When Mexico marked its Centenary of Revolution last month, bringing to a close two months festivities that began in September with its Bicentenary of Independence, many assumed the northern border town of Ciudad Juárez would either cancel or at least scale down its celebrations.
It had done so for the earlier anniversary, cancelling the traditional eleven o’clock grito—the annual ringing of a bell in the town’s main square accompanied by cries of “Viva Mexico!”—out of fear of possible cartel-related violence. The next day, a photographer from the city’s main newspaper, El Diario, was gunned down on his lunch break, prompting the paper’s editorial staff to write an unprecedented open letter to the city’s cartels headlined: “What do you want from us?”
But instead of scaling down the November 20 celebrations, Juárez’s new leadership team scaled up security instead. (Héctor Murguía, who served as mayor between 2004 and 2007, was sworn in again on October 10, at the beginning of what would become the bloodiest month in the city’s history.)
The school, civic and religious groups represented in the annual parade were heavily guarded by the city’s ubiquitous security forces, with patrols of federal police prowling the streets in their black utility vehicles and snipers dotting the roofs of the buildings that lined the route. With so many gun-toting, balaclava-clad federal police and army troops on the streets, Juárez can sometimes feel as though it is operating under martial law.
Following President Felipe Calderón’s declaration of war on the cartels in December 2006, troop numbers along the northern border have exploded into the tens of thousands. More than 29,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the ensuing four years, with execution-style killings, ritual beheadings, and massacres at teen parties and drug rehabilitation clinics all disconcertingly common.
Among the trove of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks this month were a number that revealed growing concern among both US and Mexican officials that the current strategy is not working and that the country runs the risk of losing entire regions to cartel rule.
It is the military’s presence in Juárez, however, as much as the threat of violence, that partly accounts for the weirdly muted, airless quality of the city’s streets. According to a report released last month by the Washington Office on Latin America, a number of soldiers have been accused of human rights violations against citizens, with over four thousand reports of rape, robbery, forced disappearance and extrajudicial killings over the past four years. Asked what he thinks of the military presence in the city, one cab driver squirmed: “It is unpleasant but necessary.”
To the extent that it is necessary it can also be reassuring: according to reports, hundreds more locals showed up for the weekend’s events than attended either the bicentenary celebrations of earlier this year or those marking the anniversary of Revolution at the end of last.
And indeed the events were charming enough: school children dancing in traditional garb, mariachi bands, local crooners. What was really winsome, however, was the high esteem in which those present held their city and their willingness to go ahead with events despite the risks.
Nelia, one of the event’s organisers, was surprised to see westerners at Plaza Benito Juárez, where the post-parade festivities were taking place. “I didn’t think we were supposed to get tourists in Juárez anymore,” she joked.
She said Juarenses had been given a new sense of confidence by the election of Murguía, whose speeches tend to emphasise economic development over Calderón’s increasingly controversial—some would say discredited—military approach to the cartels. Indeed, when the mayor made a brief appearance at the concert, locals scrambled to shake his hand and have their photos taken with him.
Asked if she was scared of the possibility of violence at the event, Nelia openly scoffed. “No,” she said as a group of schoolchildren dressed as cowboys took to the stage. “I refuse to be scared by my own city.”
Others, however, were not so certain. Charlie, a teacher at a local language school, described life in the city as “terrible”. “When you go out in morning,” he said, “you never know if you’re going to come back.”
He said in addition to drug-related violence—authorities predict that three thousand people will be murdered in the city this year, easily outdoing last year’s own record-breaking bumper crop—one now had to worry about extortion and kidnapping too.
“It’s not even a drug thing a lot of the time,” Charlie said. “There are copycat threats as well from people who have nothing to do with the cartels at all.” He said the school he teaches at has been forced to close due to threats of violence and intimidation on more than one occasion.
David, a Chicago-born American who has lived in Juárez for three years, said locals’ feelings about the city were complex, at once both fearful and proud, as well as fiercely protective. He said while most concede that the city’s reputation as the murder capital of the world is deserved—”Everyone knows at least one person who has been killed in the violence,” he said—they also maintain that the predominant media narrative about the place is often incomplete.
“People are extremely proud of this city and very much love it in ways that no one from the outside can really understand,” David said at the Museum of the Revolution on the Frontier, which was opened as part of the weekend’s celebrations. “Of course, the violence affects everyone and is part of the fabric of daily life, but everyone here wants someone to notice that Juárez and Jurenses are more than that.”
What they are, he said, is resilient. “What is really fascinating is the way people try to continue to maintain a normal life despite the violence. We go to school, we go to work, and we do it even though we’re all probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
While he conceded that there was something refreshing about Murguía’s arguments—the mayor likes to stress the US responsibility to Juárez to curb the insatiable demand for drugs that drives the whole sordid business—David also said that it was worth remembering that the mayor’s opponents have previously accused him of having links to drug traffickers and that four hundred of the city’s police officers had to be fired following his first reign as mayor, after they failed confidence exams consisting of drug and polygraph tests.
“It makes a lot of sense not to listen to the politicians down here,” he said.
However, Murguía nevertheless managed to bring members his audience to tears when he spoke in front of the museum moments later. Reminding them of the importance of Juárez to the Mexican Revolution—and therefore, he said, to Mexican freedom— the mayor led the onlookers in the grito they missed out on two months prior: “Viva Juárez! Viva Chihuahua! Viva Mexico!”
By six o’clock, however, the streets were empty again and any signs that a crowd had been gathered in them had all but disappeared. Juarenses may love their city in spite of the bloodshed it has seen, but it is precisely because of that bloodshed that they know better than to be outside after dark.
An edited version of this article appeared under the title ‘A town kicks against cartel rule’ in The Weekend Australian on Saturday, December 11, 2010. That version is accessible here.