You’re in Tucson?

The Rio Grande-Rio Bravo between El Paso and Juarez ... from the Santa Fe bridge.

Actually, I’m in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where I enjoyed a fairly relaxing day. I have not checked the murder count for the day here yet, but I just learned of the shootings in Tucson via Twitter and read several accounts.

All week I’ve been getting messages along the lines of: You’re in Juarez? And my reply is often that any city can be dangerous and that our media-filtered perception of Juarez (and by false extension, all of Mexico) is a flawed perception. I really wanted that to be so, but after three days here, I do not think it’s a false perception.

Everyone I’ve spoken to is nervous here: I just dropped my fork against my plate in a fairly nice hotel in a decent part of town and five people jumped up to see what was going on. I went to see a movie with a Mexican man from Minneapolis who is here waiting for his visa to come through (hoping it comes through) so that he can rejoin his American wife in the States. Several times during the movie (Tron 3D, dubbed) there were strange noises in the theater and people started looking around uncomfortable, pulling down their 3D glasses.

My first night here I stayed in a rough neighborhood with two Americans who have lived there for 15 years. I wanted so badly to be comfortable there, to talk to neighbors, to walk around. But nearly every house had a story of murder. Recent murder. I can’t write about the details, but we walked quickly to and fro, taking different routes each time, walking down the middle of the street, a technique I learned years ago from a friend whose mother is a social worker (apparently no one will touch the crazy guero walking down the middle of the street)? I took the bus from this neighborhood in the hills above Juarez through many run-down colonias, swerving around burnt tires, wondering at every unplanned stop. People did not make eye contact on the bus. We all had our collars turned up, stared straight ahead. I worked up the nerve to ask a lady next to me if the US Consulate was getting close and she briefly explained it was close and then got off the bus.

Crossing by foot from El Paso to Mexico over the Santa Fe bridge.

All this death, all this nervousness, was making me nervous, so I decided to get a hotel room near the Consulate. I’m not going to say where, because I’m still here and still paranoid, but it’s pretty sweet and rather affordable. I had survived 24 hours in Juarez. But I still had to go back and get my stuff and inform my hosts that I really appreciated their hospitality and deeply respect their choice to live there and experience the fear and desperation, and, to be fair, small celebrations of life and familia, that the majority of Juarenzes experience day in and day out. And to tell them that I needed to move to a more secure location. It’s always going back that gets us in trouble. In 1999, after a day exploring in downtown Johannesburg, I was mugged taking the scenic route back. It’s a small example and proves nothing, but I did not want a repeat. Luckily, I had met a man who works for a local health clinic and who offered to take me in his van to get my stuff and bring it back to the hotel. I told him the neighborhood and he said it was not a problem, though in retrospect, he did not know where it was and had no idea what he was in for. This man is in his 50s and grew up in Juarez. He is trained as an attorney, has adult children and holds a decent job. But I had to navigate for him and as we climbed into the barrio, his agitation became very obvious. We were driving a pretty nice passenger van and I noticed him checking the mirror, his face turning red, every bump or turn getting serious.

We pulled up to the little house and he said sternly, “five minutes.” I rushed in and told my hostess that I was moving closer to the Consulate, because that’s where my story was unfolding and because it’s safer for me. She was very gracious, but wanted to show my friend her little garden and two beautiful chickens. I was scanning the block for approaching vehicles while he got a quick tour of the yard and the house. This was most likely all irrational fear, but we were ratcheting up one another’s irrational fears. I didn’t like that he was so nervous, assuming he knew the area. He maybe didn’t like that he was driving a gringo journalist around in a fancy car in the colonias. Then he decided to take the scenic route back. There is a beltway around Juarez that most people with cars try to take to avoid stop lights, to speed past the ghetto.

But the day before, my host had taken me out to a vantage point to look north to the border, to Texas and New Mexico and to point out that like in many American cities, the beltway skirts the ghetto and provides no access for the poor to new infrastructure. We were now experiencing that first hand as we could clearly see the highway on the horizon but were speeding along dirt roads, imagining gangsters chasing us, until we finally came out to the asphalt. We both breathed huge sighs of relief. I know that this was all in our heads. But it was also a symptom of living in a town where the daily paper features a murder count. (U.S. papers have these in bad years too, remember.) We dropped my bags at the hotel and went out for double shots of Don Julio and some deep fried intestines with guacamole. I’m not the kind of person who regularly NEEDS a drink. But I needed a drink last night. (I could have done without the intestines, but they grew on me.)

Today I spent the morning eating fruit and eggs and transcribing my notes and then I met a source and spent all afternoon at a gleaming, well lit and highly secured mall. I hit the ATM. Had coffee. Took in a movie. The mall is spitting distance from the hotel. I’m a Juarez wimp now and I’m okay with that. But then I got back to the hotel tonight (wi-fi) and read about Tucson, where an apparently crazed right wing thug opened fire on a Democratic politician in a supermarket parking lot, killing six, and I’m not sure what to think. The cliche that all politics is local applies as well, and just as poorly, to urban violence. Just as the lone, or possibly pair of killers in Arizona acted in what appears to be an isolated incident, they were wrapped up in a national sentiment that has pushed many Americans to the brink of rationality. And just as many of the killings in Juarez are targeted, drug-related and extortion related incidents, they are also part of a larger geo-political context of free trade, drug trade and political corruption that plagues the border region. But these two geopolitical facts: increasing xenophobia and militarization of the border in the north and the growing power of drug cartels in the south are intimately related and on a crash course. It’s not a complete solution, but perhaps in the wake of this assasination attempt in the U.S., we will reassess the wisdom of criminalizing migrants, putting troops along the border and continuing to declare wars on inanimate objects (drugs, terrorism).

Either way, I’m outta here tomorrow, moving south for a long overdue visit with dear friends who just had their first baby, friends living in a new type of exile brought on by the same strain in American politics which reared it’s ugly head in Arizona today.