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.
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.
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.