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It’s hard to tell some stories in less than four minutes.

In a recent piece on NPR’s All Things Considered, there was a lot of detail I left out on account of time. The story was about how residents in the northern Mexican town of Ascension literally took justice into their own hands by beating two suspected kidnappers who eventually died.

Mexican military outside the state police office in Ascension.

I arrived in Ascension in the company of Adriana Gomez Licon, a young, yet enterprising reporter from the El Paso Times. We figured we’d be safer making the trip together. Because car jackings are a problem in Mexico, we opted for a 2 ½ hour bus ride from Ciudad Juarez to Ascension. That put us in town at 1 in the afternoon. By then we’d missed a big city hall rally where residents demanded that the mayor fire all 14 remaining police officers. About half the force had already resigned the high risk job.

The event that set off the public’s fury was the kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl. Adriana and I visited the girl’s aunt, Mari Cruz. The following account is her version of the ordeal:

The girl worked at another aunt’s seafood restaurant in order to pay for her high school. Tuesday morning she was apparently counting money behind the counter when the kidnappers entered the restaurant and mistook her for the owner. Then they took her at gunpoint.

Supposedly, there was a total of six kidnappers traveling in two separate vehicles. One was a stolen truck allegedly snagged the day before from a Mennonite farmer in the neighboring town of Buena Vista. Word about the kidnapping spread quickly and soon an angry group of about 200 townspeople gave chase.

One of the cars got a flat and the three men inside were captured by the Mexican military and taken to Ciudad Juarez. They are charged with kidnapping and illegal weapon possession. The other car ran off the road and the three inside fled on foot into side lining cotton fields. The girl was left behind in the truck where residents were able to retrieve her.

When the three young men in the truck took off, an incredible pursuit ensued. Residents say the group of 200 combed the cotton fields determined to find them. A local farmer even flew out in his crop plane to assist in the search. Within 30 minutes the people found two of the young men.

The fate that awaited them was brutal. The people of Ascension carried with them pent-up coraje, a Spanish word that means something like resentment mixed with rage. One man, a local kitchen cabinet maker, took us out to the site of the first beating. It was a soft soil road in between two cotton fields. The cabinet maker, who will sit on city council next month, gave us his first person account.

This is the spot where two suspected kidnappers were caught and beaten by residents.

“When the people got a hold of them they began to beat them and they began to shout at them about how much harm they’d caused and how much they suffered because of them,” he said.

In the crowd, he said he saw the faces of brothers, fathers and cousins who had all had a loved one kidnapped or had been kidnapped themselves.

People recognized the two young men, he said. They grew up in the community.

“I yelled at them too,” said the cabinet maker. He said he didn’t participate in the beating and that he didn’t agree with the people’s actions. “But it was hard for me to say ‘okay, that’s enough’ because I’m not the one who’s loved one was kidnapped.”

After about 10 minutes of beating, the federal police arrived and took custody of the two young men. At least one is under 17 a state police representative told me. The feds supposedly took the young men in someone’s pick up truck to a small nearby military base. A group of townspeople rode in the back of the pick up to supervise the feds.

But police didn’t hold onto the two young men for long. Residents say that soon a larger, angrier mob of at least 1,000 arrived at the military base. They broke down the gate and got their hands on the two suspects and beat them yet again. The story gets a little unclear at this point, but I was told the feds were able to get the two suspects into a federal police car which the townspeople then surrounded and prevented the feds from accessing again. A seven hour standoff followed. Residents say the townspeople were even able to prevent a federal police helicopter from landing near the base by obstructing it’s landing space. Meanwhile the two young men remained locked in the hot police car, badly beaten. According to the autopsy report, they eventually died of their injuries.

Part of the public’s anger has to do with the fact that they’re drowning in crime and never see justice. One resident told us that over the past year this town of about 15,000 experiences on average three kidnappings a week. Even if the kidnappers are caught she said they are typically released within two weeks, especially if they are minors.

She said one of the young men who was beaten was a minor. Once at the military base, she said he yelled at the crowd, “See you in fifteen days!”

It’s hard to say what is fueling the kidnappings in Ascension. The mayor blamed it on people formerly employed by the drug trade. He said that with all the border security on the American side it was getting harder for them to cross their merchandise. So now they’ve turned to other criminal activity. I’m sure the bad economy could also be a reason.

