In Juarez, Mexico, photographers expose the violent realities of free trade
by Charles Bowden
From HARPER’S MAGAZINE, December 1996
The white eye of the blank screen waits in the dark room. A few moments earlier, Jaime Bailleres was nuzzling his thirteenth-month-old child and walking around in the calm of his apartment. His wife, Graciela, puttered in the kitchen, and soft words and laughter floated through the serenity of their home. A copy of a work on semiotics lay on the coffee table, and the rooms whispered of culture and civility and the joy of ideas. Outside, the city of Juarez, Mexico, waited with sharp teeth and bloody hungers. Now the lights are off as Jaime Bailleres dances through a carousel of slides.
I am here because of a seventeen-year-old girl named Adriana Avila Gress. The whole thing started very simply. I was drinking black coffee and reading a Juarez newspaper, and there, tucked away in the back pages, where the small crimes of the city bleed for a few inches, I saw her face. She was smiling at me and wore a strapless gown riding on breasts powered by an uplift bra, and a pair of fancy gloves reached above her elbows almost to her armpits. The story said she’d disappeared, all 1.6 meters of her. I turned to a friend I was having breakfast with and said, “What’s this about?” He replied matter-of-factly, “Oh, they disappear all the time. Guys kidnap them, rape them, and kill them.” Them? Oh, he continued, you know, the young girls who work in the maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories, the ones who have to leave for work when it is still dark. Of course, I knew that violence is normal weather in Juarez. As a local fruit vendor told an American daily, “Even the devil is scared of living here.”
That’s when it started for me. The photographers, like Jaime showing me his slides, are the next logical step to understanding the world in which beaming seventeen-year-old girls suddenly vanish. The cities of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas, constitute the largest border community on earth, but hardly anyone seems to admit that the Mexican side exists. Within this forgotten urban maze stalk some of the boldest photographers still roaming the streets with 35-mm cameras. Over the past two years I have become a student of their work, because I think they are capturing something: the look of the future. This future is based on the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and industrial growth producing poverty faster than it distributes wealth. We have these models in our heads about growth, development, infrastructure. Juarez doesn’t look like any of these images, and so our ability to see this city comes and goes, mainly goes. A nation that has never hosted a jury trial, that has been dominated by one party for most of this century, that is carpeted with corruption and poverty and pockmarked with billionaires is perceived as an emerging democracy marching toward First World standing. The snippets of fact that once in a great while percolate up through the Mexican press are ignored by the U.S. government and its citizens. Mexico may be the last great drug experience for the American people, one in which reality gives way to pretty colors. These photographs literally give people a picture of an economic world they cannot comprehend. Juarez is not a backwater but the new City on the Hill, beckoning us all to a grisly state of things.
I’ve got my feet propped up on a coffee table, a glass of wine in my hand, and as far as the half-dozen photographers present for the slide show are concerned this is my first day of school and they’re not sure if I’ve got what it takes to be a good student. After all, no one comes here if he has a choice, and absolutely no one comes to view their work. The photographers of Juarez once put on an exhibition. No one in El Paso, separated from Mexico by thirty feet of river, was interested in hanging their work, so they found a small room in Juarez and hung big prints they could not really afford to make. They called their show Nada Que Ver “Nothing to See.”
Beginning in the early 1980s, photographers began to show up with university degrees and tattered copies of the work of New York’s famous street shooter, Weegee (Arthur Fellig). A tradition of gritty, unsentimental, and loving street shooting that has all but perished in the United States was reborn in Juarez, in part because the papers offered a market but mostly because the streets could not be denied. The street shooters of Juarez are mainly young and almost always broke. Pay at the half-dozen newspapers runs from fifty to eighty dollars a week, and they must provide their own cameras. Film is rationed by their employers. “We are like firemen,” Jaime Bailleres explains, “only here we fight fires with our bare hands.”
The slide presentation clicks away. A child of seven is pinned under a massive beam. He and his father were tearing apart a building for its old bricks when the ceiling collapsed. Jaime says that the child is whimpering and saying he is afraid of death. He lasted a few minutes more. Alfredo Carrillo stares intently at the images as Jaime gives him tips on how to frame different scenes. A hand reaches out from under a blanket-a cop cut down by AK-47s in front of a mansion owned by Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Carrillo is a local businessman. U.S. authorities calculate that he moves more than 100 tons of cocaine a year across the Rio Grande and into El Paso. He is estimated to be grossing $200 million a week, and to the joy of economists, this business is hard currency and cash-and-carry. To my untrained eye the dimensions of the dope business are simple: without it the Mexican economy would totally collapse.” (1) A gold ring gleams on the cop’s dead hand; for Bailleres it is a study in the ways of power. Alfredo says, “All these young kids dream of being Amado Carrillo.”
