Death, fear and drugs haunt the US-Mexico border. Andrew Dickens visits two cities divided by a fence, but joined by much more
US federal agents prepare to cross the bridge from El Paso, Texas, over the Rio Grande, into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The two cities, geographically and culturally joined, are divided at least, by one of the most heavily guarded borders on Earth. As the agents don bulletproof vests, the tension and trepidation is evident. Their stony faces can’t mask the fear.
It’s justified. As they drive in convoy through the streets of Juárez, mutilated bodies hang from overpasses, cartel lookouts stand on every corner, reporting their progress. Death – past and potential – is very much in the air.
This isn’t real. It’s a scene from new film, Sicario: the tale of an earnest FBI agent (Emily Blunt), co-opted into an anti-cartel operation. Juárez, though, is real – as are the lookouts, murders and mutilations. And now I’m here, slightly shitting myself.
A few weeks ago, I’d watched Sicario and been struck by this scene, the contrast between the two cities. There is a current fascination, perhaps infatuation, with ‘narcos’. Many films have been made, many articles written; we all know about the decapitations and disappearances.
I don’t know if the fascination is healthy, but I wanted to find out for myself what happens when a conurbation of three million people spreads across two countries and a thoroughfare for contraband and human trafficking. When officially one of the safest cities in the US – and home to those nice fajita kits – is literally a stone’s throw from the world’s largest border city which, in 2010 alone, had nearly 3,000 murders.
I spend my first day in El Paso. Putting aside its lively neighbours and the 85 per cent Mexican-American population, it’s your standard US city. College sport, outlet stores, massive cars. Its most outstanding non-Mexican characteristic is the presence of Fort Bliss, the US Army’s largest training base. As Bruce Berman, my photographer, who’s been documenting the area for years, tells me: “Juárez is what makes El Paso interesting.”
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
Here I meet Oscar Hagelsieb, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). A bearded, tattooed rock of a man, he’s a Harley-riding son of Mexican immigrants who made his name by going undercover with borderland gangs. Simply put, the coolest man you could ever meet. He gives a cartel history lesson.
“The majority go back to the Prohibition era of the Twenties,” he says. “They formed around Sinaloa, a poor area of Mexico. They always had a bandido attitude – ‘if the government won’t take care of us, we’ll take care of ourselves. If the gringos want liquor, we’ll give it to them, because it’ll provide for our families’. The cartels assist impoverished areas. Some people see them as Robin Hood types.”
Their particular set of skills led to them running produce into the US for Colombian drug cartels, before later growing their own marijuana on an enormous scale. Why be the mule when you can be the farmer?
Marijuana is now their stock-in-trade, supplemented by imported cocaine, heroin and, increasingly, home-grown methamphetamine. In a country with a 46 per cent poverty rate, if the gringos want it, they still get it.
For decades, Hagelsieb explains, there was relatively little violence; it was seen as bad for business and there were rules. If you weren’t involved, you were left alone. But since the late Nineties, things have changed. The old guard died out and traditions were lost. Innocents became fair game. Then, in 2007, when the once-dominant Juárez cartel entered a battle for its city with the Sinaloa cartel, the people of Juárez began to wake to mutilated human remains on their streets.
“People elsewhere don’t realise the consequences of the marijuana cigarette that they’re smoking or the line of coke that they’re doing,” says Hagelsieb. “But it’s not only drugs – the cartels have a hand in counterfeit goods, too. That money buys ammunition, weapons. Even a handbag has drastic consequences in Mexico.”
There are many obstacles for ‘the law’ here. For one, corruption is rife. You can’t fly Boeing 757s full of drugs across a country without very greasy wheels. There’s the fear of, and the respect for, cartels. And then there are the ties between two cities bound by blood in more ways than one. Children from Juárez cross the border to go to school. Workers commute between countries. Everyone is linked to the other side.
“You can add as much technology as you like,” says Hagelsieb, “as many fences, we’re still one. We’re joined not only geographically, but also by family. We know of individuals who live in El Paso, US citizens, who take their kids to school or soccer practice, cross the border to do their dirty dealings, then come back.”
The next day, I’m on that bridge, feeling the excitement and nerves of a journey into the unknown. I’m with my fixer, Carlos Rosales, a local television journalist, and Berman. They tell me that Juárez isn’t as violent as it once was. Good. Murders, they say, are down to about 20 or 30 a month. Oh. And then there are the ‘disappeared’ and the unreported deaths. This is a city where, I’m later told by a Red Cross worker, failed ‘hits’ are routinely finished off in the backs of ambulances or emergency rooms. I’m not heading to Cancun.
The immediate contrast with El Paso is noticeable, if not stark. There are supermarkets, lively bars and cafés. There are no bodies on the street. There’s a clear civic pride, too; the people here don’t want to be in El Paso. They love the Mexican way of life. As one government official tells me, Americans just “work and watch television”.
