I went to Juárez, and it was good to be there

Commentary

Mike Scanlon

Mike Scanlon

Rio Grande Digital

Two by two, truckloads of tetocops slowly crawled the side streets and alleys, their lights flashing red and blue. They crossed Avenida 16 de Septiembre about every two blocks. They were the Juárez city police — tetocops, as some people call them in a reference to Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguia.

An old man squeezed a melody from an accordion. A woman standing beside him brandished a cup for tips. A cabbie held his position on a Juárez Avenue corner. “Taxi, amigo? What are you looking for?”

The scene was much the same as it always has been on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Juárez. The mood seemed a little different — perhaps a bit subdued. Most of the people on the busy sidewalks were Juarenses. As they walked, their deliberate gait and their body language suggested they had somewhere they needed to be.

The gringos have yet to return in their pre-war numbers.

But it was evident that Juárez is trying very hard to bring them back, or at least to be ready for them when they do come back. Sidewalks were spotless. There was not so much as a cigarette butt in the street gutters. It was the mano de gato at work.

The jukebox at the Kentucky Club played as the crowd — about half local residents and about half from el otro lado — the other side — chattered over drinks. I had intended to, but I didn’t, check to see if the music machine still had two of the Kentucky Club staples: Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” and Glen Miller’s “In the Mood.” I’ll bet it does. It was rare to go in there without hearing one or both of those tunes. Not this time, though.

I had not been to Juárez a half-dozen times in the last four years, since the onset of daily violence that has claimed 10,000 lives in Juarez and nearly 50,000 across the republic. Prior to President Felipe Calderon’s “war on drugs,” my wife and I were regulars in the shops, bars and restaurants of the city of 1.3 million.

The bartender at the Kentucky Club recognized me. “Hola, amigo. You want Tecate?” He brought the beer, a small plastic cup filled with cut fresh limes and a salt shaker. He leaned over the bar toward me. “Hace mucho tiempo,” I said. He replied, “Si. How long? Two, three years?” I nodded, and he went on to his next customer.

Ciudad Juárez has held a strong allure for me since I was a teenager who crossed that bridge every chance I got. In case you don’t know, Juárez was then — and is now — a vibrant, very much alive city with a palpable pulse and a prevailing attitude that is uniquely its own. The moment you step off the Paso del Norte Bridge, you know there is a lot going on there.

And so it is still, though now you might sense a recovery taking place and, with it comes a guarded optimism that things are on the rebound — van por buen camino — on the right track. There is great hope for a busy spring and summer.

I cannot even imagine the frustration, fear, pain and suffering of the Juarenses who remained with their city during the daily gun battles and brazen crime — murder, kidnapping, extortion. They endured the absence of the all important norteamericanos who traditionally came across the bridges on alcohol-enabled spending sprees. But Juárez has survived, and now there seems to be a sense that everything will be all right.

Violence remains a daily threat, but it no longer appears to be a gratuitous kind of violence that previously dominated the city.

Inside the cavernous and eerily silent Mercado Juárez — often called the city market — three vendors sat chatting and playing dominoes on a metal table. They looked at me with curiosity as I walked toward the center aisles in search of someone I knew.

As I headed back out, a familiar figure stepped into my path with a grin and an outstretched hand. We talked for about 30 minutes about Juárez, about mutual friends, about the weather, his family, my family, the city police, the Mexican army and the federales. I listened as he shared his thoughts on a city security program that redrew police districts and established ubiquitous patrols. He supports it and believes it is effective. Three prospective customers appeared off the street, and it was time for me to depart.

On my way back up the west side of Juárez Avenue, I noticed that one of the small, humble markets was gone. A Subaru and a Mustang were parked in its place. Food vendors worked their tables lined up across the entrance to the Plaza del Mariachi — or something like that. The outdoor space is distinguished by a statue, now freshly painted, of two young boys washing a horse.

I returned to the Kentucky Club. The bartender, whose name I could not recall, brought me a Tecate and a cup of cut limes. I asked him for a shot of tequila — El Jimador, my favorite.

As the sun was setting on Juárez Avenue, I used my phone’s Facebook app to check in. I had decided to do that only as I was leaving, not when I arrived. It’s an extra measure of caution you take when visiting a place so  inhospitable to journalists and bloggers. Heading across the bridge, I checked in there too. Clearing ICE was uneventful.

I can’t tell you that Juárez is safe and that it’s OK to be there. I can’t give you that assurance about Las Cruces or El Paso — or Denver or Chicago, either. But I can tell you this: Life is short. And sometimes, if we are going to go where our hearts lead us, as we should do, we have to take our chances. More than likely, it will be worth it. It was for me.

Peace.

Mike Scanlon is editor and publisher of Rio Grande Digital. Comments and opposing viewpoints are always welcome.

 

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