The competition is rough. Yesterday, Juan Manuel Bueno Duenas, twenty-three, got into a dispute with a drug dealer. Juan belonged to Los Harpys. Today at 4:30 P.M. he was buried in the municipal cemetery by his fellow gang members. The campo santo was crowded with people, the afterflow of the Day of the Dead observance. Carloads of guys from Barrio Chico, rivals of Los Harpys, opened fire on the procession. No one is certain how many people were wounded. The gangs of Juarez, los pandillas, kill at least 200 people a year. Accepting such realities is possible; thinking about them is not. Survival in Juarez is based on alcohol, friendships, and laughter, much laughter. But this happens in private. The streets are full of people wearing masks.
In this city of sleepwalkers, elementary facts, such as the population, are given scant attention. No one knows how many people live now in Juarez, but the ballpark figure is 2 million. Since December 1994 Mexico’s currency has lost over half its value, prices have more than doubled, and jobs have disappeared wholesale. Real numbers hardly exist-for example, in Mexico you are counted as employed if you work one hour a week. In 1994, millions of poor Mexicans walked away from their dying earth and headed north. About one million managed to cross into the United States. The rest slammed up against the fence in places like Juarez. Since then this exodus has increased. Juarez is part of the Mexican gulag, the place for the people no one wants.
Adriana Avila Gress was found about a week after her disappearance in a desert tract embracing the city’s southern edge, a place called the Lote Bravo. Adriana worked six days a week in a foreign-owned factory making turn signals for cars like the one you drive. She took home about five dollars a day. In a photo of her body that I saw in the newspaper morgue, her panties were down around her ankles as the police circled her still form. At least 150 girls disappeared in the city during 1995, and the government said that most ran off with boys. When more bodies were found, the police blamed an American serial killer and handily arrested a suspect. But girls continued to disappear.
Jaime Bailleres has projected a beautiful black carved mask on the screen. The head is tilted and the face is smooth with craftsmanship. The hair is long and black. It takes a moment for me to get past this beauty and realize that the face is not a mask. She is a sixteen-year-old girl with a forgotten name. She was found in the park by a bridge linking Juarez to El Paso; the park on both sides of the Rio Grande is dedicated to friendship between the two nations. The girl’s skin has blackened in the sun, and the face contracted as it mummified. She was kidnapped, raped, murdered. Jaime explains that the newspaper refused to publish this photograph. The reason for this decision is very loud. The lips of the girl pull back, revealing her clean white teeth. Sound pours forth from her mouth. She is screaming and screaming and screaming.
“We don’t give a damn about the editors,” Jaime snaps. “We can educate people. To look. To watch. We work in a jungle.”
The face floats on the screen as music purrs through the stereo speakers. No one will ever publish this photograph, Jaime tells me. I start to argue with him but soon give up. I can’t deny one jolting quality of the image: it is deafening.
It is after midnight when Jaime’s photo show breaks up, and I head downtown. A wind whips across Juarez. The city often sprawls under moving walls of dust since so little of it is paved. The whores are out, sixteen-and seventeen-year-olds. There is no way to tell if they are full-time prostitutes or factory workers making an extra buck. The peso has lost another chunk of its value in the last day or so.
“How much?” I ask.
She leans into the car window and says the equivalent of fourteen dollars.
“How long?” I say.
“How long can you resist me?” she asks with a laugh.
There are ways to measure the deep movements of an economy that are more accurate and timely than the bond market and this girl with her mask of thick makeup is one of them.
“Juarez,” photographer Julian Cardona explains, “is a sandwich. The bread is the First World and the Third World. We are the baloney.” Julian, about thirty, is a tall, long-legged, thin man with a deep voice. On the street they call him El Compas, the compass. He laughs easily and always seems to be watching. One night at the newspaper, as I plowed through a thick stack of negatives, he watched me like a hanging judge. Finally, I plucked a negative of a cop holding up the shoe of a dead girl found in the desert. Cardona looked at it and for the first time allowed himself a small smile. “This is a good image,” he said, almost with relief.
Like all the shooters in Juarez, Julian is keenly aware of the seasons. In November and December, there is a bumper crop of drug murders as the merchandise moves north and accounts are settled. Then around Christmas and New Year’s people hang themselves. The first few months of the new year bring fires and gas explosions as the poor try to stay warm. Spring means battles between neighborhoods (or colonias) over ground for building shacks as well as outbreaks of disease in a city largely lacking sewage treatment.
