Two weeks before the walk
My right hand guide in Copper Canyon, Alfredo Murillo, lives in Chihuahua and is very familiar with Juarez and the situation there. I email him of my plans and ask for his input. I ask him if he could meet me at the El Paso airport and give me a bit of logistical support- like taking my big bag across, getting some visa work done, and staying at a distance and shooting (shouldn’t use that word)- TAKING some pictures.
His response is less than encouraging.
A Good Thought…
“Hi David, Juarez City still A problem beacuse the lolcal people are afraid of The cituation beacuse they don’t go out after 8:00 p.m. , the city, it looks like a ghost town that is what thee Army people told me when I worked with EL ESTADO MAYOR (This is the official security of the president of Mexico ) So, I think It’s a good Thought but not a good idea. Maybe in the day time it could be different, that’s what I think.About the car, I think that I can Ask to borrow one, the car of my friend Jesus Dominguez, I’m on my way to Chihuahua, I’ll keep in touch Adios amigo”
I love (or hate) that line there- “I think its a good THOUGHT but not a good IDEA” . As if to say in the gracious Mexican way, “You dumb-ass Gringo, what are you thinking?”
Regardless, he agrees to help and to meet me at the Microtel near the airport on August 18.
This Old Painting in the Burger King
I fly into ELP and stop for a moment at the Burger King- it is walled with these old views of El Paso. Included is this idyllic depiction of the border crossing into Juarez. Little kids playing, the Rio Grande flowing clean, people visiting and gringos headed across for a delightful day in old Juarez.
I pause for a moment and ask myself one more time- why am I doing this?
I remember crossing that bridge in 1969 with brother Dick for a raucous weekend taking in the bars, the raunchystrip joints, the cheap little motels.
The images in my mind of the dead bodies, decapitated, thrown in piles, bullet ridden cars…
Something in me wants to get right back on that Southwest flight and go back to safe and secure Champaign/Urbana and go on with life. But wait a minute: did we not have several shootings there in the past few weeks? And wasn’t one of them on a street corner not far from our home and two young men were killed and did not stray bullets scream into rooms nearby where little kids were sleeping. And isn’t little CU having an increasing problem with armed robbery?
I shake back to the moment, grab my bags, and head out to meet Alfredo.
I’m going to Juarez.
Across La Frontera and Everything Changes
This always the way it is and I instantly remember- when you cross to the US all is formal and terse and sometimes a bit rude.
When you cross to Mexico it is so different.
The signage is welcoming and communicates they are glad I am here.
People speak to me and say good afternoon.
Youth are everywhere- the streets are alive.
And the sense of connection increases beyond expectation…and beyond belief.
At the Ramada
Our home for the evening is the lovely Ramada, right beside the statue of Abe Lincoln- a local hero- long story, but there is a particular reason why he means a lot to the people of Juarez.
In the lobby I meet some of the hotel staff- hugs and kisses everywhere. The treasurer of the city comes by and welcomes me as does the vice-mayor. Everyone says welcome, welcome, welcome…and the typical “This is your house.” is repeated more times than I can count.
The director of police says hello and mentions that 65% of the people in Juarez need access to the central part of the city and that it is very secure. I have my doubts- haven’t seen it yet. He says that much has changed and that the life of the central part of the city and much of Juarez is vibrant and safe. Hmm. Really? I have yet to see.
Anyway I am welcomed and taken to a spacious, clean, room and there are gifts. One note: you may be thinking- the Ramada is an American kind of place- but this place is thoroughly Mexican. No English, decor is local, and most of all the hospitality is personal and abundant. My host Lorenzo pulls out a bottle of top line mescal and presents it as a welcome gift. I am warming. Mescal will do it every time.
I feel at home.
And I recall that this happens every time we cross the border. Everything changes and it is so cool. My heart slows down. I smile. I actually look forward to the next three days.
Dominoes and Dinner With the Boys
My new friend Sergio picks me up at 6p and we head across town. I ask him if we need to avoid certain areas and he says very few and we drive across most of the city to catch an evening with a group of his friends who gather every Thursday night for dominoes and dinner.
The Clinton Letter
A huge thunderstorm pushes across town – a frog strangler- and we step inside for a moment. Our host, Gustavo Elizondo was the mayor of Juarez 10 years ago and he asks me to slip into his study for a moment.
He shows me a framed letter from Bill Clinton he received while in office. It is a profuse apology to Elizondo and the people of Juarez. Turns out that Clinton made a reference to Juarez that was very negative and the letter is an expression of regret for the continual characterization of Juarez as the scum spot (escorio they say) of the Americas.
As he is explaining my thoughts are racing. I do the same thing.
My default place for all the problems we face with Mexico and the US is Juarez, and it is simply a convenient way to disconnect from the real issue.
To a man my domino com-padres are saying “We have decided to stay, we are thriving, our kids walk these streets, we love Juarez, and on and on.” I am so glad I have come and I can’t wait to see this place – this escorio.
They are laughing, joking then serious, pensive. The future of Juarez rests of course on what happens with the drug wars. It also rests in how we will be able to have meaningful connection and understanding across the border. But now there is a wide and even hostile divide- fed by fear.
And it seems to be expanding.
The walk starts tomorrow
People in the US expect that I am huddled in some basic, dingy hotel room, fearing for my life and listening for gunshots- expecting that the door will be busted open any moment and that I will headed for my naked, bloody appointment with the bridge soon with a sign hung to my neck.
But I am riding back across the busy streets in the rain with Sergio and I have a new friend.
I hear a siren, we see some Federales, but not once do I have any fear or even direct expectation of danger.
There is a saying in Mexico “un prietito en arroz” like the little black thing in a fine white bowl of rice. It refers to the problem in an otherwise fine situation- a black spot that ruins everything.
What is the problem here? Is it the desperate war for rule of law in Mexico? Yes.
But is it not also that we have decided to wall off the problem and just categorize Juarez in particular as the problem?
Tomorrow I walk.