Vol. 34 No. 11 · 7 June 2012

Lost in the Void

Jonathan Littell on the seamy life of Ciudad Juárez

6686 words

‘Over Sixty Hours without an Execution.’ When PM, the biggest tabloid in Ciudad Juárez, can’t find a corpse to put on its front page, it has to come up with something. On 21 November last year it announced that ‘the city has just experienced an unusual outbreak of peace … the longest for three years. Newspaper statistics show that from 29 December 2008, fifty hours passed without a killing. From 29 October 2009, Juárez recorded 41 hours without any violent deaths.’ Luis, a local journalist who meets me at El Paso airport, across the border, jokes about it: ‘Today, Juárez is very calm. Boring even. We used to have fifteen or twenty deaths a day. Now it’s just three, five, seven.’ The term ‘boring’ is relative. The first cover of PM that I see shows a photograph of a corpse whose head is no more than a skull: the man was burned with acid ‘while still alive’, the article says. It gives the usual details: name and age (José Gallegos, 22), circumstances of the crime (‘kidnapped at 2 a.m.’), relatives’ reactions (‘screaming in horror and despair after seeing the condition in which their loved one was found’). Police investigators will take statements and collect the body, but there will be nothing else: no follow-up, no investigative report, no arrest, no trial, not even a rudimentary explanation of why unknown persons saw fit to immerse José Gallegos’s head in acid. In subsequent issues of PM, his photo will be replaced by photos of other corpses. ‘What drives people crazy,’ Roberto Alvarez Gutiérez, a municipal police officer, explains, ‘is that there’s no follow-up. The files pile up and nothing is resolved. Sometimes mothers have to carry out their own investigations.’

That’s how things go here; it’s the norm. Every day someone is killed, every day people disappear and life goes on. When you cross from El Paso in the evening rush hour, three lanes of cars queue to go over the bridge. Flower and newspaper sellers walk from car to car, pedestrians cross on a walkway surrounded with barbed wire, and a sign announces that ALL WEAPONS ARE FORBIDDEN IN MEXICO. In this direction the wait is short, twenty minutes at most, whereas in the other direction you have to plan for two or three hours in the queue, especially during the holidays, when the people of Juárez go shopping in the States (even though Americans earn on average ten times more than Mexicans, everything is cheaper on the US side of the border). Beyond the bridge Ciudad Juárez unfurls, a vast rectangular grid of sparkling lights. The bridge leads to the Avenida de las Américas, an ordinary avenue with streams of cars, shopping centres, petrol stations; it could still be El Paso if it weren’t for the multicoloured buses, the camiones, and the omnipresent stench from the sewers. In the new city centre, groups of well-dressed young people congregate in front of bars, clubs and restaurants, where buskers play mariachi music or corridos for an audience that’s half middle-class, half drug dealers. It’s only recently that people have started going out at night again, and a number of establishments are still closed because of the cuota, the street ‘tax’ paid to the narcos for protection. Two years ago they asked for too much; many bars didn’t pay and were torched, while others closed and waited for better days, which are slowly returning. There are no soldiers on street corners or checkpoints, as there were in 2010, but the federal police still patrol, and the local police, the municipales, drive around with never less than two pick-up trucks loaded with cops in bulletproof helmets and vests, automatic weapons ready.

18 November: ‘Eliminated by a Sicaria!’ For the Romans, a sicario was a Jewish assassin who killed with a dagger; today, in Mexico, he is a hitman and prefers firearms. Despite the astonishing female robocops of the municipales, Ciudad Juárez is better known for its dead women than its female killers. There were so many of them, from 1993 onwards, that they invented a word for what was happening in the city – ‘feminicide’. Roberto Bolaño based 2666, his last and greatest book, on it. For the past few years, though, the topic has taken a back seat because twenty or thirty times more men than women are now being murdered: during my two weeks in the city, the only women killed were the other half of couples, collateral damage. But women continue to disappear even if their bodies – which used to be tossed into dumpsters or left in empty lots – are no longer found. The town centre is plastered with ‘missing’ posters: ‘ESTEFANIA HERNANDEZ GALLEGOS, 18, disappeared 14 November 2011’; ‘MARISELA GONZALEZ VARGAS, 26, disappeared 26 May 2011’; ‘ESMERALDA CASTILLO RINCON, 14 – Help us find her.’ It’s pretty much always the same ones: dark-skinned, working-class girls from poor neighbourhoods, the morenitas as they’re called, factory workers or prostitutes, or both. Middle-class young women don’t go out at night, or only in cars; if daddy has some money, they live on the other side, in El Paso. And since the vanished almost never turn up again, theories run wild. People talk of sex slavery – as if Mexican brothels had any trouble recruiting – or kidnap: anything to avoid admitting that these girls are dead.

