The City of Juarez

The U.S. border has always been a reason for substantial concern with respect to the rulers of the federal government. Distant enemies, distant enmities, in close proximity to the traditional foe -and the historic loss of territory- the borders have adopted the myths and realities that are often difficult to understand for those of who do not live along the border. Today, with Ciudad Juárez at the forefront, the themes are more mundane, more specific: the people in this city live with daily violence that appears to have no end and that, little by little, eats away at families, birthrights, and values. Many would rather go to the U.S., others demand solutions; the majority only aspire for the installment of a local government that works, not one composed of so-called aviators, whose names are on Juárez payrolls, but who fly in from the state or federal capital to collect paychecks for work not done, their interest not transcending the proverbial fifteen minutes of media fame.

I Juárez Mexicans came to see what a perfect storm looks like: an economy growing at an extraordinary pace, huge inflows of people from the rest of the country, absences of the minimum social, physical, security and governmental infrastructure, and on top of this all, the sudden collapse of the federal government’s structure of political control. The mixture translated into criminality, destruction of the social fabric, disappearance of the family as a basic social structure and of any sense of community. Only under this framework can one explain the hordes of youths becoming hired assassins roaming through the streets as if they own them. Only this way can we fathom the world of cruelty, violence and death that saw them come to life and grow. Juárez long ago ceased to be an organized and functional society.

The political war that we are experiencing in Mexico makes it difficult to elucidate the central from the peripheral. If we guide ourselves by the newspaper headlines, it is impossible to determine whether 1) an army battle is being waged in Juárez against the population, 2) the narcos are battling against the government, 3) it is the population against violence, or 4) whether it is the country against the narcos. There is no doubt, however, that the Juárez population is satiated with violence, lack of government, narcos, and above all, the most basic criminality: that which coerces, steals, and kills, that which is not necessarily linked with narcotrafficking, and that for which none of the three levels of government has an answer.

Criminality began its destruction of the tranquility of the country from at least the early 1990s; nonetheless, 15 long years later, we have not been able to see concrete and definitive answers. Ciudad Juárez is without doubt an extreme in the wave of insecurity, but it is not atypical. The number of kidnappings, thefts, and extortion strategies spout forth like foam. The number of entrepreneurs, big stores, and Mom-and-Pop operations that have to cough up (“protection” money) or be held up ‒the sale and purchase of protection, or extortion‒ is increasing throughout the country and affects even the large retail enterprises, those which one would imagine would enjoy a certain immunity. Governments come and go, but criminality hangs tough.

President Calderón launched the war against the narco, not because he had to legitimize himself, although this was certainly a circumstantial benefit, but rather because the country was engulfed in narcotrafficking, narcoretailing, corruption, and violence, and recovering the national presence was critical. The criminality to which neither this government, nor its predecessors, has neglected to respond is that which exerts an impact on the average citizen. Yes, this is a local, and not a federal, theme, but for a country emerging from the era of PRI hypercentralism, the distinction remains imperceptible for the populace. All of a sudden, from the 1990s on, federal authority began to erode until, with the defeat of the PRI in 2000, the entire historical structure of power was distorted: criminality took root, and a police and security structure was never created for the new era in which we live. The federal government stopped controlling the state governors and municipal presidents, and the majority of these never developed an effective governmental structure. The result is that the criminals -to a even greater extent than the narcos- call the shots, as it were, if not in reality govern a good part of the national territory.

Federal concerns are poorly focused. Many border zone inhabitants have migrated to the “other side”, not because they prefer to live there, but instead, because they are sick of the criminality. This delinquency is the product of change in the political realities that the country has lived through but not attended to: there is no political structure that is capable of dealing with delinquency; the war against the narco possesses its own logic, but it does not resolve the criminality of every day. What we have is weak, incompetent authorities who do not understand the loss of their own legitimacy and who lack instruments to counteract the pain to which the population is being submitted in the wearing away of their lives. The government’s weakness has been more than matched by the muscle and makeup of organized crime: the latter, with greater clarity of vision, filled the void left by the absence of authority.

In Juárez, a battle is now being conducted that, unfortunately, compounds the theme affecting the voting population in view of the contest among political parties for the upcoming state election. Many Juarenses find themselves fed up amid a surfeit of abuse and lack of attention. One of them declared that now that his son has died, he would be able to go to live on the U.S. side of the border. Some months ago, the Latinobarímetro survey reported that more than one half of Mexicans would go to the U.S. on being presented with the opportunity. For many people in Juárez, moving to the other side of the border is not an issue of opportunity, but one of survival.

Many people are concerned about the loss of identity. However, all of the surveys show that the identity of the Mexican is extraordinarily deep-rooted. Deriving from difficult historical moments such as the U.S. invasion, national identity does not appear to be in doubt. What indeed is openly repudiated by the population is governmental incompetency, at all levels. The population is no longer able to confirm their own concerns each time that the illicit cohabitation of some authority -governor, municipal president, or police official- with organized crime comes to light. And, regrettably, new liaisons of this nature are reported every day. Although dictators like Stalin conveniently identified authority with government, in a democracy legitimacy must be earned by those who govern every day of their political lives. And many decades have elapsed since Mexican governors abandoned the citizenry to their fate in the matter of criminality.

If something does unite Mexican governments over time, it is their singular capacity to respond to the wrong problems. Several decades ago, in the face of fearing excision at the northern border, the government in power devised the National Border Program to “rescue” Mexicans in the region. What would be ideal today would be to transform the police and security systems so that cities like Juárez could regain peace. In an ideal world, this would imply the accelerated development of municipal capacities, but there are few examples in the country that permit contemplating a project of this nature in optimistic fashion. The alternative would be a type of protectorate, a supramunicipal authority, that would attend to, not only the blatant security problem, but also to the nonexistence of infrastructure –not only physical, but also educational, social, community and otherwise- for the city that has provided the country more jobs than any other in past decades. Notwithstanding this, it has occurred to no one to provide succor for the one and the same city of Juárez.