Myth and Reason on the Mexican Border

by Paul Theroux

“You’re the only gringo who’s come over the bridge today,” said Julián Cardona, a lean and sardonic journalist in Ciudad Juárez, where he has spent most of his working life reporting on its excesses. The excesses have included many beheadings. Yes, he told me later, there really were corpses in the streets and a body strung up on an overpass. “Juárez deserves its bad reputation, but you have to understand the reason why.”

The border city of Juárez was notorious for achieving what is likely the 2010 world record for violent homicides—3,622 shootings, stabbings, lynchings and death by torture. “Don’t go there,” people say. Yet it’s next-door, and the number of murders annually has dropped to less than Chicago’s 468 homicides last year. (Earlier this year, Juárez was removed from the list of the world’s most violent cities.) When the wind is southerly the risen dust of Juárez can make you sneeze in El Paso. The cityscape twinkles at night; by day it is tawny brown and low-lying, scattered along the south bank of the Rio Grande, easily visible from its sister city across the river in Texas. You can sometimes hear its honking horns on the American side, and in its year of mass murder the rat-tat of gunshots was easily audible and some bullets fired in Juárez damaged El Paso’s buildings.

The river is theoretical here, just a concrete culvert tagged with indignant graffiti, a trickle of sour shallow water rippling through, like a wadi you might see in drought-stricken Syria, the surrounding hills just as sunbaked, sandy and Syrian. The contour of the culvert marks La Frontera, which has been much in the news.

Out of curiosity, a wish to see the city of the wicked superlative, I crossed one of three bridges on a day of dazzling April sunlight.

In contrast to peaceful and salubrious El Paso, Juárez is nearly all one-story dwellings, small concrete bungalows, flat-roofed and ruinous huts, and jacales—rough shanties—on an immense grid of broken stony roads, 1.3 million people, roughly 255,000 of them employed in the factories, the maquiladoras, most of them U.S.-owned. The Mexican employees generally work 9.5-hour shifts, for an average daily pay of $6 to $8. In spite of the hoopla about NAFTA, this does not translate to a living wage. Despite accounts of the city’s revival, Juárez still seemed hard-up, crumbling and bleak, with an anxious melancholy air of poverty and danger.

I had arranged to meet Julián Cardona at the café Coyote Inválido, next to the World Famous Kentucky Club & Grill, a once-boisterous and thriving bar, these days thinly visited and subdued.

“Maybe you’re the only gringo all week,” Julián added over coffee. Now he was laughing. “Maybe all month!”

Gringos don’t go to Juárez as often anymore, he said. (Although millions of Americans each year visit the country as a whole, many crossing through border towns.) They don’t seem to go to Nuevo Laredo, or Ciudad Acuña, or Reynosa or Matamoros, or many other border towns. I know that because I went to all of these.

Full Story at Smithsonian Magazine

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