Ricardo Alanis Santos, for example, gets out his placard at the smallest demonstration to remind the world of his daughter Mónica, who disappeared on 26 March 2009 from the campus of Juárez University. She was a serious, pretty girl, a good student, with few friends. The police went through the usual routine, questioned friends and family, then said Mónica was an alcoholic, a drug addict and a prostitute. ‘It’s a fake investigation,’ Ricardo says, in a singsong, resigned, lost voice. ‘They victimise her but they don’t look for her.’ The Committee for Mothers and Relatives with Missing Daughters, of which he is a member, counted more than 250 disappearances last year. Ricardo quit his job a year and a half ago, because of the financial crisis but also to look for his daughter, and he refuses to abandon hope: ‘I still believe my daughter is alive. We’re trying to put pressure on the authorities to find her. We’re also trying to investigate by ourselves. But we don’t have the money, not even for a soda.’

The maquiladoras where many of the missing girls worked, maquilas as they’re usually known, are American factories where parts are assembled after being imported duty-free. The finished products are then re-exported to the US: electrical appliances, clothing, plastic goods, cars, furniture. Labour is much cheaper in Mexico than in the States, about a thousand pesos a week – around $75. The maquilas have existed since the mid-1960s, but didn’t really take off until 1994, when Nafta came into force, brutally devastating Mexican agriculture and releasing a vast number of agricultural labourers, especially from the south, to come and fill the factories of the north. By the beginning of 2008, according to Forbes, the maquilas of Juárez employed around 245,000 people, most of them young women from the countryside. But the crisis hit them hard: 57,000 jobs were lost that year, more than 30,000 the next; and anyhow China looked like a better deal, as the Mexicans were getting greedy, asking for higher salaries and even social benefits. So now many of these ‘internal immigrants’ – those, at least, who aren’t trying to enter the US illegally – are packing their bags and going home.

In the southern and south-eastern parts of the city, you can see it with your own eyes. Beyond the first cotton fields, the American Wall bars the horizon, a reminder that something does lie beyond all this misery, but something inaccessible. You leave the main road and make your way, joltingly, to Riberas del Bravo, a neighbourhood (or colonia) created by Infonavit, the great state housing programme set up in the early 1970s for the new urban proletariat. Lined up in vast, empty, nearly treeless lots, along streets laid out in a grid and riddled with potholes, the square concrete houses – 36 square metres each, sold for about $13,000, bought with a thirty-year loan taken directly from workers’ wages – are almost all derelict. On a street of twenty or so houses, there might be four or five families left, the inhabited houses recognisable by their well-tended gardens or satellite dishes. The other houses, still painted in leprous pastel colours, pink, green, yellow or blue, and covered in graffiti, have been stripped bare: the ex-inhabitants have taken everything – the doors, the windows, the sinks, the toilets, the sockets. ‘If they could take the house away they would,’ a PM headline blares. The cement of the walls, mixed with sewage water, is cracking and covered with fungus; the gardens have been invaded by brambles and weeds; the electricity meter still stands in front of each house, occasionally blinking. There are no sewers, just a drainage ditch, but there’s no drainage either, so when it rains everything is flooded. Higher up, in Zaragoza, another Infonavit development built on a barren plateau, the street lights haven’t worked since the transformer was stolen; here, too, most of the inhabitants have gone back where they came from, usually Veracruz. ‘That’s where they dump the corpses,’ one of the few inhabitants explains, pointing to the bare plots surrounding the colonia.

