Editor’s Note: The following post is the second in a series of posts — “The Other Side of El Paso: Drugs, Violence and Social Media in Juarez City” — reporting on a State Department-sponsored trip to Mexico. The delegation visited Juarez City and Mexico City as part an effort to give ideas to citizens, grassroots groups and the government on how to raise their voices and organize their opposition to the drug cartels and the spiraling violence along the border.

The first post in the series can be read here.

Ciudad Juarez Has an Image Problem

I remember now why a narco didn’t meet me at the airport in Juarez. Likely because I flew in to El Paso, which sits across the Rio Grande, the big river which is little more than a dried out creekbeed near El Paso, separating the American city from its Mexican counterpart, a sister city, a mirror image of Juarez in the sprawl of rooftops creeping into the browned-out hillsides of the Franklin Mountains but an utterly different environment, streets buzzing with open-air retail and curbside commerce, free of roaming military trucks bristling with automatic weapons. Free of the stench of carjacking and kidnapping and murder that settles in the air of Juarez, just a stone’s throw across the footbridge.

Ciudad Juarez has an image problem. It is jarring to recognize that a mere matter of yards separates you from potential lawlessness. On the American side of the river, I was not nervous during a stop a local brewery, where we ordered chicken wings and the local beer before heading out for a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border. It was like any other American city bar-and-grill, where the most likely occurrence of violence is an argument breaking out over a football game airing on the television. I couldn’t say the same while I was in Juarez. I expected violence. I watched for it. I didn’t go out by myself. Maybe my imagination is overactive. Maybe I too easily accepted as fact the grisly stories reported every day in the local newspapers. Maybe it was the armored SUVs in which we traveled, with their heavy doors and their back windows sealed with the thick metal of a bank vault.

But why was I nervous? During my stay in Juarez, I never saw so much as a rude comment. And still, I kept expecting something. During a stop at the Juarez equivalent of the American bar and grill, we sat on a patio and I noticed a guy wearing a black teeshirt and jeans, leaning in the doorway, boots crossed, with a black eye. It’s something you see every day in the United States, but in Juarez I watched him out of the corner of my eye, especially when a group of about four other youngish looking men walked up to where he was standing. I doubt they knew him, but in my mind I sensed conspiracy, a kidnapping plot in the making, a chance to make some quick ransom money off a group of clueless gringos. Probably the guy with the shiner was just a bartender getting some air. The four guys were just that … four guys getting together to watch a soccer game on television. The waiters were fantastic, the beer cold. The conversation lively. So why was I spooked? Would I have been just as jumpy literally less than a mile north in El Paso?

Yeah, Ciudad Juarez has an image problem all right. And like all good citizens around the world, the people of Juarez blame their problems on the media. People have the wrong idea about Juarez, I’m told during several quiet conversations, because the local newspapers are only interested in the negative, the small-arms combat taking place in the streets, the narcotraffickers and the federales unloading on one another, AK-47 casings littering the parking lot of Starbucks. They have a saying for that in the United States, too: If it bleeds, it leads. Meaning, journalists aren’t interested in the sunny and productive, the non-chaotic and smoothly performing. Where’s the news in that? I chat with residents of Juarez about this and they nod their heads. The media cover the beheadings and carjackings and the arbitrary kidnappings but what about the local economy, they ask? When was the last time they paid attention to the opening of a small business or a manufacturing facility – not that there have been that many, they will admit, since the recession. Too many of the American facilities have shuttered their doors and gone elsewhere. The jobs have dried up, and too many people have nothing to do and no money to do it with.

They have a point. Maquiladoras, the local manufacturing arms of behemoth American corporations, dot the streetscapes. They surprise you. You are riding along the avenue, Mexican versions of fastfood joints scattered about, and then up rises a big gated facility, clean and new and out of place. Most are manufacturing facilities, once home to internationally recognizable names like Lear, Siemens, and Boeing. Only a few years ago, people came from all around Mexico to Juarez to partake in the NAFTA-fueled boom. These factories import the raw materials from abroad, put together the finished products, and then ship them back to the originating cities. Unfortunately, the dollars go with them. So these factories do little to pump up the economy, except that they do provide jobs – the most valuable commodity in this part of the country outside of cocaine. The city had been on its way to becoming known as the jobs capital of Mexico, not the murder capital. Combined with El Paso, the area accounted for one of the largest manufacturing regions in all of North America. Now, though, many of those same maquiladoras are quiet.

“What happens to all of these large facilities if they’re not operational anymore?” somebody asks.

“They are housing for all of the new soldiers coming into the area to fight the cartels.”

The gasping economy is not unique to Juarez, but it is inseparable from the level of criminal operation, which is unique. At least to Mexico. Last year, there were 1,600 murders in this town of 1.5 million. This year, as of September, there are more than 1,400, with no end in sight and a new bloody record just within reach. A news article proclaimed this August to be the deadliest month ever.

The week I returned from Juarez, the following story about the September 3rd slaughter of 18 Juarez residents ran in the Los Angeles Times:

The deed was stomach-turning. Hooded gunmen burst into a Ciudad Juarez drug treatment center, gathered together those inside and lined them p before opening fire with automatic weapons. When the shooting was over, 18 people were dead.

Attention focused immediately on the site of Wednesday night’s killings: a rehab center, where addicts go to get clean, suggesting a new level of depravity in Mexico’s drug violence.

