Fight to Save Juárez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War
Moderator: Alfredo Corchado
Ricardo Ainslie frequented Juárez during its most violent years, as war between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels raged and soaked the city in blood. In his new book, The Fight to Save Juárez (UT Press), Ainslie writes an empathic account that captures the complexity, horror, and humanity of a community descended into chaos. Below is a transcript of a Q&A with the Current last week. See him talk about his book this weekend. 1-1:45 p.m., RHR Lecture Hall, Navarro Campus.
Interview with Ricardo Ainslie
By Michael Barajas
Why focus on Juárez? You write that you hadn't spent much time in the city, and didn't start regularly visiting until after the drug war.
I'm from Mexico. I was born and raised in Mexico City. So I've always kept an eye on what was going on in Mexico. I was finishing up another project when the violence got pretty heavy in Nuevo Laredo. And I made an initial trip there, but during that time – that would have been the fall of 2008 – it became clear to me that the drug war was moving to Juárez. The violence had started to increase in Juárez and it was just clear that Juárez was going to be the next focal point for the drug war, and I wanted to go there and try to understand what was taking place, try to make sense of it. Obviously by then there was a lot of violence all over the country. But I think what erupted in Juárez was in a league of its own.
There still hasn't been a comparable city visited by this much violence. At this point there's over 11,000 people killed between January 2007 and the end of 2012. That's more than Americans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined over 10 years. This has been one city.
I do want to say I visited Juárez once before this book, actually in 2007. And at the time, war hadn't really started. They had a record number of killings in the city that year, but when I was there that one visit for a conference there was no sense that Juárez was on the verge of becoming this sort of national catastrophe.
You paint a picture of a ravaged city. What made Juárez this way?
What happened is that there had been a kind of understanding for the better part of a decade between the cartels that they each had their own sort of areas of control and they had a sort of gentleman's agreement they could move their product through different corridors. That understanding began to unravel a couple of years before the war erupted in Juárez. The key thing that happened in Juárez is the Sinaloa cartel decided to take over that route, that plaza. The Juárez cartel had, in the ’90s, become the most powerful cartel in all of Mexico. Many of the cartel leaders lived in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. And it was kind of a peaceful kingdom prior to this war breaking out.
But what had happened is there had been a change of leadership in the Juárez cartel. Vincent Carrillo Fuentes had taken over from his brother, who had died. And this man is kind of an irascible, erratic guy. A violent guy. He didn't honor agreements with the other cartels. So there was a falling out. I think Sinaloa thought the Juárez cartel was weakened. So they made a move on the city. They came in and really spent some time doing intelligence work in Juárez in 2007. They start kidnapping Juárez cartel people, torturing them, and getting information. Then in 2008 they basically declared war by placing a narcomanta, a drug cartel message, at the monument for fallen police in Juárez. And that was a very strategic and thought-out move because it was well known and thoroughly established that the Juárez municipal police were basically the armed wing of the Juárez cartel. And that message basically identified by name five police who had been killed in the prior year – one of them had been killed just four days prior – and the list of another 17 police who were going be the next target if the police didn't start cooperating with the Sinaloa cartel. And so that was actually the declaration of war in Juárez. What ensued was this sort of terrible unraveling.
You talk about this historical backdrop of corruption in Mexico, power and influence trading. How did that old-age type of corruption gradually create this new monster with the cartels in Juárez?
It's almost a kind of truism that in Mexico there's a lot of corruption. If you look at these indices that the United Nations creates for societies and corruption, Mexico always ranks fairly high.
The idea of corruption on a sort of day-to-day basis is just sort of how Mexican society has often worked. You need a driver’s license? You have to pay for it. You need a death certificate? You have to pay somebody. You get stopped, whether you violated a law or not, you have to pay the cop, otherwise you're gonna have more problems at any level. That's how things work and that's how things have historically worked within the system. So you have a pattern, almost a kind of a culture, within which those kinds of transactions are just seen as the bread and butter of how those things work.
All of a sudden, you've got powerful organized crime organizations – like five, six, seven of them, depending on the year – and by some estimates these groups are bringing in about $40 billion in profits. All of a sudden you've got organized criminal interests that have a lot of money, an incredible amount of money. And it sort of creates a new level in this game, a level that's really unprecedented. And it's coming from outside the official area – historically, that kind of corruption would be governors or legislators or people in the cabinet. But now, the people who really control that game are people who are outside of the system. They're outside the system, but now they're controlling the system itself.
People that don't even have to feign any sort of concern for the public interest …
Right, exactly. The mask is completely torn off, in a way. But also, what's happened is you've sort of inverted the way the system works. At least historically, if, say, the Juárez cartel was getting out of line, there was a cost to be paid. Maybe government would come in and arrest some of their people and take them out of business or whatever. The network of corruption functioned differently. But all of a sudden, with the kind of massive profits these cartels start reaping, once they became the key players in the international drug world, once they sort of usurped the power of the Colombians, now they're really calling the shots. They have tremendous influence, power, and impunity. And it's within the very system that has made impunity the norm. Impunity is the norm. Few people are actually prosecuted for their crimes.