Residents told us that most of the time the kidnappers release their victims once the ransom is paid. They say most survivors aren’t seriously harmed by their kidnappers. But a lot of people don’t have the money to pay ransom. Some go door to door asking their neighbors if they can spare a little cash to help them collect enough money.

“Don’t give them too much money” the neighbors say, “Otherwise they’ll go out and buy bigger guns.”

Now the residents of Ascension are forming a sort of neighborhood watch committee. They’re joining up with the nearby LeBaron community, also known as a town that made self-protection it’s own responsibility. It will be interesting to follow what becomes of this little town in the coming weeks.

An indigenous woman breastfeeds her daughter in the central plaza of Ascension.

September 15, 2010

I refused to let Mexico’s 200th anniversary pass me by.

Yes, the country is in the worst state I’ve ever seen. People are dying horrific deaths. There is no justice. Corruption abounds and people live in fear. Life is not the same.

Local cartoonist, Jose Luis Gonzalez, plays the part of Padre Hidalgo and shouts the cry of independence before his neighbors.

One can easily and rather bitterly say, “There’s nothing to celebrate in Mexico right now.” I agree, but at the same time I don’t.

I celebrate the Mexico I know exists underneath the bloody muck that’s choking the country right now. I celebrate the Mexico I grew up in– on holy week at the springs near my great grandmother’s town and summer vacations playing with my cousins in the plaza. I celebrate the colorful and exciting culture of a people born from a meztizaje of Spanish and indigenous roots. I celebrate Mexico’s beautiful landscapes, her spectacular deserts, her mystic waterfalls, and breathtaking beaches.

We must not forget this Mexico, because this is the Mexico we have to fight for. If we don’t remember her and celebrate her, where are we supposed to draw the inspiration or strength to continue the fight? To me, not celebrating is like giving into the evil. I don’t want to give in. I want to fight for Mexico.

So I celebrated Mexico’s bicentennial. I chose to celebrate the country’s 200th anniversary in Ciudad Juarez at a simple fiesta organized by a local neighborhood association. I had the honor of being accompanied by poet and writer Benjamin Alire Sanez. He barely hesitated when I extended the invitation. Ben preferred to celebrate at a small neighborhood fiesta than accept a haughty invitation from the Mexican consulate in the United States.

“I want to be in Mexico,” he told me. Que hermoso.

I was certainly happy to have his company. After all, beneath my fighting spirit I was scared. I was terrified of driving back home from the fiesta on the deserted streets of Juarez in the early morning hours. But there was no way that was going to stop me. I was headstrong about celebrating.

The entrance into the neighborhood association.

Ben and I arrived at the entrance to the neighborhood association, a wrought iron gate decorated with a Mexican flag and barbed wire. A guard asked what was our business then took down my name and an ID. We continued through the gates wondering just how capable these apparently unarmed guards were of truly protecting the neighborhood.

The fiesta was in a park a few blocks behind the entrance. Red, green and white streamers were hung across the length of a concrete basketball court. Underneath, tables and chairs were set up where families sat, laughed and chatted. To the right was a space for karaoke. Behind it, a jumping balloon and a tent under which kids and grandmas were playing loteria, a game similar (but far more fun) than American Bingo.

Ben and I spent most of our time on the other end of the basketball court where women in frilly blouses and aprons were cooking all kinds of Mexican antojitos. There were enchiladas, taquitos, corn in a cup and pastel de tres leches.

Shortly after stuffing ourselves with a heavenly plate of red enchiladas, an elder man called everyone’s attention. It was time for el grito, or the traditional cry for independence, given at 11 pm on September 15. The man who gave el grito is a cartoonist for one of the local papers. He would tell me after the ceremony that he was chosen for el grito because of his physical likeness to Father Hidalgo, the rebel priest that who gave the original grito back in 1810.

The cartoonist’s words were inspiring.

“We gather to celebrate our independence,” he said. “We may have locked ourselves up but it is still our independence. This is the first event where can see solidarity between us as neighbors. Here’s to our unity spreading and leading us to a better future.”


