Juarez's Children

Drugs, death and fear in the murder capital of the world

The middle child of three casually says, "There are dead people all over Juárez." He watches the nightly TV crime highlights, and murders are a favorite conversation topic between his older sister and her friends. Unfortunately for Guillermo, the ghosts don't always like to stay hidden. They sit on benches and lie in the road alongside Hidalgo Park across the street from his house.

But in an interesting twist of fate, the one square block of green that sits 50 yards from Guillermo's front door is slowly becoming populated by a more lively crowd. "We realized that our city has beautiful spaces, but that they had been abandoned out of fear," says 26-year-old Susana Molina, a hip-hop musician better known in Juárez as Oveja Negra, or Black Sheep. It's 7 o'clock on a recent summer night, and she's standing in Hidalgo Park surrounded by scampering kids and the rhythms of Bob Marley. "We decided it was time to leave the house and occupy public spaces as a way of taking our city back," she says.

It's a unique experiment: Molina and her friends, a ragtag group of young musicians and artists, began to arrive nightly at the park in the historical center of the city this past April, armed with drums, toys, a stereo, guitar, and soccer balls. "At first, no one wanted to leave their house because they said we'd bring trouble," she explains. But little by little, families emerged.

Eight-year-old Esteban, pictured here standing outside his family's house, first saw dead bodies two years ago, in a car four blocks from home.
Luis Aguilar
Eight-year-old Esteban, pictured here standing outside his family's house, first saw dead bodies two years ago, in a car four blocks from home.
This graffiti stencil is common in Juárez. The image lines the wall of the nearly empty canal that borders the city and El Paso, Texas.
Luis Aguilar
This graffiti stencil is common in Juárez. The image lines the wall of the nearly empty canal that borders the city and El Paso, Texas.


Now hula-hoops twirl on 2-foot-high hips, and toddlers bang on drums most evenings. Teenagers flirt on benches, moms cluster to discuss rising food prices, and elders hunched over walkers try to keep up with scurrying grandchildren. "This looks like the good old days of Juárez," a woman passing by remarks to one of Molina's friends.

That's just the idea, says Verónica Corchado, a member of Pacto por la Cultura, a campaign by various citizen organizations in Juárez that coordinates this and other events. "A lot of people have given up hope in our city and have left," she says. "But there are those of us who aren't going anywhere. So after two years of shock, we decided we needed to start living again," the redhead explains. The plan is to replicate the Hidalgo Park pilot project around the city. It—along with film series, art exhibitions, poetry readings and anything else, Corchado says—might help Juárez residents enjoy life again.

"It's also a form of protest," she adds. Corchado and Molina strongly believe that staying inside is not only a normal self-defense mechanism, but also the result of government intimidation. "The government enhances the climate of fear because if there is no one on the streets, then there are no witnesses to what goes on," Corchado says. She remembers that when the military arrived, TV ads encouraged people to stay at home, and traffic-light poles were adorned with informational posters about how to duck-and-cover in the event of a drive-by.

In Juárez, rumors circulate that President Calderón is in bed with the Sinaloa Cartel and that the city's militarization is an effort to crack down on the cartel's rivals. Indeed, most recent corruption arrests of high-ranking officials have nabbed those linked to Sinaloa, and while more than 500 members of rival cartels have been taken into custody, Sinaloa's leader, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, remains free.

Pickup trucks filled with federales slowly circle Hidalgo Park several times throughout the evening. "They'd stop and harass us if there weren't so many of us here," Molina says. But instead, they drive on as the sun sets, and the oppressive June heat finally relinquishes its grip on the day.

Guillermo had crossed the street earlier to wait for Molina and crew to arrive. He sits hesitantly on the sidewalk that borders the park's grassy middle—until he notices the partially decayed carcass of a tiny bird on the concrete next to him and gets up to move.

Guillermo explains he began seeing ghosts "a while ago," though it's unclear whether that means a few months or a few years in his 6-year-old mind. He becomes animated when telling stories of where and when the spirits appear. The accounts are confusing to follow because he uses the word muertos, which translates literally as "dead people," to describe the phantoms. But it soon becomes clear that, word choice aside, Guillermo has never seen a real dead person.

One of those muertos was in the park the previous Saturday, he says. Actually, it was only a head, and it was hanging from a tree—likely an unconscious assimilation of the Juárez executioners' trademark of hanging dead bodies in public. But Guillermo sat on the grass anyway and focused on his guitar lesson. The thrill of learning how to play a C chord apparently meant more than ghosts mulling about—for that night, at least.

Esteban—the composed and inquisitive boy who saw the slain bodies in the car as his two younger siblings slept—spent Father's Day this year at his grandparents' house, along with a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles. His family, a rare breed of third-generation juarenses on both sides, made a feast, and the kids and a few adults spent the sweltering June day romping in the circular above-ground pool.

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