We had just finished our time in Juarez, Mexico, when we had dinner with some distant relations on the U.S. side of the border. "You," one of my relatives said, "are the first Juarez survivors we've seen in some time."
He said this even though he lives within sight of Juarez, in El Paso, just across the Rio Grande. Many people on the U.S. side long ago stopped visiting their Mexican sister city, and not without reason: Juarez was the world's most violent city as recently as 2010. That year it suffered more than 3,000 murders, many of them apparently related to a fight to control the drug trade. (El Paso reported five homicides that year.)
But perception may have outlasted reality. Total homicides in Juarez fell below 500 last year, still outrageously high but a significant improvement. What does it feel like today to walk the streets of this city with its terrifying reputation? We spent several days composing a portrait of life in Juarez. Think of the portrait as a triptych, with three scenes.
Conditions have improved enough that Intocable returned to Juarez. The Texas border band, which we profiled earlier in our road trip, played a concert in a Juarez baseball stadium on Saturday, March 8. To be precise, it was actually Sunday, March 9, because Intocable did not take the stage until well after midnight.
While the warm-up acts were playing, Intocable lead singer Ricky Muñoz welcomed us into his tour bus. In recent years, the popular group has played in Mexico City, Central America, even Colombia and beyond, but Juarez was impossible. "As a matter of fact, they weren't doing events," Muñoz said. "Seven years we haven't been here."
Out on stage, an announcer asked, "Wanna hear Intocable?" and then, after pausing to hear the crowd roar, asked people where they were from.
"La gente de Juarez!" he shouted, and the people of Juarez cheered.
"Y de El Paso!" he added, and a portion of the crowd howled back: They had crossed over to visit from the infinitely safer city across the river.
By the time Muñoz sang his first note, at 12:41 a.m., several thousand people sat in the stands or crowded the baseball field, apparently untroubled by the lateness of the hour. The concert stage was set up in the outfield. Just in front of the stage (second base must have been underfoot somewhere) the high-paying fans sat on plastic chairs, drinks on the tables in front of them.
Later we went for a drive in the city, past a row of Juarez nightclubs. Some of the bars that shut down during the violence remain closed, but lights flashed through the windows of a dance club, and late-night diners patronized restaurants down the way.
It's hard to say why the Juarez violence receded, though people have theories. Maybe rival drug cartels reached a truce; maybe a single cartel won out. Either way, this calmer city is not exactly crime free. That's why some people remain in exile from Juarez, having crossed over to El Paso.
We crossed to the American side of the river one evening to visit the home in exile of Jose Alfredo Holguin. He beckoned us inside in El Paso, and told us the story of his Juarez business career.
"Before the violence," he said, "we had a fleet of buses."
Holguin and his brothers ran the buses, often carrying workers to maquiladoras, the factories that global corporations have set up along the border in Juarez. The family had more than 20 buses at one time, but someone wanted a piece of the action.
Men showed up brandishing guns in front of Holguin's family, and demanded extortion payments to leave the business alone. It was the same demand, Holguin said, that is made of "transport owners, restaurateurs and other kinds of businesses." In Juarez, the weekly payment to criminal groups is called the "cuota," or "toll." (It's pronounced a little like the English word "quota.")
Holguin said his business had to pay $800 a week, almost half the weekly income, though he later negotiated down to $400. Sometimes the extortionist disappeared, only to be replaced weeks later by another man — apparently because the previous collector had been killed and replaced.
Holguin said he was part of a transport owners' group who complained to the government about the cuota. Then someone killed his adult son, shooting him nine times in the head.
That's when his surviving family moved to El Paso, seeking asylum in 2009.
Holguin has never been back to Juarez, but says his business continued paying extortion, as recently as last year.
"How do you feel," I asked, "when you see Juarez, which is so close?"
"I see Juarez at least three times per week," he said, "and I feel shame."
Other people doing business in Juarez told us they, too, are paying the cuota, though it's hard to prove exactly who's collecting. Crime in Juarez hasn't gone away. It's just become more businesslike.
That shouldn't be surprising in a city that's all about business.
During our visit we took a drive to a series of maquiladoras: assembly plants along the border, set up to make parts and components for U.S. industries. Delphi, Automotive Lighting, Flextronics, Lear and other plants are lined up along the river like stores in a strip mall.
We watched a shift change, as people came and went from their 11-hour days. A candy vendor outside Lear Corp. offered chewing gum and chocolate for sale.
Workers from many plants have long commutes, and one maquiladora worker, Yvonne Navarro, let us follow along on hers. First she went to an ATM to collect her pay, the equivalent of $43 per week. Then she boarded a bus with her 16-year-old daughter.
This was the way to see Juarez; it seemed like everything visible from that packed commuter bus said something about the city. For starters, the city out the window was low and sprawling; there aren't many high-rise buildings in Juarez. Truth be told, the high-rise downtown for this binational metropolis is actually across the river in El Paso.
The bus we rode was actually a school bus. The roof was so low I really couldn't stand up straight in the crowded aisle. Yvonne pointed out that the emergency exit signs were in English; Juarez buses were worn out by American schoolchildren long before they were repainted many colors and repurposed in Mexico.
Windows were cracked, seats were torn, some of the surfaces were tagged with graffiti. Yet a cheerful end-of-week atmosphere prevailed: A mother and daughter held ice cream comes; a young woman carried an armful of hula hoops.
Eventually, as people climbed off and on, Yvonne and I were able to find a seat and talk. She said she worked making parts for refrigerators and other appliances, which are shipped across the border to the U.S.
Years ago, she lived very close to the border, with a view across the river to the United States. She said she liked looking at El Paso, "but I like Mexico more."
The only time she had crossed the river was to shop; she used to buy cheap items like hairbands in El Paso and sell them in Juarez where prices are higher.
These days she lives deep inside Juarez. Her bus ride home led past miles of restaurants offering burritos or gorditas, and rows of washing machines for sale on the sidewalk.
Yvonne pointed out a local pawnshop.
"Have you ever used it?" I asked.
"Si." She said she sold her rings when she needed money, that $43 per week doesn't go very far. Her husband left her, and the 16-year-old sitting next to us was one of two daughters still living at home.
When we reached Yvonne's stop we walked an unpaved street, which pointed toward a craggy mountain at the edge of town. Then we turned through a dimly lit gateway; a dirt courtyard; a single lawn chair.
We arrived in a two-room house; a bare bulb cast light on yellow walls.
Stuffed animals for Yvonne's two daughters filled a corner: teddy bears, Winnie-the-Pooh.
The 16-year-old daughter is also named Yvonne. She opened a book of photos from her recent quinceanera, a traditional coming-of-age party for 15-year-old girls.
The teen had to wait an extra year while her mother saved for it. Renting her lovely white dress cost the equivalent of 10 weeks worth of pay, which her mother raised through savings and contributions from her maquiladora co-workers.
"What do you want to do when you graduate?" I asked the younger Yvonne.
"I want to go to college," she said, "and become a lawyer."
She had no idea how to afford that. As she spoke she clutched her favorite possession, a SpongeBob SquarePants stuffed toy.
Maybe she'll find a job, she said. At 16, she is the same age her mother was when her mother went to work in the maquiladoras. But her mother hopes the younger Yvonne can avoid the maquiladora life.
Much like the city of Juarez in which they live, the Navarro family is surviving.
They just haven't figured out how to get ahead.