The Western, and especially American, media tend to present Felipe Calderón’s decision, taken just after his highly contentious election victory in December 2006, to declare war on the drug cartels as a necessary and courageous act, even though the results – more than 55,000 dead so far, and no sign of the drug supply drying up – have undeniably been catastrophic. Calderón deployed the army and the federal police in the worst affected areas. In Juárez, they arrived at the beginning of 2008. The murder rate in Juárez had been relatively stable, at two or three hundred a year, since the 1990s, when Amado Carrillo Fuentes, nicknamed the Lord of the Skies because of his fleet of Boeing 727s, set up and consolidated the Juárez cartel. Then the army arrived and the number rose. By the end of 2008, there were 1300 dead; in 2009, 2300; in 2010, 3800. The official explanation: the cartels, driven into a panic by the law and order offensive, were slaughtering each other, and 95 per cent of the victims were criminals. Yet it was precisely when the army began to withdraw that the murder rate started to drop. The implications are obvious. ‘The army kicked the other guys out,’ Luis, the local journalist, explains: ‘La Línea are finished. Well, not quite. They had to pull back. They took some hard blows and now they have to regroup. But it will start all over again soon.’

La Línea is the enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel, run by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, brother of the late Amado, and made up mostly of municipal policemen, to the point that it’s difficult to distinguish the local police from the cartel; their opponent is El Chapo, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the mythic boss of the Sinaloa cartel, and according to Forbes the richest gangster in the world. If there is one thing people here agree on, it’s that Calderón’s war isn’t the state against the cartels, but the state against El Chapo’s rivals. And, after all, why not? Things were much calmer until the end of the 1990s, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, in power since the revolution, and the cartels had a tacit agreement: drugs were not to be sold locally but could pass through Mexico, and the murders necessary for the smooth running of business were to be conducted discreetly, without disturbing the daily lives of the good people of this rapidly developing country. The historic electoral defeat of the IRP in 2000, and then the closure of the American border after 9/11, provoked the swift collapse of the agreement. Given that the cartels are better financed, better organised and no doubt better equipped than the state, which is in any case rotten to the core, a return to the way things used to be could seem like the lesser evil, even in the eyes of the powerful American neighbour. But even though Calderón’s offensive facilitated El Chapo’s partial takeover, it hasn’t managed to expel La Línea from Juárez. The home team always has the advantage, and in Juárez, as Luis explains, ‘La Línea son los locales.’

According to Adrián Sánchez, the spokesman for the municipal police, a chubby-cheeked young man rather contemptuous of the journalists he is supposed to keep informed, the Juárez cartel still controls the two city centres, the old and the new, as well as the poor neighbourhoods in the west of the city. El Chapo has gained control of the east and south of the city, the middle-class neighbourhoods and the maquilas districts, as well as the Valle de Juárez, a strategic corridor east of the city, where the federal forces are accused of repeated atrocities, torture, disappearances and summary executions. So each camp is sitting on a segment of the border, and for now things are relatively quiet, though more than forty policemen have been killed this year, including a number of commanders, some of them members of La Línea, the others defectors to El Chapo’s side. But it’s a complicated affair. A former Juárez sicario, currently in hiding in the US, testifies anonymously in the documentary El Sicario: Room 164 that at the height of the conflict he had no idea which camp he was working for: he killed the people his superiors told him to kill, including his own comrades, without the faintest idea why or on whose ultimate behalf. As for the federales, it might be true that their bosses are on El Chapo’s side, but some are also with La Línea, and many are just running rackets on their own behalf, with kidnap and extortion thrown in.