Summer brings water problems to a head (Juarez will run completely out of water within five years unless something is done), more disease, and batches of murders by the street gangs. The cool days of fall open a new season of battles between colonias, and then, with the holidays, the photographers return to the drug killings and the Christmas suicides. As Manuel Saenz, the photo editor of the morning paper, puts it, “Anything can happen here at any time. It can blow at any second.” That is the inside of the sandwich.
Julian, like many of the street shooters, sees his work as a mission. Juarez is the fourth-largest city in Mexico and is historically famous for vice and violence. Since the end of World War I, it has been a place that draws Americans for women and dope. Since 1991 the homicide rate has increased by at least 100 percent (given crooked cops and crooked government, solid numbers are hard to come by). What is happening in the city is often dismissed by simply saying that many cities are violent, that gangs occur in the United States as well, that strife and dislocation are just the normal growing pains of a society industrializing, and so forth. All of these statements make a lot of sense, and all of them are lies. The photographers of Juarez know they are lies and believe body and soul that their work will state the truth. They say their cameras are more deadly than AK-47s.
Julian Cardona is on his way home at 7:00 A.M. after twelve hours of prowling for the blood of the city’s night. He glimpses of a small crowd and pulls over. A man has been stabbed thirty times, and the arms are frozen in rigor mortis. A police technician is crouched over the chest, photographing forensic evidence. Julian shoots a few frames.
Snapshots briefly make Juarez stand still. You can run from photographs but you can’t really hide. This fact seems to keep the photographers going. A shooter is desperate to get the shot of a man who has cut off his own genitals. But by the time the photographer arrives, the mutilated man is in an ambulance and the doors are closed. So the shooter pops open the back doors and clambers in. The man lying there is in shock, his crotch a pool of gore. He raises his head just as the photographer leans forward and goes click. The photographer is no fool; he knows this picture will never be printed.
His name is Jaime Murrieta, and he is thirty-five years old. He never turns off his police scanner. He beats the cops to many crime scenes and once got a medal for rescuing someone from a blaze when he arrived ahead of the firemen. He has photographed over 500 murders. Once he crouched over the bloated body of a girl who had been raped and murdered just as it burst. He sighs when he thinks of the Pentax he used. It never worked again.
Now we are in a car moving through downtown Juarez at about sixty miles an hour. The streets are clogged with people, and we miss hitting them by inches. I feel like I am in a long dolly shot from an Indiana Jones movie. It is 5:07 in the afternoon, and Murrieta has just heard of a shooting in Colonia Juarez down near the river. He is exploding with sheer joy. “I love violence,” he tells me.
The other night around eleven, two women and a twelve-year-old girl drove a Dodge Ram Charger down the streets of Juarez. Each was shot in the head with a .45, a caliber favored by the federal police. Murrieta got some nice shots of them slumped in their car seats. This morning he covered their funeral and was beaten by the women’s relatives, who were narcotraficantes. He keeps changing vehicles so that the gangs don’t recognize what he is driving. Recently, seven rounds ripped through his car and somehow missed him.
“Yes, I am afraid,” he admits. “But I love my work. I am on a mission, and everything has its risk. God helps me.” He has this dream of his death. Someone is coming at him with a gun or a knife, and there is nowhere to run. As they fire at him or shove in the blade, he raises his camera and gets the ultimate murder photograph. “I will die happy,” he insists. At the moment, he’s been warned that a contract killer is looking for him. He is not that easy to find. It has taken me days to rendezvous with him because he comes and goes from the newspaper without warning, and probably lives more in his car than under any other roof.
In Colonia Juarez, the body we have come to see sprawls in front of the doorway of a corner grocery store. Three rounds from a .38 Special went through the head, and five tore up the chest. That was twelve minutes ago. The victim, El Pelon, is also known as Francisco Javier Hernandez. According to optimistic police figures, he is murder number 250 this year in Juarez. At 5:00 P.M. he was twenty years old. He was a junkie, and he also sold drugs. He belonged to the pandilla called K-13, a group noted for its arsenal of guns. A crowd of his fellow gang members stands silently in the street. Jaime Murrieta leaps out of the car and hits the street running. At first the police keep him back, but then I offer the captain a pack of Lucky Strikes and the officer’s face brightens. I light one for him-there are moments when I love Mexico. While the captain and I savor Kentucky tobacco, Murrieta scurries to the crime scene. His face is absolutely serene as he crouches over the body. Hernandez wears trousers and boots, but his coat is almost off end the wound in his chest is visible in the good light that all photographers pray for. A pool of brilliant red blood frames his head like a halo. The storefront is pure white, with a painting of Mickey Mouse. A sign over the doorway says Siempre Coke. Across the street is a pink house where drugs are sold. A fat girl smiles at the body. Her T-shirt says KISS ME, I’M YOURS. There was a killing at this very corner four months ago.