There is money, too, but where the wealth in El Paso is open, here it’s hidden behind gates amid scruffy public roads. The rich, whatever their means of income, have great power in Mexico, but they don’t seem comfortable here.
The further we drive, the more acute the difference. The global economic crash saw thousands here lose their jobs at the maquilas: huge low-wage factories on the Mexican side of the fence where large, often global, manufacturers produce cheap goods for the US. This, combined with the height of the violence from 2008 to 2012, saw an exodus from Juárez. We begin to see more empty and razed houses, fewer gated villas and clubs.
The former red light district, once the entertainment hub for both cities (and cherry-popping rite of passage for teenage Texan boys) is now wasteland.
We leave the city to the south-east and enter Juárez Valley (nicknamed ‘murder valley’ due to its habit of turning up corpses), which runs tight along the border. Rosales becomes noticeably more cautious. Here, he says, everything and everyone is under cartel control. The few remaining residents will be reporting our presence – we’re in a news unit from Rosales’ station, which he said would be “safer” – while each farm we pass is a potential drug store.
We pull into one farm, parking between two maize fields so that I can get a closer look at the 18ft fence keeping Texas at bay. By the ditch that follows the fence on the Mexican side, lie shoes, bottles, blankets; remnants of attempted illegal crossings. If it makes money and the cartels can get a piece of it, they will. I’m constructing stories for the former owners of these items when Carlos points out that we have company.
Blocking us from our car is a red pick-up truck. In the front are two burly men, in the back, two shovels. As they approach, the desert scene in Casino comes to mind. I don’t speak Spanish; I couldn’t even plea for my life. Rosales is perhaps doing that as he chats to the men. I, for my part, try to look as naive and pathetic as possible. It’s not a stretch.
After about two minutes, Rosales says we can go. He’d explained that we were doing a story on the border and had just wanted a photograph. The men had suggested a better spot for it – well away from their farm. Were they ever likely to harm us? Impossible to say. Did they work for a cartel? Without a doubt.
On our way back to the bridge, Rosales wants me to see the consequences Hagelsieb had spoken of. We drive to a quiet street, lined with small, colourful bungalows. One yellow bungalow is distinguished by a large wooden cross in the front yard. Here, I’m told, on 30 January 2010, 15 teenagers were massacred during a party. Gunmen sealed off the street, entered the house and rained bullets on them. The reason: mistaken identity. They were at the wrong party.
Inside, the house has become a scruffy, unofficial shrine to the victims. Pictures and plaques adorn the walls. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but this place radiates horror.
We’re set to leave when a woman’s voice outside asks what we’re doing. She’s with her teenage son. Rosales asks the boy if he knew the people who died here.
“Yes,” he says. “I was here. I was shot three times.” It turns out he’s one of 14 survivors from the attack. I’ve never seen a bullet wound before and here I am seeing my first on a 19-year-old who has never been in the army or police. He was also shot in the back and in the side as he ran from the house, leading to five operations.
“Please, don’t show his face,” his mother begs. “He’s never spoken to the press before and I’m worried about repercussions.”
The son explains he was 14 at the time, but older kids had invited him to the party. “There were people outside with guns,” he says. “A neighbour came and pushed us all into a corner, telling us to get down. Then three gunmen came inside and started firing.”
How does it feel to have survived? “I appreciate life more,” he says. ”I try for closure, but everybody keeps asking what happened. A lot of morbid questions.”
The sheepishness on my face raises a smile from him.
“I’m also more cautious. More careful about where I go and who I go with. It’s a terrible injustice. We didn’t do anything wrong.“
He points out the corner where the teenagers had gathered. I’m sure the neighbour meant well, but I fear he effectively corralled them into one, big easy target. I try to imagine what it would have felt like, to be lying there awaiting your fate as your friends scream and die around you. But of course I can’t. This is as gritty as it gets for someone like me. At least I hope it is. And I think that’s the lesson from the two cities.
Ignoring the cost
Their relationship, in some ways, reflects that of the ‘first’ world with places like Juárez. As the citizens here are intrinsically linked, we’re all increasingly part of one global community, for good or bad. Only the outrageous fortune of birth has landed us this side of the fence, away from the poverty, desperation and temptation.
Yet, in the same way that the young men of El Paso had their fun in the brothels and bars of Juárez before heading home to their own beds, we’re still happy to let cartels provide us with a good time, ignoring the cost.
Safe at home, the dirty work remains across the border.
Last week, the mayor of Juárez called for its citizens to boycott Sicario, claiming it didn’t represent the city today. He’s right, but beyond damaging the city’s non-existent reputation as a go-to tourist destination, his point is irrelevant. Yes, there are signs of hope – fewer heads on doorsteps, an economic recovery – but the problem hasn’t left. People still die and disappear because of cartels.
So perhaps our fascination with these bloodthirsty ‘Robin Hoods’, and the making of films like Sicario, is healthy – if we remember that what we see and what we read is, for some people, very, very real.
Sicario is at cinemas nationwide now
(Images: Getty, Bruce Berman)