Day after day, the papers and the TV news talk of nothing but corpses tied with duct tape and finished off with a bullet in the back of the head, machine-gunned in a car, decapitated, hanged from a bridge. 19 November: ‘Executed in Front of His Children.’ 23 November: ‘Three Bodies Thrown in a Ravine.’ In Mexican criminology classes, students are taught the semiotics of the corpse: no shoes = he was kicked out of the gang; hands cut off, placed in pockets = he stole from the cartel; one finger cut off, stuck in the mouth or anus = he snitched; skin of the face flayed, peeled back like a banana skin = he was a traitor. In the streets, crosses and wreaths of flowers indicate murders, not traffic accidents. In the foreign press, Ciudad Juárez is always ‘the most violent city in the world’ (even though it isn’t any more), Baghdad on the Rio Grande. What gets mentioned less often is the infra-violence, the everyday kind, like a sullen bassline in the life of the city. At a petrol station, while an ambulance is filling up, a couple of drunks are fighting. One falls to the ground, holding his head in both hands, the other keeps kicking him in the face until he collapses in a heap. No one intervenes: ‘That’s normal here,’ Miriam, one of the ambulance drivers, says.

There are small islands of normality, like Bar Asenzo, with its 1950s furniture, where for a year now the hipper middle-class kids of Juárez have come to drink margaritas and watch films on a big screen. The owner, Sergio, a smiling young man, doesn’t pay the cuota, but since the city has got calmer his family has had nothing but trouble: his brother was kidnapped for three days and had to pay 80,000 pesos, his sister-in-law the same, another brother was threatened and had to send his son to live in Chicago; their father, threatened as well, decided to close his bar rather than pay. Sergio likes to see the positive side: ‘Before, the people of Ciudad Juárez were very liberal, almost libertine, they let their children do anything. Now, they watch them much more closely, they don’t let them go out, they force them to work and study. The next generation will be much better, stronger, more educated. It will have more family values.’

Sergio’s theories might be valid for the middle-class children of the Cuauhtémoc district, who live in extravagant houses surrounded by walls and barbed wire behind which rise palm trees imported from Miami at $600 a piece, wrapped in plastic in order to survive the glacial winter of the Chihuahuan desert; or in gated communities like La Calzada del Sol, where access is strictly controlled by private guards. In La Mariscal or La Mina, in the centre, or in western neighbourhoods like the Barrio Alto, things are different. Passing the cathedral and the ‘Delicias’ police station, a bunker protected by large concrete blocks behind which the policemen on guard duty regularly have to duck to avoid being shot in a drive-by, you arrive at neighbourhoods of small, low houses, most of them made of cinder blocks, lined up along parallel streets that climb up and down bare hills, asphalt often giving way to dirt. Where the slopes are too steep, they are shored up with piles of old tyres, to prevent the houses perched on top from collapsing during the rains. The people who live here work in the maquilas, at the markets, sometimes for the police or in a brothel, and many of them take drugs. Every two or three streets, there is somewhere you can buy drugs. In Europe junkies go crazy waiting for their pusher: here heroin is available 24/7, and you just need to have the money, the equivalent of three dollars for a dose of ‘Mexican Mud’, a brown, poorly refined paste that quickly clogs needles and veins. People shoot up everywhere, in the picaderos – squats run by drug dealers, where entry is five pesos – and in houses, often with family.

Pancho is a 26-year-old who when he isn’t too wasted works as a volunteer for Programa Compañeros, a local NGO. His two brothers-in-law, Jesús and Alonzo, are addicts, and so are all his friends. No one works: they scrape up cash from odd jobs, washing cars, carrying shopping bags, cleaning yards for a propina (tip) of twenty or thirty pesos. As soon as they’ve got fifty or a hundred they race off to the dealers – the puchador, a Hispanisation of ‘pusher’ – then run home and get out the syringes, the lighters and the Coke can bottoms they use to melt the heroin. Four of them split two doses, pressed against each other in Pancho’s bedroom, between the bed and the chest of drawers, in front of hand-tinted, framed family photos: Pancho as a baby, Pancho as a teenager with his mother and a little girl, his daughter Eileen, who lives in El Paso with her mother. Their arms and legs are covered with abscesses, and they are running out of veins – the ‘black tar’ has hardened and blackened one after the other. Pancho and his friend Jaime lower their trousers to shoot up in the iliac vein, just above the pubis, without any fuss or embarrassment in front of us. The rush comes quickly: they stand, tottering, withdrawn into themselves, legs bent, arms dangling, their faces slack, eyes half-closed, lost in the void. Even high, Pancho is something of a dandy: he poses solemnly for a photograph in front of his family portraits, cigarette in mouth, arranging syringe and can so they are visible. He’s been shooting up for 11 years, and has lost half his teeth; but he’s still a handsome boy, with a thick mop of black hair and very green, shining eyes, highly intelligent when they aren’t veiled by drugs. He would like to stop; two years ago he lasted five months in a maquila, and Compañeros would be willing to hire him as a fieldworker handing out condoms and new needles, but the heroin is too demanding.