Neighbors forget their sorrows for a moment and celebrate Mexico's bicentennial.

The neighborhood association is only six months old. Prior to its existence, people only knew a small handful of their neighbors. Now there are 140 households who actively participate and interact with each other.

“We came together because of the terrible violence,” the cartoonist later told me. “But out of a disgraceful situation our people have responded with solidarity.”

It’s true there is no cause to celebrate in Mexico right now, he said. But we can’t live our lives in constant tension, he said. So we organized this fiesta so families could spend time outside, interact with their neighbors and forget for a second the situation under which we live. We need it to lift our spirits.

I agreed with his words. Looking around me I saw joy and ease in people’s faces. It was easy to forget that we were in the middle in one of the most violent cities in the world. We enjoyed the warm night, the food and the music. And we were able to taste again that Mexico we all adore.

Benjamin Alire Sanez and I celebrating with a family in Ciudad Juarez.

September 10, 2010

This the tenth time I dial, what’s the deal?

She knows we agreed on 4 pm at her house– but how am I supposed to get to there if I don’t have directions? And how am I supposed to get directions if she doesn’t pick up the pick up the phone??

These were my thoughts today as I was trying to reach a woman I was going to interview. Her psychologist recommended her and set up the meeting. She gave me the woman’s phone number and address, but couldn’t tell me how to get there. No problem I told the psychologist, I’ll just call her and ask. The appointment was this afternoon. I started calling the woman 24 hours beforehand to no avail.  And in a city where street names and addresses on homes are optional– more like absent all together– finding a place can make you want to pull your hair out.

Locals stand around near the perimeter of a crime scene. Vast insecurity has altered life for the people of Juarez.

So why don’t people answer their phones in Juarez?

Same reason they don’t put out signs announcing their businesses. Tienen miedo. They are afraid.

You may have caught on to a tone of annoyance in this post. I’m not really annoyed. On the contrary, I’m totally sympathetic. I know you’ve heard it before: the people of Juarez live in fear. This is true. But it’s not mass panic like you might imagine. Often their fear is a lot more subtle– like neglecting to answer the phone.

Juarenzes don’t answer their phone because they’re afraid of extortion. That is, a stranger with an unlisted phone number calls and demands money from you. If you are a business, it’s for the infamous cuota or protection. If you are a household, the caller may ask for money or else threaten to harm your family.

So Juarenzes have found a simple solution to this serious problem. Don’t answer the phone when you don’t know who it is. This can get complicated real quick. For one, you may miss your very important appointment with the reporter who’s on deadline. That or you may miss an unexpected visit by a second cousin who you haven’t seen in more than 10 years.

It was 4:25 and after the umpteenth attempt the woman finally answered my call.

“Bueno..?” Her voice was soft and hesitant.

“It’s me! Monica. The reporter you were supposed to meet at 4. I need directions to your house.”

The woman apologized. She been sitting at home listening to the phone ring off the hook. I didn’t want to answer, she told me, the caller ID said it was an unknown caller. Okay, so maybe I was a little annoyed. She knew I was coming and that I’d probably need directions or at least verify that she was home.  I told her I knew all about extortion and was glad that she finally answered.

The woman lives on a busy boulevard near the center of the city. Once I found her house I quickly discovered that she was a great interview. I barely had to ask questions. She told me about how life had changed in Juarez. Trips downtown for a walk around the plaza and a hot dog were over. Too risky, she said. You never know what could happen. Now she and her son rarely go further than their front yard where they play hide and seek or stare up at the clouds and guess what animals they’re shaped like.

And she doesn’t answer the phone when it’s from a desconosido or stranger. Plenty of her friends and relatives have been extorted.  She once got a suspicious call from a stranger. She pretended to be the ignorant housekeeper. The voice on the other line demanded to speak with her “jefe” or boss. She simply hung up.

When she put the receiver down she said her palms were sweaty and she felt a sudden headache coming on from behind her neck. I don’t do a lot of things I used to do, she said.

People not anwering their phone is nothing new in Juarez. It’s been going on for awhile now. I write about it because I’m afraid I’ll get used to this kind of stuff. I’m afraid I’ll start accepting abnormal behavior as normal. After nearly three years, people in Juarez are certainly growing accustomed to living in a high risk environment.  As a reporter you have to pay attention to things like this.

