce, we headed downtown to the marketplace, were in days of yore tourists would wander to purchase colorful souvenirs and sip tequila with girls from the provinces. These days, no tourists.

In fact, as we wandered the colorful noisy back alleys of downtown, with farmer's market stalls of fruits and vegetables, storefronts of cheap Chinese toys, the aire filled with music and other noises, I was the only gringa for miles. It seemed a harmless scene: Fruits and toys, electronics, peasants and vendors. The only sense of something sinister were the glances of surprise that I was there at all.

After the marketplace, we drove west through the squatter communities of Ciudad Juárez, where the first generation of maquila workers arrived in the 1970s. We went as far as the cemetery Jardin de los Recuerdos (Garden of Memories) where, on a dusty mesa above the slums, we got an expansive view of the tri-state area: Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua.

We wandered, somewhat lost, through the makeshift, more-established slums of Juárez. Canyons and barrios, empty, barred houses, lonely streets, single men on the corners as...what? Look outs? Again, glances of surprise, as this gringa drives through the empty streets.

Still, it didn't feel threatening, at all, ever.

Despite the legacy of violence, the history of unbelievable brutality, it was just life as folks live it, in Mexico, south of the border. They are aware of the relative wealth of life north of the border, maybe resentful, yet working every angle to make what they can.

Eventually we returned to the industrial heart of the city, driving down Avenida Bermudez - named after one of the biggest maquila magnets of the city. That avenue is lined with foreign factories, or maquilladoras, that make car parts, electronics and appliances to service mainly a U.S. market. It felt like Houston, or Dallas, with wide avenues and modern factories. The slums of western Juárez were far behind us.

Further down that street, we passed the infamous "cotton field" site where 10 years ago the bodies of eight women were found murdered. There is now a memorial built on that site. Just up the block is the U.S. consulate, the largest in Mexico. From there, we visited Casa Amiga, the first family crisis center in Juárez. It counsels mainly women who are victims of domestic violence.

Finally we came upon the neighborhood of Villas de Salvarcar, where in 2010, 15 people, mostly teenagers, were killed during a birthday party. Mónica couldn't find the road to enter the neighborhood - it was now lost behind a new gated housing development. The neighborhood was quiet, like all the neighborhoods we visited, with few people on the street.

A sparkling new sports arena in the neighborhood was strangely empty as well. This is where the eerie sense of well-being in Juárez, under the sunny skies of this particularly clear day, seemed even more unreal. A brilliant new stadium for soccer, basketball, handball was empty in a neighborhood where teenagers were slaughtered for no apparent reason. No sign of warning, no sense of threat. Yet, there is an awareness that all that could change in an instant.

So Juárez was just like many other Mexican cities I've visited: Lovely, dusty, full of people who worked hard and kept their heads down while the bad guys rule the streets.

As an editor, I now have a visual of these streets, houses, factories and markets. Yes, we mostly do radio stories. But we create images in words that will now match or attempt to come close to the images I remember of this dirty, struggling, burgeoning metropolis.

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