The following is an excerpt from the new bookThe Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez (Verso Books, 2013):
El Paso del Norte International Bridge, better known as the Santa Fe Bridge, spits out dozens of deported Mexicans. It’s a busy day. Every Friday at five o’clock in the afternoon, airplanes from all over the United States land in El Paso, Juárez’s sister city. Undocumented migrants are unloaded from these planes and driven down to the bridge that circumvents the border wall. They emerge disoriented, with a plastic bag in hand that holds a copy of the papers ordering them out of the country. Some hardly speak Spanish and use Spanglish to ask how to reach their hometown, which they may hardly remember. Some have no family in Mexico at all.
“Seventeen years over there,” says one young man, turning, stupefied, to look down Juárez Avenue.
There’s an immense difference between one side of the bridge and the other.
Grupo Beta agents offer the deported men and women transportation. A volunteer driver suggests going to a shelter run by Dominican friars. I can tell that for a few of them, it’s hard to take those first few steps away from the Santa Fe Bridge. They stare into the distance, into their home country. A few, however, dressed like cholos, plow forward with confidence, swaggering in their bright sneakers and loose pants, decked out with earrings and huge, swinging chains. The few sporting gray pants and a gray sweatshirt have just been let out of prison for serious felonies, such as attempted murder. Others are in field laborers’ garb, thick long-sleeved button-down shirts and cotton pants. These guys have been caught in the act of trying to cross, and it’s rare that they’re younger than forty. The minority group is made up of over-fifties who came to the United States in the 1980s or early 90s, when there wasn’t yet a wall. When Juárez wasn’t what it is.
Some 6,000 Mexicans are deported every month by the El Paso customs office. On Friday evenings it looks like a school parking lot at the end of the day, with people rushing out the doors or waiting for their ride.
Currency exchange dealers mob the freshly deported migrants, hollering their offers. They circle the migrants as if they were tourists at a market, knowing that any money they have left from el otro lado, the other side, needs to be changed into pesos. Rodrigo, one of these dealers, dresses in orange, just like the Grupo Beta agents, to try to confuse migrants who are looking for advice. The three young women who work for him, wearing tiny shorts and shirts that show off their dark legs and belly buttons, take migrants by the arm and walk them to the exchange house.
“We only charge you three percent, we do it to help more than anything else,” Rodrigo lies as he pockets eight percent as tariff.
Still, on this street, options have to be measured by their degree of evil; the corner shop keeps thirty of every hundred dollars. But the technique there is more sophisticated. The fat woman responsible for luring migrants in tries to convince them that it’s the only place to get pesos. “They’re all swindlers who bribe the authorities,” Rodrigo complains, suspiciously eyeing the shop. The owner, a tall skinny man with gray hair and an enormous, hawkish nose mounted on his gaunt face, films us with a small video camera.
“He always does that,” Rodrigo explains. “It’s to intimidate us so we won’t work this corner.” The giant’s threat has nothing to do with showing the video to authorities, at least not for legal purposes. Rodrigo has a license to do his work. The threat is more along the lines of, I’m going to show your face to so-and-so and he’s going to smash it if you keep taking away my customers. Rodrigo has already suffered two beatings: one from the police, who accused him of resisting arrest (though he asserts that they came up to him already intent on attack), and another from a group of gangsters who waited for him on a corner a couple of blocks away.
“Beware of the police,” Father Jose Barrios, director of the Juárez migrant shelter, warned Edu Ponce and me as we parted ways a few hours ago. “And beware of the thieves who roam around here. They’re in it together. They’re the ones robbing migrants.”
When people talk about the danger in these parts, they don’t mean a young man who tries to snatch a purse away from an unsuspecting passerby. The fear here is sown by the police and by the drug traffickers. No one can trust anyone. Three hundred city police positions were taken over by national military forces this past October. Only those few agents who passed some obscure test of trustworthiness are still working. And, according to Father Barrios, people should still be wary of them, even though most do nothing but act as chauffeurs for the military.
There are no city officers in sight today. Instead, nine military officers armed with AR-15 assault riffles watch over Juárez Avenue, which ends at the bridge. At least seven businesses in the area have shut down this month. Pharmacy owners, bar owners, and restaurant owners have chosen to leave the area rather than pay the monthly 20,000-peso tax that some of the drug cartels currently fighting over the area demand. The Juárez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, two of the largest organized crime groups in Mexico, are battling for control of the border zone, all in order to win more for their side: more people, more streets, more authorities.
They’re not gangs and they’re not corner hoodlums. They’re organizations that cross hundreds of tons of South American cocaine and Mexican marijuana and methamphetamine to the United States. The Juárez Cartel was the largest in Mexico during the 1990s. Back then it was led by Amado Carrillo, known as El Señor de los Cielos, The Lord of the Skies. Carrillo was something like the Mexican version of Colombia’s Pablo Escobar. He earned his nickname because he used his Boeing 727 to cross loads of cocaine every week, sold at 200 million US dollars. The Mexican government alleged that an unrecognizable body, found in 1997 in a clinic specializing in plastic surgery, was Carrillo’s. Since his death or disappearance his relatives have led the Juárez Cartel, but it has been weakened by the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels’ power surge.
The Sinaloa Cartel has its hands in both Central and South America. This cartel is led by the most famous Mexican narco-trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, who wants to strip the Juárez Cartel of its last bit of armor in the city that gives it its name. El Chapo became a household name in 2001, when he escaped from a maximum security prison by supposedly hiding in a crate of dirty laundry. Now he wants to snatch the throne that the Lord of the Skies left empty.
Ciudad Juárez is now considered the most violent city in the world. According to many newspapers, Mexican cartel warfare has left some 4,550 people dead, 4,000 in Juárez in 2008 alone. Since late 2008, there’s been a self-imposed curfew in town. At five in the afternoon, as soon as dusk sweeps over the city, everyone recommends doing one thing: “Lock yourself in.” Already today, four people have told us to do the same.
Under the bridge, the lights hung along the six-foot metal wall dividing Mexico from the United States give a glow to the borderline. On the US side, two Border Patrol SUVs are making their rounds. The recently deported crowd into the shelter or into Grupo Beta vans. They stare sidelong at Juárez Avenue. The military is on the alert, and people walk hurriedly to leave the area or make their way to customs to cross over into the United States. Where they feel safer, I imagine.
This is how night falls over the Santa Fe Bridge in Juárez, the city that went from receiving thousands of departing northbound migrants to receiving thousands of southbound deported migrants; the city where everyone watches their back. The militarized city. The war in Juárez provoked increased border militarization, to prevent the violence spilling over to neighboring US cities. Yet, despite the heavy military and Border Patrol presence, the out- skirts of Juárez is still a major drug crossing zone.
This is one of the many faces of Mexico’s northern border. This is Juárez, a frontier hot spot and, at the same time, a city that little by little has been vanishing from the migrant map.
Published with permission from Verso Books.
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