It’s the same for his brother-in-law Jesús, who lives on the other side of a narrow concrete yard, full of bicycles and laundry, in a very clean, well-furnished house with embroidered curtains, a stereo, a television, a large drinks bar made of finely worked wood and framed photos of him and his wife, Rosa-Isela, Pancho’s sister. ‘All this comes from my work,’ he says sadly, standing in the middle of the living-room, in front of a blue velour sofa where a small child is sleeping calmly. ‘But I fell into vice. I repent.’ He was on methadone for two months, but it didn’t last. ‘I was fine, I took it at six in the morning and I worked all day. But I fell back into drugs. Out of stupidity.’ His son, Brian, a lively seven-year-old, comes in to get his things, and then leaves for school. A little later Pancho’s mother, Francisca, the head of this broken family, comes home. In the street in front of the house, her son plants a very tender kiss on her neck, then sticks his nose into a bottle of industrial solvent. ‘Ever since he was little, that boy has been trouble for me,’ Francisca complains. She doesn’t take drugs, although the shelves in her bedroom are full of boxes of medicine. Like Rosa-Isela, her papers are in order, and she cleans houses in El Paso two or three times a week, to bring back a little money for food. Her second daughter, Maribel, stands next to her. Maribel’s husband, Marcos, was murdered last April, leaving her with three children. She relates this with a little smile, in a light, singsong tone. ‘Why? No one knows. Yes, he was into drugs, but nothing special. He went out one night and never came back. The next day, I bought PM and saw him there. They killed him downtown, near López Mateos. Maybe they confused him with someone else.’

Some of the picaderos on the Barrio Alto are vile hovels, like the one belonging to Yasmin, a 31-year-old with no teeth, her scrawny body ravaged by abscesses and covered with scars. She perches on a bed strewn with rubbish, waiting for her husband Manuel to bring her a dose. Other houses are clean and tidy, like the one belonging to a 27-year-old whom we’ll call David: children’s clothes hang in a courtyard, there is expensive furniture, a big flat-screen TV. A six-year-old girl, vivacious in her pretty mauve dress, welcomes visitors with a radiant smile. David is a calm, self-possessed boy; after handing his used needles to Gisela, the social worker from Compañeros, in exchange for new ones, he readily shows us the abscesses on his neck and groin before introducing his friends and politely asking some questions about life in France. He is in fact a sicario, an ‘Azteca warrior’, meaning a killer for Los Aztecas, a powerful El Paso gang formed around 1986 in Texas’s state penitentiaries, which the Juárez cartel absorbed towards the end of the 1990s. A colleague of Gisela’s jokes that for him ‘killing a man is like killing a fly.’ Social services took away his smiling little daughter once, because of his addiction. ‘He went to see them and told them that if they didn’t give her back, he’d kill them. They gave her back.’ When I ask to meet him again a few days later, he sends a message through an intermediary that he would be glad to, but he has too much work.