So if you've already got a system that's sort of defined by impunity, in terms of its court system and its law enforcement, and now you've got these other players and this kind of cash, they can play that system really well. There's hardly ever any consequence for them to pay. The real consequence is you have wars. Like between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels.
What about the U.S.? How has our policy guided what's happening on the ground in Juárez?
Well, it's obvious but it needs to be said: American drug consumption runs this whole game. Without that scenario, there is no Mexican organized crime functioning at this level. And there aren't these profits.
I'd say the second most important issue is American assault weapons. When the assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004. That's when the drug cartels almost overnight began arming themselves in ways that no local police force, even state police forces, could match.
You mention in the book Mexican officials that tell you that in no uncertain terms.
That was Eduardo Medina-Mora (Mexico's then-ambassador to Great Britain). So that's another role the U.S. plays.
And I'd say the third is American security policy along the border because, you know, I'm not saying the United States doesn't have a right to secure borders. It does and I understand that. But I'm just saying there are consequences to the way in which we've chosen to do that.
One of the things that people don't really understand about what's happened in Juárez and what's happened in other places is the quick descriptions is, there's a war between the cartels, but there's really something else happening. In the 1990s the U.S. starts sealing its borders and it becomes harder for the cartels to move its product across the river, across the border. So they started paying their lieutenants with product. If you were a Juárez cartel operative and you were used to making – these aren't actual figures, I'm just making guesses – $50,000 a month, suddenly you're being paid $25,000 a month and $25,000 worth of cocaine. And you have to turn that cocaine into cash.
So what started happening in the mid ’90s is there was an explosion of domestic drug use in Mexico. And Juárez, for example, became one of the cities with the highest number of addicts. And all of that retail market business was controlled by local gangs who were in turn controlled by the cartel. So when we think about the 11,000 people who have been killed, it's all cartel-related, but we usually think of the cartels in terms of international transactions and movements of drugs. But once they started getting into the domestic drug markets, they had two simultaneous businesses, if you will. And the local drug markets were controlled by local street gangs. And a lot of the violence when Sinaloa comes into Juárez is they not only try to kill off the people that are key Juárez cartel people, they also try to push out these hardcore street gangs that are running the business for the Juárez cartel at the local level. So Sinaloa sort of recruited their own gangs in Juárez.
How did you pick some of the characters you follow throughout your book?
All four of these characters were living a different facet of that reality and that's something that sort of gradually emerged over the 18 months that I went to Juárez on a regular basis. I made 12 visits and stayed for several days at time each time.
Jose Reyes Ferriz (then-mayor of Juárez) was the obvious character, because he was in a position that no one else in Juárez that I knew occupied. Mainly he was dealing with the local, the state, and the national political implications of what was going on. And so he obviously had a birds-eye view for a lot of this. He was initially kind of sealed off from the inside conversation, because historically in Mexico only the governors dealt with the federal people. But he became increasingly important, I think, as the federal government became increasingly disenchanted with the governor of Chihuahua.
So Reyes Ferriz was very interesting to me. The first time I saw him I thought, this guy is really beleaguered. He has people all over him. I was already aware of the fact that he had death threats against him. And if you meet Jose Reyes Ferriz, he does not exude the kind of macho bravado aura that you'd expect with somebody who's sort of in that brute, cold situation and managing it. So I thought that he was fascinating in that regard. It took me quite a while to really get him to start talking to me. I saw him at several official public events over a couple months. Then I got an interview with him and gradually, I think, he started, for whatever reason, to trust me and opened up more and eventually he even took me to his home in Juárez. That was interesting, because there had been a lot of press accusing him of living in El Paso and traveling over every day. So he was interesting to me for a number of reasons. Both as a character and the psychology of the man. And I felt like he could narrate some of the inside story of what was going on in Juárez that I wasn't going to get anywhere else and that wasn't in the papers. I mean, where else was I gonna get it?
I think the counterpoint to him is Gustavo de la Rosa (a former human rights worker in Juárez), because here's a guy who has a similar history with the community, he's been there all his life, too. But he's not into the establishment. He doesn't tolerate lapses in the ethics of law enforcement or the military people, and he calls them out on it and it gets him in trouble. And that's a big part to this story, because some of that stuff is really going on, you know. So I felt that he was a counterpoint to Reyes Ferriz. He can sort of speak of the dark underbelly, the way the establishment works in this context. So I was really interested in him the more I got to know him.