El Pelon’s mother stands a few feet from his corpse. Her hair is gray and she cradles her face in her hands. She is angry at her son. Only a week before, Los Harpys tried to kill him and still he did not take precautions. “This happened,” she says, “because he is a pendejo, a fool.”
A twelve-year-old girl strolls down the sidewalk, drawn by the possibility of excitement. She has dyed red hair and the smooth, serene face of a child. She pushes through the crowd and sees the body. It is her brother. The contours of her face disintegrate as if she were a plate-glass window through which a rock has suddenly been hurled. Two girls take her arms and hold her up as she slumps toward the ground.
Murrieta stops shooting. He is out of rationed film, but he got what he wanted.
Murrieta is a legend among the other street shooters. They love to tell a story about him. He is in bed with a woman, and his police scanner is on. Murrieta is just about to climax when he hears a murder report crackle on the radio. He gets up and starts to dress.
The woman asks, “What are you doing?”
“I must go,” he answers. ” It is an obligation.”
“You’re not going to finish?”
In a simple sense the photographs come from cameras, but there is a deeper point of origin. The floor under the gore of Juarez is an economy of factories owned by foreigners, mainly Americans. I keep having the same experience when I talk with Americans about the foreign-owned factories in Mexico. I’ll tell them the wages-three, four, or five dollars a day-and they’ll nod knowingly, and then a few minutes later I will realize that they have unconsciously translated this daily rate into an hourly rate. When I practically drill the actual wages into someone’s head, he or she will counter by saying that the cost of living is much cheaper in Mexico. This is not true. Along the border, Mexican prices on average run at 90 percent of U.S. prices. Basically, the only cheap thing in Mexico is flesh, human bodies you can fornicate with or work to death. What is happening in Mexico betrays our notion of progress, and for that reason we insist that each ugly little statistic is an exception or temporary or untrue. For example, in the past two years wages (2) in the maquiladoras have risen 50 percent. Fine and good. But inflation in that period is well over 100 percent.
Juarez is an exhibit of the fabled New World Order in which capital moves easily and labor is trapped by borders. There are a total of 350 foreign-owned factories in Juarez, the highest concentration in all of Mexico, and they employ 150,000 workers. The twin plant system-in Spanish, rnaquiladoras-was created by the United States and Mexico in 1965 so that Americans could exploit cheap Mexican labor and yet not pay high Mexican tariffs. Although the products that come from the factories are counted as exports (and thus figured into GDP), economists figure that only 2 percent of material inputs used in maquila production come from Mexican suppliers. All the parts are shipped to Mexico from the United States and other countries, then the Mexicans assemble them and ship them back. Two or three thousand American managers commute back and forth from El Paso every day. Juarez is in your home when you turn on the microwave, watch television, take in an old film on the VCR, slide into a new pair of blue jeans, make toast in the kitchen, enjoy your kid playing with that new toy truck on Christmas morning.
Politicians and economists speculate about a global economy fueled by free trade. Their speculations are not necessary. In Juarez the future is thirty years old, and there are no questions about its nature that cannot be answered here. The maquilas have caused millions of poor people to move to the border. Most of the workers are women and most of the women are young. By the late twenties or early thirties the body slows and cannot keep up the pace of the work. Then, like any used-up thing, the people are junked. Turnover in the maquilas runs anywhere from 50 to 150 percent a year. It is common for workers to leave for work at 4:00 A.M. and spend one or two hours navigating the dark city to their jobs. Sometimes they wind up in the Lote Bravo. The companies carefully screen the girls to make sure they are not pregnant. Workers at one plant complain of a company rule requiring new female hires to present bloody tampons for three consecutive months. The workweek is six days. After work some of the girls go downtown to sell their bodies for money or food. At least 40 percent of Mexicans now live off the underground economy, which means they stand in the street and try to sell things, including themselves.
Workers who lose their jobs receive essentially no benefits beyond severance pay. Mexico has no safety net. Independent, worker-controlled unions barely exist, and anyone trying to organize one is fired, or murdered. (3) It is almost impossible to get ahead working in the maquilas. Real wages have been falling since the 1970s. And since wages are just a hair above starvation level, maquilas contribute practically nothing toward forging a consumer society. Of course, as maquiladora owners and managers point out, if wages are raised, the factories will move to other countries with a cheaper labor force.