And as a final note: You know you’re crossing the border a little too often when the customs guys at the ports of entry start recognizing you.  Officer Endlich scanned my passport at the Americas bridge today.

“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I,” he said.

I smiled and rolled my eyes. Yes, you probably have, I said. He checked his computer.

“Yup,” he said, “About a month ago.”

I looked at his gold name plate. “Endlich, it is? Where is that from?”

German, he said. It means something akin to “finally.” I laughed.

“Yea,” I said, ” ’cause when I see you I can say: Finally! I’ve made it across!”

It’s good to be back in El Paso.

September 10, 2010 

I’d like to introduce you to the Cadena family.

Their son Rodrigo was killed January 30th by a single bullet to the neck in a ruthless massacre at his friend’s birthday party in Ciudad Juarez. Fifteen others– mostly teenagers– were slaughtered that night by a commando of hit men who confused their party for that of a rival drug gang.

Seventeen-year-old Rodrigo Cadena was killed Jan. 30 at a friend's birthday party.

This night forever ripped a gash in the lives Adrian Cadena and his wife Guadalupe Davila. They are Rodrigo’s parents. Adrian is an auto mechanic and his wife works for the city government. The couple lives with their three remaining children in a tiny government subsidized home in south central Juarez.

Rodrigo played American football for a local community league founded about eight years ago by Juarenzes who love the sport. His team is the Jaguars. After the massacre, Mexican President Felipe Calderon promised to build the league a brand new football field in honor of those killed. I decided to check out the new field several weeks ago and write a story about it.

That’s how I met the Cadena family.

I arrived at their home late one afternoon. The family welcomed me with smiles and right away began to bring out photos of their deceased son. “Look,” said Ms. Cadena “This is my baby when he started kinder”…. “This is him after their big championship win.”

Then they shared the terrible story of the night their son died. The birthday party was for Rodrigo’s friend, Charlie, in a far off neighborhood called Villas de Salvarcar. A bunch of Jaguars teammates were at the party including other neighborhood teens.

Mr. Cadena said the last time he talked to his son was 9:30 that night. Rodrigo begged his father to let him stay just a little later. The next call the family received was to tell them their son had been killed.

The birthday party was intercepted by hit men carrying high caliber weapons. They blocked off the streets with several vehicles before storming the block and the three side by side houses where the party was held. Then they opened fire.

Rodrigo was killed along with three of his team mates. One was Juan Carlos Medrano, the Jaguars’ star quarterback. Juan Carlos was killed alongside his girlfriend, Brenda. Others survived the attack, some badly injured. One player still has a bullet lodged near his kidney.

The state attorney general later told the families of those killed that the hit men had mistakenly targeted these young people. Their intent was to hit the party of a rival gang know as the “Double A’s,” short for Assassination Artists.  They’d come heavily armed, prepared to face retaliation.

The terrible mistake was that in the football league, the category the Jaguars played for was also known as the “Double A’s” or the older adolescents. The younger adolescent category was simply known as the “A’s”. The league has since changed the category names.

“It was an army of assassins that unleashed their fury on a group of indefensible young people,” Mr. Cadena said.

Despite the horrific tragedy, I noticed an incredible strength and sense of peace in the Cadena family. I soon realized that they drew their strength from their continued support of the football league. This from a family that knew little about the sport before their son began playing four years ago.

Rodrigo’s mother told me, “I may have lost one son, but I gained hundreds more.” She was referring to the boys and teens who remain on the league. She said she sees her son in each and every one of them.

“Every kiss, every hug I receive from them, it’s as if I was receiving it from my son,” she said. “Their dreams are the same as my son’s and I want to support them.”

The Cadena family knows football kept their son straight. And they know it can do the same for other young people. So they volunteer their time with their league. They plan to go to every game this season and cheer louder than ever.

“Not 20 thousand soldiers or 10 thousand federal police or even the president himself can change the situation here in Juarez,” Mr. Cadena said. “It’s up to us, the citizens of Juarez to turn things around. Each one of us has to take responsibility for our community and work to make it better.”