Odds are that the slayings, like hundreds of others in the border city, will never be solved. The crime is a further sign of the chaos enveloping Ciudad Juarez and a reminder of another tragic development that has accompanied the flow of cocaine and other drugs through Mexico: a big and growing problem with local drug addiction.

What was remarkable about the rehab center killings was how unremarkable that sort of violence has become in the city, which has seen about 3,000 violent deaths since the start of last year.

In the previous week, at least 75 people were killed in the city, including a man who was beheaded, another suspended by handcuffs from a chain-link fence and four whose bodies were piled on a sidewalk.

Those killings went largely unnoticed outside Ciudad Juarez.

- Los Angeles Times

Yet another negative story. Seems nobody likes the media in Juarez. The residents think they are too focused on drug crime and violence; so, too, evidently, do the drug cartels. The drug lords do not take kindly to having nosy journalists poking about in their business and reporting their operations for all the world to see. Which makes journalists frequent targets of said crime. Executions, kidnappings, beatings. Juarez has been called the most dangerous city in the world for journalists.

El Diario de Juarez journalist Armando Rodriguez Carreon was well-known for countless stories about gangland killings in his hometown of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. For years, the 40-year-old police beat reporter tirelessly published pieces about the latest executions in a violence-torn city.

Rodriguez’s stories, which relied a lot on police sources and often did not implicate any particular suspects, were characterized by an almost matter-of-fact quality that kept to the narrative even as violence kept escalating. On Thursday morning, November 13, Rodriguez became a victim himself when a gunman who reportedly fled shot him outside his home in a waiting car. No possible motive for the homicide was publicly disclosed, but it was reported that Rodriguez received a text threat on his cell-phone earlier this year.

His killing occurred one week to the day that a severed human head was discovered at a monument to journalists in Ciudad Juarez.

- Media Alliance

During a lunch with journalists in Juarez, the head of the Mexican newspaper association acknowledges that the people have begun to lose confidence in the media. “They think we focus too much on the negative,” he admits, with the kind of knowing, exasperated look of journalists everywhere. The look that says: How can we not cover it? They don’t have to be very enterprising to find it. It comes to them. He tells me about a colleague who was executed for reporting on one of these negative stories. Assassinated by one of the local drug gangs, a message to rest of them. Of course, nobody can prove this. Crime usually goes unsolved in Juarez. Prosecutions are a rarity. The police themselves are often on the take. “Do you know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police and they walk up to your car with machine guns and you have no idea what they might do?” asks one college student. An American business man in Mexico City tells me that he and all of his colleagues are given security training before working in Mexico. “If you are pulled over by the police, you don’t stop,” he says, “until you find a well-lighted area. You just keep going, blue lights flashing for as long as it takes. You don’t stop with armed police in Mexico in isolated areas.”

I think the media might be the only friend the people of Juarez have. Who will keep shining the light into these ratholes where the drug gangs operate, if not the media? Who will hold them accountable? Evidently not the police. We are down to talk with residents about how to organize themselves, how to make their voices heard above the din of street slayings. How to tell the world that the cartels do not represent Mexico. But you cannot do this without an active media. Without a free and independent media, there is no voice for the people. Not even the blogosphere can change that.

I am told, almost as if by way of explanation, that the people doing the shooting in Juarez are very good at what they do. They kill well. They don’t often miss. This is not collateral damage. The executed can usually be tied to the drug trade. Gang-related, as they say in the United States. Small-time dealers who owe money. The double-crossed. The nasty business of achieving dominance over rivals.

Still, that doesn’t account for the judges executed. The law enforcement agents and soldiers murdered. The reporters who cover the killings and who end up resented, tortured and dead for the effort. It doesn’t account, exactly, for the 18 murdered in cold blood at the rehab center on September 3rd. Were they convenient cover for a more purposeful execution? The newspapers report that some of the dead may have been members of rival gangs. Others among the dead, though, were just trying to get clean. Like the teenager who had graduated the program and was ready to come home but was still trying to get himself right.

Nor does the gang-on-gang violence theory fully account for the spiraling violence of the youths who can’t find a job and want to break into the ranks of the cartels and are willing to show they have what it takes. The random carjackings. Kidnappings for ransom.

Yes, Juarez City has an image problem. And, yes, maybe the media has something to do with it. But something is awry with this theory, too. I like blaming the media as much as the next guy. Still, I think perhaps the problem in Juarez City rises above mere media bias. I come to this conclusion, definitively, during my first hours in Juarez, when Silvio, one of our able State Department hosts, notes that he nearly tripped over a corpse coming out of his house in one of the gated communities where Americans are supposed to being living in a safer environment. “Safer” is a relative term.

My conclusion is reinforced with that first morning’s headline of four beheaded residents dumped in the street. And the next day’s report of a father and son assassinated by one of the cartels. Was the father involved in the drug trade? Did the boy have to die? A few days later, I read of the murder of an assistant to a federal law enforcement officer working in Juarez. These stories just keeping, as certain as rain in the tropics.

I am convinced that this is not just a media problem, even as I devour the endless media stories narrating the violence that has descended on Ciudad Juarez. Eighteen rehab patients massacred. Lined up on a patio and gunned down like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that has become part of American mob mythology. Only seven people were lined up by Al Capone’s gang that day. Also gang-on-gang violence. The floor of the patio of the Juarez rehab clinic was littered with more than 80 spent casings, scattered across the concrete and coated in the blood. This won’t go down in Mexican mob history. It won’t reach mythic status. It’s routine.

Maybe we have something more than only an image problem in Juarez City. Maybe admitting this is the first step to finding a voice.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More