And so industry is thriving. Half a million cargo-laden trucks move from Juarez to El Paso each year. Boxcars rumble over the railroad bridge. New industrial parks are opening up. Labor is virtually limitless, as tens of thousands of poverty-stricken people pour into the city each year. There are few environmental controls and little enforcement of those that do exist. El Paso/Juarez is one of the most polluted spots in North America. And yet it is a success story. In Juarez the economic growth in 1994 it was 6 percent, and last year it registered 12 percent. According to Lucinda Vargas, the Federal Reserve economist who tracks Mexico’s economy, Juarez is a “mature” economy. This is as good as it gets. With the passage of NAFTA, narcotraficantes began buying maquiladoras in Juarez. They didn’t want to miss out on the advantages of free trade.
The street shooters are seldom allowed to take photographs inside the factories. And yet it is impossible to take a photograph in Juarez of anything without capturing the consequences of the maquiladoras. The factory workers have created a new school of architecture that is not seriously studied by scholars. They build homes out of odd material-cardboard, old tires, pallets stolen from loading docks. The structures are held together with nails driven through bottle caps-a cheap bolt. The designs flow unhampered by building codes. No school of aesthetics scolds, no committee votes, no zoning oppresses. Like the fabled Pilgrims, the people of the shantytowns have largely escaped the notice of their rulers. Electricity is stolen from power lines. (Jaime Bailleres once took a photo of a man up a power pole illegally clamping into a high-voltage line. The man was inept. As Bailleres took his picture the man was electrocuted.) Water is more difficult to acquire, and in many of the shanty communities it must be bought off trucks. Land for housing is also scarce and is often stolen.
Gabriel Cardona, another Juarez photographer, has recorded a land invasion. It begins when a woman notices that her portrait of Christ is weeping. Soon her colonia has built a shrine out of scavenged wood, and the painting is surrounded by hundreds of votive candles. This miraculous painting inspires the local people to invade some vacant land and throw up huts. The next photo is of a man returning from a maquiladora to his home. It has been bulldozed by the police, and he stares at his bed and a bucket and a few other items piled up on the scraped earth.
The two daily newspapers in El Paso, the city of half a million that squats thirty feet from Juarez, can go days without a single story about the millions of people living in grinding poverty right before everyone’s eyes. A recent killing sums up this attitude. Someone slaughtered a retired Juarez cop, Jose Munoz Rubalcava, and two of his sons. They tied them with yellow rope and made a yellow bow. Then they put them in the trunk of a car, drove to the midpoint of a bridge between El Paso and Juarez, and abandoned the vehicle so that it straddled the boundary line. The plan worked. Neither country would accept the responsibility for investigating what had happened.
There is a hesitation when the street shooters of Juarez mention La Pantera, the Panther. Once he was one of them. Then he took up the video camera and went to work for a television station. But it is his dedication to his work that gives the street shooters pause. They feel that he has gone too far, that he cannot survive living as he does.
Rafael Cota, better known as La Pantera, works twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He has not missed a tour of his appointed rounds in eight years. He works only at night, and his name comes from his eerie ability to get to murders bfore the police do. Sometimes he videotapes things the police do not wish to have publicized. He is thirty-two years old and has a quiet and reserved manner. His camera has stared at 800 murders. Five times the police have beaten him and destroyed his equipment. Narcotraficantes also view him with disfavor. La Pantera wears a bulletproof vest. Although his face has never appeared on television, he is said to have one of the highest-rated programs in the city. (4) His day begins with darkness and ends with light, and in between he roams alone in an old black pickup truck, a police scanner always plugged into his left ear. He shoots murders, car accidents, suicides, gang fights-all the violence of the night.
For several years he rode with an assistant, and then they fell in love and married. She continued riding with him, and one night when she was nine months’ pregnant the labor pains came and La Pantera made a brief pit stop at the hospital so that their daughter could be born. For his eighty-four-hour workweek he is paid $100. He cannot live on this, so during the day he is a part time fumigator. His daughter is now four, and sometimes she rides with him “so she will learn reality.”