July 19, 2010

I held a microphone in one hand and a drippy strawberry ice cream cone in the other. At the opposite end of the microphone was a 24-year-old gangster with a shaved head and a tear drop tattooed on the corner of his eye. We were sitting in an outdoor pizza parlor in the garden of the Azteca wing in the Juárez municipal jail. Yes, you read correctly, a pizza parlor and a garden in jail.

The Juárez jail is not a minimum security facility. Most are locked up here while their cases go through judicial proceedings. But people are also here serving time for murder. The entire cell block we visited is filled with dangerous gang members. When greeting a pair of American reporters, though, most of them seemed as tame as kittens.

Inmates in the Azteca wing of the Juarez jail hang outside their cell buildings.

For this visit, I was tagging along with NPR’s Mexico City correspondent. We arrived just before lunch under a blazing desert sun and 100-degree weather. I went to the jail with the expectation that it wouldn’t be like any jail in the United States. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the laid back, almost festive atmosphere. Despite being surrounded by thugs and killers I felt safer inside the jail walls than outside in the city.

In the Azteca wing, the grounds and cell buildings were incredibly neat and clean. It felt more like a neighborhood than a jail. There were concrete benches and tables each shaded by a canopy, in-house restaurants, an art workshop, a vegetable garden and classrooms. The inmates are free to move in and out of their cells during the day. Women and children, usually family members, wander the grounds as do ducks, geese and goats.

The young man we interviewed was a gun smuggler from El Paso, a U.S. citizen in a Mexican jail. He said he wasn’t the only one. His job was to cross guns over the border from El Paso into Juarez. He didn’t get or buy the guns himself, that job belongs to someone else.  One day he was caught on the Mexican side of the international bridge and ended up in jail.

“This is the life I chose,” he said. No regrets.

As soon as he gets out, he said he’ll go back to the same life. He doesn’t have a choice, really. Used to be that the only ways out of a gang was by turning to God or death. Not now, he said, with the ongoing “war” between different drug cartels it’s all hands on deck. The Azteca gang, which he is a member of, is allied with the local Juárez drug cartel.

An inmate at the CERESO jail in Ciudad Juarez sits in his cell.

The Aztecas are the Juárez branch of the Barrio Aztecas, a gang founded by El Paso inmates in a U.S. federal prison. The young man we interviewed was recruited into the gang when he was 17 and serving time in a Texas prison. He said the reason he joined was more about protection than free will. The Juárez Aztecas and the El Paso Barrio Aztecas typically work together. Members have a special wing in the Juárez jail to avoid conflict with rival gang members incarcerated in other areas.

While we interviewed the El Paso gangster, other inmates brought us each a double scoop of ice cream in a large sugar cone. It was a strange situation to be in, sitting in the municipal jail of one of the most dangerous cities in the world, interviewing a gangster, licking an ice cream cone.

When we left the jail we didn’t marvel too long on the leisurely atmosphere of the place. Our thoughts lingered on the gun smuggler from El Paso and on how this drug war could only be possible with cooperation from both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

Family members take a final look at Sergio Hernandez Guereca before he is buried in a Juarez cemetery.

June 10, 2010

Today Sergio Hernandez Guereca was buried high in a mountainside grave overlooking the vast urban desert of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. Hernandez is the 15 year old boy who was shot dead by a border patrol agent on Monday– a tragic event that has flared tensions between the Mexican and American governments.

Friends, family and media trailed behind a grey and blue hearse up a lonely hillside in the far western outskirts of the city. He was buried in Panteon Jardines de Recuerdos, or Garden of Memories. The cemetery is a atop a desert plateau with a magnificent view of the two sister cities.

I was driving along with fellow reporter John Burnett of National Public Radio in a white Chevy Malibu that was far too fancy to drive comfortably in Juarez. We were near the tail end of the procession and I marveled at the height of the cemetery and the long procession of cars and buses.

The scene at the grave sight was intense. The sight and sounds of grieving family members hits hard emotionally. My mind immediately flashed back to the funeral day of six teenagers who were gunned down at a birthday party earlier this year. The sobs, the anger, the frustration and hopelessness were inescapably in-your-face.

Family and friends make their way toward the burial site.

