Archive for September, 2010

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.


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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