As soon as you put your finger on the narco system, you are touching the system of fear. Behind the large covered markets in the centre of town is an area of shops, swarming with pedestrians, called La Mina. Here they sell dope like it’s tortillas, and the streets are crawling with halcones, cartel spies, who aren’t kidding around. Ricardo Muñoz, a reporter for El Diario, was photographing camiones and shops there when some guys held him at gunpoint and took his camera. He called the police, but they refused to come; then he called the army, who bawled him out before driving around the neighbourhood for an hour. That same night someone from La Línea, whom that hour had cost 600,000 pesos, phoned the paper’s owner, who lives in El Paso with his family: ‘Publish one word about this, or one photo, and we’ll slit your journalist’s throat.’ Luis Carlos Santiago, a young photographer for the same paper, was less lucky. On 16 September 2010, Independence Day, he was photographing the parade, with its floats and costumes, and followed it through La Mina. That night, as he was eating in a restaurant, some men came in and shot him. For the city’s journalists, even if the motive for the murder remains obscure, the message was clear: you’re not wanted here. The staff of Compañeros have no problem: they are mostly former drug addicts or prostitutes, they know everyone and everyone knows them, and their free syringes and condoms are more than welcome. With Gisela, even a gringo can walk through La Mina, as long as he doesn’t wave his camera around. The streets are very lively, full of music, norteño or corridos; we pass a man with a shaved head, pierced and tattooed like an Azteca, with a packet of nappies under his arm; in front of shops selling shoes, clothes, handbags and sunglasses there are countless sellers of fruit, sweets and lottery tickets, most of them halcones from La Línea. The municipales don’t bother anyone here, they’re part of the family, but the federales and the army sometimes carry out raids.

Between two shops, a few girls are standing in front of a metal gate. It’s a picadero and Gisela, boxes of syringes under her arm, enters without hesitation. Just as I’m about to follow her, a tall guy with a moustache in a tracksuit and baseball hat comes out, hands in his pockets, and Jérôme Sessini, the photographer I’m with, instantly turns around and goes to sit on a bench, his back turned: the man, an Azteca he photographed inside two years ago, had got twenty years for his part in a prison massacre of 22 enemy inmates, and here he is, walking free on the streets. He heads off without noticing us and Gisela brings us in, explaining to the encargado, the man in charge, that we were sent by the programme’s donors, to produce a report on their activities. In the narrow yard behind the gate, hands stick out feverishly to grab the syringes, three here, five there, the encargado, a wiry, nervous boy, pushes everyone into a tiny room, we follow them, there must be a dozen in there, completely frantic, cooking heroin in the bottom of cans and then drawing it into the syringes we’ve given them, there’s no ceremony, just a mad, avid greed. Three women are sitting on buckets against the wall, their gaze too lost in the void; in a corner, a woman is smoking crack; crouched in front of her, the encargado helps her with tender gestures. There are teenagers here, several women as well as a very well-dressed girl, a boy in the baggy clothes of a rapper; almost all of them shoot up in the jugular vein, breathing deep and then holding it to make the vein stand out, a friend injects them, or they do it themselves, holding up a broken shard of mirror. There is a sort of wild hysteria to their gestures, a desperate impatience for the sole moment of joy in their miserable lives when the heroin cancels everything out, and then also fear, tension, anguish. A man sweeps maniacally between the others’ feet; a young disabled man comes limping in, leaning on his zimmer frame, looking for a free space. An older woman with tattooed tears in the corner of one of her eyes is slowly caressing the face of a young girl who is completely out of it, her eyes wide open, almost in ecstasy. According to Charles Bowden, an American journalist who has been writing about Juárez for 15 years, the number of junkies in the city is around 150,000, more than 10 per cent of the total population. It hasn’t always been like this. During the reign of the Lord of the Skies it was strictly forbidden to sell or even open a package of drugs in Juárez, on pain of death; even the cartel sicarios who had smuggled coke to El Paso had to go there to buy it. But when the Americans shut down the border at the end of 2001, the Juárez cartel started selling part of its junk locally; and when Calderón sent his forces against La Línea, Vicente Carrillo responded by flooding the home market. If Bowden’s figures are correct, Juárez represents, on the basis of one dose a day for each user, a yearly turnover of more than $200 million.

La Mina is also where you find the brothels, like the Maya, the Fortuna and the Viajero, where three or four worn-out girls, often far from young or incredibly fat, stand in doorways waiting for customers. Flowers and holy images are often piled up on shelves or nestle in an alcove, the Virgin of Guadalupe along with some saints. Upstairs, drying sheets hang in the hallways, and the rooms are tiny, filthy and airless, with narrow beds and stained sheets. The client generally gives 35 pesos to the hotel for the room and the condoms, and the girl takes what she can: a hundred, sometimes 150 pesos, between five and ten dollars. The girls’ stories are an endless merry-go-round of drugs, prostitution and the maquilas, two or three children by the time they’re twenty, parents in the same state, incest often.