La Pantera is convinced that if he shows people what their city is like, then they will change their city. That is why he left newspapers and still photography: television, he believed, would reach more people with more force. He worries about being killed, but he cannot seem to stop. Being around him has the quality of visiting someone on death row. In your heart, you know he can’t possibly make it. Once he came upon Jaime Murrieta being pounded by narcotraficantes in a bar. La Pantera leapt in to help him, and they both were beaten almost to death. “I can keep doing this forever,” he insists quietly to me. “This is a mission for justice.” In his spare time, he and his wife work with the Red Cross. People come to him for help in finding the missing. He is a faceless legend. He refuses to appear on the air because he does not want his personality to get in the way of the stories, the montages of horror he constructs every night. “I like to take the tragedies,” he explains, “and make people feel them.”
He is very proud of his work, and shelf after shelf in the station sags with the results of his nocturnal labor. He plucks a cassette and insists I watch. A man is being beaten, blood coursing down his face, the soft voice of La Pantera narrating.
La Pantera silently watches his tape with the calm pleasure of a connoisseur. He fast-forwards the tape, and the people shouting and crying sound like cartoon characters. Then he slows the tape and the camera pans a suicide. The man is quite young and wearing a bulky blue sweater. By his feet is a five-gallon bucket. The rope around his neck is tied to a small tree in a city park. His neck is bent, but the rope is straight and taut. The camera frames the man and the tree, then zooms in to peruse his body, and quickly does a 180-degree pan around to his back. Then the camera zooms in again to one of his feet. It is touching the ground. During the hours he spent hanging here alone, the man’s neck stretched and now he is firmly planted on the earth again.
When I leave the station, La Pantera walks me out into the 2:00 A.M. street. He touches my shoulder and says, “Be careful. This is a very dangerous city. Do not stop at any stop signs. They will leap out and take the car.”
Every morning at 7:45 A.M. La Pantera’s program runs as a special eight- to ten-minute part of the morning news. The segment is called “While You Were Sleeping.”
In 1991, Nicholas Scheele, the head of the Ford Motor Company in Mexico, said in admiration of the government’s control, “But is there any other country in the world where the working class . . . took a hit in their purchasing power of in excess of 50 percent over an eight-year period and you didn’t have a social revolution?” Maybe you get something you don’t have to define as a revolution. There are over 200 gangs in Juarez. They, not the police, define the borders in the city. They, not the government, represent authority to the human beings in the colonias. They provide work selling narcotics. And they kill and steal all the time to protect their spheres of power. They are not a progressive force; they are simply the force that grows when a society offers no progress. They have blossomed over the last three years as several factors made them inevitable: the slow decomposition of the Mexican government created a vacuum; the explosive growth of the drug industry created a livelihood; the death of the main bulwark of Mexican culture, the family, created a need. For the women, the assembly plants are sometimes liberating, but more marriages and families collapse. Mexico had to create one million jobs last year for young people entering the economy. Instead, the country lost one million jobs. And most importantly, the fabled pull of the border brought hordes of almost Neolithic peasant families to a city where their skills were worthless. In Juarez you face Stone Age parents staring helplessly at Computer Age children. Nothing the adults know or can provide has much value, and the fabric that has held families and Mexico together tears right before your eyes. You can actually hear the tearing. I’ll be standing at a murder scene, the shooters will be feeding on a fresh corpse, and as I make notes I can hear the gang kids murmuring about me. When I look up I see very hard eyes, and I know everyone but me is packing. There is nothing to be done about this. I am like everyone else here: I simply go about my business as if death were not a few feet away disguised as some twelve- or thirteen-year-old with a gun and eyes older than I can ever hope to be.
This new world makes stabs at beauty. Juarez historically is a cultural cauldron where folk Mexico confronts and fabricates life out of the high technology of its American neighbor. In the 1940s, pachuco culture with its zoot suits exploded out of Juarez. Black velvet painting also started here. The pandillas, like many U.S. gangs, at first spray-painted signs on walls and then started doing full figure paintings. Otto Campbell, a noted Juarez artist, became interested in their work and offered to teach them. And so he did.
Julian Cardona holds a large photograph of a mural painted by the pandilleros on the Puente Negro, the black railroad bridge linking El Paso and Juarez. The image is taken from the Mexican side. American officials have erected massive sliding doors on the bridge to block people from crossing, and the pandilleros have painted these doors in the style of the old masters from the revolution. Peasants are marching along the bottom of the mural. Above them are the girders and machines of modem industrial life, and blood is spilling from this future.
In the photograph taken by Jaime Bailleres, the doors are opening as two U.S. Customs officials push them apart to permit a train to enter Mexico. The locomotive is blue and huge and with its white beam stares out like a Cyclops. It looks like the train will move forward and kill the peasants any second. Cardona stabs at the photograph and tells me, “This is a great image. The hands that can make this painting, those hands kill 200 people in this city every year.”