“My son, my son,” the mother wailed while she clutched the edge of the boy’s coffin. A crowd of people and cameras crowded around her in a tight, disorderly circle. It was difficult to watch and listen. This very private and personal moment felt disrupted and invaded. But a journalist must document these moments. They best illustrate the intensity of these circumstances. The key is to document such moments in a way that is respectful– not something you learn in journalism school.

Sergio Hernandez Guereca was perhaps no angel (American officials have said he has a criminal record) and anyone who trespasses in the limbo zone between Mexico and the United States is putting themselves in a risky situation– but the sense I get from most people in El Paso and Juarez is that his death is unjustified. A video released today by a Spanish language television news network certainly casts doubts on what American officials have told the media thus far about the shooting.

The mayor of Juarez told us in an interview this afternoon that the case will have to work it’s way through the American judicial system in order for all sides to be presented and a resolution to be sought. I’m grateful for the technology that made that citizen video possible. Such public documentation can be a powerful tool in the path to justice.

Friends and family grieve the death of Sergio Hernandez Guereca

May 11, 2010 

A few weeks ago I jumped rope for the first time since the fifth grade. I remember how this was absolutely my favorite after lunch activity on the blacktop with a group of girlfriends.  Now, as a young woman, I miss those afternoons. The chances of my grown-up girlfriends pulling out a rope and saying, “Let’s jump,” after a midday meal are slim to none. Adults can be so lame. 

Children of colonia Primero de Mayo

 It was a Wednesday, warm and sunny. I was in jeans and pink flats. The place: colonia Primero de Mayo in south west Juarez. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the opportunity to jump rope since I was surrounded by giddy  children. 

My guide was a social worker with unforgettable green eyes. I picked her up at a corner pharmacy where she was waiting with a portable stereo and a small canvas bag filled with coloring books and crayons. “The neighborhood is a little rough,” she told me. I think I just smiled back at her. Like I haven’t heard that before. 

The story behind this particular trip was about a recently published book filled with the testimonies of children growing up in Juarez. Lourdes, the social worker, was part of a coalition of non-profits that published the book. The children we were about to visit were some of those featured in the book. By the way, I got the idea for the story from a friend’s blog (http://elpasotimes.typepad.com/mexico/). 

Colonia Primero de Mayo is no different from many other “colonias” in Ciudad Juarez. A colonia in Juarez usually refers to an outlying neighborhood founded by squatters and characterized by poverty. The residents of Primero de Mayo are mainly factory workers who immigrated to Juarez from other Mexican states like Durango, Torreon, and Veracruz. They came some 20 years ago to work in Juarez’s then booming maquiladora industry. Their nimble fingers assemble the car parts and electronics we Americans use on a daily basis. Thanks to the recession, a good number of them are currently unemployed. 

When Lourdes and I arrived there were only a few children in the front yard of the family who hosts these weekly gatherings. The homes here were built by hand by their owners, so the architecture can get pretty, well, creative. This house was actually several small houses on a single plot. The walls were a bright yellow and the front yard– like the roads– was all dirt and pebbles. 

Lourdes set up the stereo, a table and a few chairs. Then the children arrived. There was about a dozen of them, some barefoot, some in superhero t-shirts, some in stylish second hand shirts. They played games, danced, and of course jumped rope.  

Boy in colonia Primero de Mayo

After I’d collected some sound and did a few interviews the kids didn’t have to ask me twice to join them in their jumping. I practically threw my gear into my bag and made for the rope. 

A familiar tune emerged from the children’s mouths: “Chile, tomate, cebolla, frijoles de la olla, mole!” The rope suddenly went faster, as did my heartbeat! I gave up before the kid jumping with me even broke a sweat. 

There is a sad story behind all this, as is typically the case behind so many of my trips to Juarez. These children live with unthinkable violence everyday. Few public policy makers in Juarez take the time to seriously study the effects of such violence on the city’s future generation. The goal of the recently published book with local children’s testimonies, is meant to call attention to this important matter. 

When I was in the fifth grade, I was dreaming about how someday I was going to travel the world and become an obstetrician. The children of Primero de Mayo also have dreams. Whether or not they will be realized depends, in part, on how much those of us born with far greater privileges are willing to invest in their futures. 

Me jumping rope with a neighborhood kid.

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