Gloria Carmen, a fat, overly made-up girl working at the Viajero, with the fixed, inexpressive eyes of a fish, was beaten for a long time by her alcoholic father, who raped her when she was 13. ‘I felt ugly because he touched me.’ He had been raping her older sister for years: ‘She was fine with it. She never said anything. She liked it. I saw them once. But I didn’t want him to do that to my little sister. He beat her a lot, all the time. So I told my mother, who threw him out.’ She tells me all this in a flat monotone, without a trace of emotion, sitting on the edge of the bed in one of the rooms. Her mother died and Gloria fell into drugs, first crack, then heroin. She would like to build herself a cinder-block house, in her hometown of Torreón, but all her money goes on dope. ‘I always want more, and more. I can last a day without shooting up but the next day it hit me too strong. I prostitute myself for drugs.’ Others are in an even worse state. Ginger, a completely ravaged girl who works at the Maya, sobs her way through a long, incoherent story, the tale of a shattered life half neurotic fantasy, half Mexican horror film, centred on three days of rape and torture last December at the hands of the federales, who were trying to get her to give them the names of the people she sold drugs for. The facts in her story are partly invented, reconstituted, exaggerated, pieced together, but the pain, seeping through her words and twisted gestures, is real.

The ones who manage best may well be the transsexual prostitutes in La Mariscal, the old neighbourhood of bars and nightclubs between the cathedral and the bridge to El Paso. It’s here (they say) that the margarita was invented, here that Hollywood stars used to come, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller or Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, for a quickie divorce followed by a huge party, or a discreet abortion. ‘Juárez’s bad reputation goes back thirty years,’ says Arnulfo Gómez, the owner of the Gato Félix, on the Avenida Juárez near the bridge. There used to be ten or twelve nightclubs on this street that could hold up to a thousand people each, and on the weekends they were full; soldiers from Fort Bliss in El Paso would cross over in droves. Now that’s all over. In 2005, a vast ‘renovation’ programme began and most of the historic bars were torn down. Then the money dried up and Calderón’s war started, so now a few brightly painted bars stand in the middle of great paved lots. Arnulfo, in a cowboy hat, wears a press card round his neck, ‘so the cops won’t bite me on the street’: he already pays the cuota, $100 a week, and that’s enough. There are fewer brothels here than in La Mina: the mujeres-mujeres, the ‘women-women’, as the transsexuals call them, work mostly in clubs, on the stage or wriggling almost naked on a client’s lap in a dark corner, and sometimes taking him into a bedroom in the back. As for the T-girls, they work the street, taking clients into little rooms they rent for $40 a week. As soon as Viky sees a gringo’s camera, she strikes a pose against a telephone pole – ‘So, boys, you want to take my picture?’ – in front of the huge mural the T-girls painted of a Virgin of Guadalupe and then decorated with costume jewellery, an appeal for tolerance. Viky prostitutes herself mostly to maintain her economic independence: here she can earn in a day what she would in a week in a maquila, if a maquila were to hire a transsexual. She doesn’t do drugs, except for marijuana, which she likes a lot, drinks little and has lived with the same man for 13 years.

As the days go by, she tells me her story over beer at the Gato Félix and ends up inviting me to her place to meet her mother, a nice, plump lady with dyed red hair who speaks laughingly of her two ‘women-daughters’ as Viky smokes a joint next to her and her chihuahua; her brother Rúben works in a maquila and her husband, José, a serious, handsome man, works in an office. The family is from Torreón, but moved here one by one, after all sorts of adventures, and stayed on despite the violence. ‘I’ve planted roots here,’ Viky says. ‘You have to plant them somewhere.’ The work isn’t easy: the cops always want a cut of the girls’ earnings, they arrest their customers, and after 6 p.m. the neighbourhood gets dangerous. For a long time, the transsexuals were almost the only prostitutes in La Mariscal: after 2008, when La Línea introduced the cuota, most of the mujeres-mujeres, more vulnerable, left for other neighbourhoods, leaving the T-girls without competition. But even now they have returned, there’s work for everyone. At the corner with the painting of the Virgin, customers drive slowly by in their cars; the girls whistle at them, go up to the car window; and sometimes the men park and follow the girls into a room, for twenty minutes or half an hour. ‘Most of them are married, have children,’ Viky tells me. ‘I think they’re mostly repressed gays.’ Her neighbour Samsara, a stunning platinum blonde who was voted Miss Gay Torreón four years in a row, agrees: ‘They’re almost all passive.’ Samsara, who began dressing as a woman at 15, dreams of going back to school, getting a diploma and getting a normal job. She is tall with beautiful breasts from injections of oestrogen, and speaks in a voice both gentle and calm, but veiled with sadness. She is happy with her choice and isn’t interested in surgery – ‘I love it like this’ – but life is hard. ‘There’s no work for us. Some of us can become beauticians, but that’s it. To be able to work in a maquila, you have to dress as a man, and wait for your breasts to disappear. You can’t get papers [as a woman], except in Mexico City. So we’re stuck.’