After several months, things in Juarez begin to haunt me. I try to put my finger on what exactly is bothering me. I tell myself it is not simply the poverty-I remember being in delta shacks in the segregated Mississippi of the 1960s and people living almost like animals deep within the bosom of my own country. When I lived with these people for weeks and weeks, I ate what they ate-wild greens picked by the road and fried in grease, bootleg liquor made in the thickets by the river. Also, I can remember working on the west side of Chicago in districts that had the look and feel of Berlin in, say, the summer of 1945. But Juarez is different in a way that tables of wages and economic studies cannot capture: in Juarez you cannot sustain hope.
In the shadow of a maquiladora sprawls a Community for Public Defense barrio, one of at least twenty-six in Juarez. The police are afraid to enter CDP settlements. The residents work in maquilas and sell drugs, guns, and cars stolen from the United States. They also make bricks. It is dusk, and they have fired up their kilns using tires for fuel.
Black tongues of smoke lick the shacks. The main dirt lane of the colonia is blocked by a circle of people sitting on buckets. They are having a community meeting. This is the order in the new world.
There are other hints of the emerging order. Jaime Bailleres is in a nightclub and at his editor’s insistence takes a picture of a beautiful woman for the newspaper’s lifestyle section. A man at another table is accidentally included in the frame. Suddenly two bodyguards lay their hands on Bailleres. They do not want this picture published, understand? He wonders: Is this man now stored somewhere in his camera Amado Carrillo? But this thought is dangerous. Later, when I mention the name out loud at a bar, he looks around quickly to see if anyone has overheard. His eyes for a few seconds show true panic. Jaime is hardly a coward, but he is certainly not a fool like me.
We all have a deep need to ignore Juarez. We write off what is going on by saying that it is something our grandparents or great-grandparents went through. We tell ourselves that there are gangs and murders in American cities. This is true, but it does not deal with the reality of Juarez. We are not talking about darkness on the edge of town or a bad neighborhood. We are talking about an entire city woven out of violence. We tell ourselves that jobs in the maquiladoras are better than nothing. But we ignore the low wages, high turnover, and shacks. Then there is the silent thought: after all, they are Mexicans, not U.S. citizens. This kind of shrug brings to mind Rene Descartes nailing his family dog to a board alive and cutting it up to determine if it had a soul.
I am standing by the Carranza sisters’ cardboard shack in a part of Juarez called Anapra. They moved to the shantytown about ten months ago, when three years of drought ended their lives in a village in Durango. A half-dozen murdered, mutilated, and raped girls have been found about a hundred yards from their shack, and this frightens the teenage girls. Each morning they rise at 3:30 A.M., cook over bits of wood, and have some coffee. After a cold tortilla, they walk out into the darkness with their few possessions (a pan, a plate, knife, fork, spoon, and cooking oil) and bury them secretly in a hole; otherwise they will be stolen while they are gone. They are the lucky ones five of them work in American-owned maquiladoras. The fifteen-year-old girl is a welder at 160 pesos a week (about $21.62 at current exchange rates). Bus fare consumes about half her salary. Today, the Carranza kids are fixing to plant eight pine seedlings. Tomorrow, they begin their six-day weeks at American factories.
The United States begins fifty yards away, where the North Americans are constructing a steel wall to keep Mexico at bay. In fact, the First World is so near that every few days a band of Anapra residents gather around 8:00 P.M. and walk the short distance to the border, where an American railroad almost brushes against the fence. Then, as the bend in the tracks slows the train, they expertly crack open a dozen or more boxcars, toss goods out to waiting hands, and rush back into Mexico-all in less than the two minutes it takes for cops to arrive. U.S. newspapers periodically print stories about these train robberies (600 in the last three years) and call the Carranzas’ neighbors the new Jesse Jameses.
Jaime Bailleres says, “Sometimes I feel like I am in Bosnia.” He tells me a story to make sure my feeble gringo mind grasps what he means. The paper wanted a soft feature on the lives of the rich, so one Saturday a photographer and his editor strolled through an enclave of wealth looking for the right image. The photographer brought along his wife and two children. As a rabbit hopped across the lawn of a mansion, the camera came up. Suddenly two bodyguards appeared with AK-47s, and one said, “Give me that fucking camera and film.” They forced the photographer facedown on the pavement with the automatic rifles at his head. Then, in front of his wife and children and editor, they beat him about his head, ribs, and genitals. Police stood nearby and watched. That is the end of the story.