And then Elena (a pseudonym for a woman living with a cartel member) and Raymundo Ruiz (a Mexican newspaper photographer), they're counterpoints in a very different way. They both, unlike de la Rosa and Reyes Ferriz, they do not come from privilege. These are people without educations, without even elementary school educations.
Ruiz calls himself a cholo at one point.
He was gangbanging when he was 13, 14, 15-years-old. As I spent more time there and went through these neighborhoods and saw how most of Juárez actually lived, I saw neighborhoods without paved streets, without lights, some without running water. There's a whole culture of poverty that characterizes a lot of Juárez. I was fascinated by these two people because they came out of that same reality but took very different paths.
Raymundo, I mean, this guy has images that have traveled all over the world. He's had a picture on the front page of The New York Times, for god's sake. Some photographers would do anything for that. So it's very telling, the brute power of his talent. He had no formal training. He just had some innate talent and guts. I came to really know him well, I came to really love the guy. He's just struggling against all odds. He basically lives in poverty, real poverty. He loves his children, he loves his family, and he risks his life every day he walks out the door. He knows the journalist situation in Mexico. He was adamant about me not using a pseudonym for him. And I went around that with him numerous times. When I had a fairly advanced draft of the book, I came down, I read all of the passages with him in it, and I said, 'look, this is what's coming out. I take on a lot of people.' And he said, “Fuck it, I want my name in it. I want people to know that this is me.” That's just the way he is. And to this day I hope I made the right decision in honoring that. I still worry about it.
Elena seems to represent one of the victims.
I'm glad that comes through. She is a young woman who grows up in a horrendous family environment with just nothing available to her. She's got potential, but there's' nothing that helped shape that except for the brutality of this environment. I found her very compelling, very tragic, and I felt I really lucked out in meeting her. The story that she tells is one that very few people get to hear.
What's the impact of this shock-and-awe type of violence? You write about cartels rolling severed heads out into the middle of club dance floors. You describe the Villas de Salvarcar massacre in painful, vivid detail. What does it do to a society when this type of brutality is a common experience?
I'm really glad you ask that, because I think that's a question that people often don't think about or fully grasp, or don't think about at all. What I was as really impressed with from the first day is how immediate and how present that violence is in Juárez. It's ever present. There's no place to hide from it. You can't go to a fancy country club neighborhood and live in a golden cage. There's nothing you can do to escape it. It's everywhere. Everyone knows it. Everybody feels. Everybody has to think about it every time they leave the house, every time their kids leave the house, every time they're ready to come home from work. Always.
Tragedy and the anxiety permeate everything. When I was interviewing this principle at an elementary school, she talked to me about the anxiety of her children. They just had an execution in front of the school some weeks before. She said for all of these children, their stories, the things they draw in class, the things they tell their teachers about, the things they overhear them talking about with other students, these kids are really preoccupied with violence.
At the same time – and this is what's particularly odd about it – there's this odd numbing in that place. You can't be raw to this kind of violence all the time. There's no way that you'd survive, psychically. So there's this sort of contradictory set of impulses. One is trying to protect you from it by numbing yourself from it, by denying it. But the violence is so pervasive that those defenses eventually break down. They can't absorb everything that's taking place.
I've never been anywhere where I felt that as I did in that city. And, you know, it was palpable.
You say that what happens in Juárez will have lasting repercussions for both the US and Mexico. Why?
I think the Mexican government made a decision – and no official ever told me this – but I think they made a decision that we have to make a stand in Juárez. Juárez is too important for all kinds of reasons. There's no other way for accounting for the fact that at one point in time a full 20 percent, maybe even 25 percent, of the federal forces deployed in the war against the drug cartels were in Juárez. You have this stuff going on on a big scale in some of the other states, but they sent a lot of firepower into Juárez.
They weren't able to solve the puzzle of how to end cartel violence in Juárez. They took down a lot of people, and a lot of them Sinaloa cartel people, a lot of them Juárez cartel people. That town was under siege for the better part of a year and a half. Roadblocks everywhere. They completely disbanded the local police, and so on. So I think they put all their chips in this basket and said ‘we gotta make this work.’
Now, what I think is interesting is that after Villas de Salvarcar, that massacre, it's the first time that the Mexican government makes the decision to invest in the social fabric of the city — Even though that had clearly been part of what happened to turn around Colombia. It wasn't until 2010 in Juárez that the Mexican government started doing that.
So today we have a Juárez that – last year we had something like under-800 murders. When you consider that it's still more than twice the number they had in 2007, which was a record, it's bad. But they also had over 3,000 murders in 2010 alone. So, 800 feels like a relief to that city.
Like any success, it has – what's that phrase, success has many authors? There are a lot of different explanations for why things got better in Juárez. But the most frequent explanation you'll hear is that the Sinaloa cartel won. And you know, it may be that they did. I think in any event, whatever happened, they haven't stamped out organized crime in Juárez. That's clear.