Samsara has a lover, a handsome younger man, but he’s terribly jealous and they fight about her work; at weekends, she does drag shows, which she likes best of all, even though they don’t pay. We go to see her on Saturday night in a large, almost bare hall where the music is deafening and you freeze your ass off on metal chairs. The girls – immense, sculptural, magnificent – swish in around midnight with wheeled suitcases, already in wigs and false eyelashes, reeking of perfume. Samsara gives us a kiss before going to change in a tiny room in the back, while we watch two fat girls dance cumbias together with a strange grace, completely drunk, their nipples protruding. The drag show is full of passion, joy and sad life: bathed in multicoloured lights and artificial smoke, they mime well-known songs with sweeping, elegant gestures and immense conviction, as if lost in the emotion of their own unreal beauty. There are many spectators, mostly women, who sing along over the applause; one beautiful mujer-mujer gets up on stage to kiss one of Samsara’s friends and slip a twenty-peso bill between her breasts. Two short wiry guys with little moustaches and crew cuts, visibly moved, also come over to kiss Samsara – who is a head taller than them – during her number. This is the very best life has to offer.

In the morning, the sun beats down on the city, cold and brilliant. The bridge to El Paso is completely full; the cars creep forward. Juárez stretches out beneath the haze, framed by the brown peaks of the sierra, a shapeless nightmare. In the Viajero there is a very pretty 32-year-old woman called Norma, originally from Guadalajara. She began taking drugs and prostituting herself at 21, as the other jobs she could get didn’t pay enough for drugs. But she quit after three years and went straight; she got a job in a maquila and began peacefully raising her children. She would no doubt have gone on like this if her husband hadn’t been killed two years ago, caught in an exchange of gunfire as he was going to buy spare parts. Without him, she couldn’t pay the rent or the babysitter, so she went back to the Viajero. But she still doesn’t take drugs, and maintains a strict work schedule: three days a week, four clients a day, and then home. ‘I could say this work is good,’ she says quietly, pinching the white lace of her skirt between her fingers, ‘but it isn’t. I’m here for the money, nothing else. There is nothing else, I don’t have the papers to go al otro lado, to the United States, and here work doesn’t pay anything.’ As she smokes, she speaks in a very quiet, resigned voice; on her hand is a tattoo of the name of her dead husband, Adrián, shrouded by flowers; she has an almost Aztec face, illuminated by a radiant smile. At the maquila, she assembled the cooling units for fridges. I had never thought much about the people who made my fridge, and the lives they lead. Well, the life of the people who make our washing machines, our toasters, our television sets, our fridges: this is it.

Translated by Charlotte Mandell

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Vol. 34 No. 13 · 5 July 2012

Jonathan Littell’s piece about the drug trade and Ciudad Juárez is no less disturbing in the light of figures presented by Ed Vulliamy in the Guardian of 2 June: a Colombian study has estimated that only 2.6 per cent of drug money stays in the countries of origin (LRB, 7 June). The rest goes via money laundering routes into the wealthy Western economies. The City of London in particular has been a major beneficiary. In the midst of a recession, there is little chance that politicians will tackle this trade: it would sink the financial system even faster than the current government’s austerity policies.

John Calderon
London E8

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