None of this matters. It is all a detail or an exception or an illusion. The authorities announced back in November of 1995 that 520 people had disappeared in Juarez that year and “an important percentage of them are female adolescents.” By last March, the mothers of the missing were demonstrating and demanding justice. Then in April, the police made a sweep of the red-light district, bagged 120 suspects, and announced that the slaughter was the work of eight apparently gregarious sociopaths who hung out in a bar called Joe’s Place. The next day the mothers of the accused protested the police torture of their sons. And, of course, the killings and disappearances continue-though reports of them were censored for a while.
Then, in July, one of the Juarez dailies published a front-page list of missing girls found dead in the Lote Bravo over the last year. Adriana Avila Gress was not on the list. It doesn’t matter that I read of her disappearance in the same newspaper or read the account of her body being found in the same newspaper or examined photographs of her corpse in the morgue of the same newspaper. I can’t find her family, so I’m hard-pressed to prove that she ever existed.
That same day, an American drug conference takes place at Fort Bliss on the edge of El Paso. The attorney general, the drug czar, the head of the FBI, and the head of the INS will be there, and for days the newspapers have bubbled with stories that the next candidate to make the FBI’s most-wanted list will be one Amado Carrillo Fuentes. The night before, I was taken by a Mexican reporter to a mansion in El Paso surrounded by high walls and featuring electronic gates and an array of security systems. I was told that the building belonged to a family with serious organized crime connections and that for the past week Carrillo had been staying there to get some peace. I can’t prove that Carrillo is inside the mansion; I couldn’t do that if I entered and shackled him. No one really knows what he looks like. Besides, I’ve gone native. Reality comes and goes for me.
I come and go into Juarez, and then return to a different world where things still seem to work, where payday comes now and then, and where over a good dinner what I know and have seen can be buried. Alive. After all, I would rather smile and feel the sun against my face than think about Juarez or all the places like Juarez that are growing quietly like mold on the skin of the planet. When I go to the United States, no one ever mentions this place. It simply ceases to exist, even if I only travel to El Paso. I used to wonder about this fact.
I go back to the glowing screen in the dark room. I must see that blackened face again. Soft music calms me, the blackness of the room caresses me, the roar of the fan on the projector is oddly comforting. The beam of the white light defines reality now and keeps it locked up within a rectangle. Jaime Bailleres installs a slide carousel, and then I hear a click and color explodes. The photographers do not know whether this is art. It is not for them to say. Nada Que Ver. I face again the open mouth and clean white teeth.
“Why do you want this picture?” Jaime Bailleres asks me. “You know it will never be published. No one will print it.”
I have never told him the truth. I have never told him that the first night I saw the girl’s face I thought it was a carved wooden mask. something made by one of those quaint tribes far away in the Mexican south. Nor have I told him that I keep a copy of it in a folder right next to where I work and that from time to time I open the clean manila folder and look in. to her face. And then I close it like the lid of a coffin. She haunts me, and I deal with this fact by avoiding it. I have brought a pile of photography books to Jaime’s house to add to the communal archive maintained by the street shooters of Juarez. They are all here at this moment, sitting in the room staring at the screen. We are amigos now. I have rustled up a curio-a bottle of wine called NAFTA, with the label Mexican, the wine U.S., and the bottle Canadian. Everyone smiles at this farcical vintage. The photographers tell me after we have been drinking for hours, “You give us hope.” It must be the wine.
I look up at Jaime Bailleres. The girl’s face is still floating on the screen. “Yes,” I tell him. “You are right. No one will ever print this photograph. But I want them to see it whether they print it or not.”
He sighs, the way an adult sighs over the actions of a child.
I look up at the girl on the screen. I tell myself that a photograph is worth a thousand words. I tell myself photographs lie. I tell myself there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. I tell myself I am still sleeping. But she stares at me. The skin is smooth, almost carved and sanded, but much too dark. And the screams are simply too deafening.
(1) Former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari figured Mexico’s drug cartels net $30 billion a year, more than the U.S. bailout of Mexico. In 1995, Salinas fled the country under suspicion of ties to the drug cartels.
(2) Figures on pay in these factories are almost universally exaggerated. In October of 1995, Newsweek pegged the average wage at $15 a day. When I showed this issue to Mexican reporters, they insisted it must be a typographical error. Wages vary from one border city to another, but a fair range is from $20 to $35 a week.
(4) Over 90 percent of Mexican families have a television. In the barrios, where the houses are cardboard and the electricity is pirated, you will consistently find televisions. The part of the fabled global village actually exists.