Children in Hiding

Juarez kids surrounded by violence, dead bodies.

"Before the military arrived, there was always a certain logic to organized crime and the murders," says Esteban's mother, Lourdes Almada, who heads Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en Ciudad Juárez, a coalition of Juárez child advocacy and community organizations. "Assassinations were more or less payment of debts, and those who carried them out took care to ensure that there weren't any confusions.

"Suddenly, you had kids witnessing executions or being shot themselves as they tried to flee with their father," Almada recalls. "Reality blew up in our face."

Newspaper editor Josefina Martínez motions to a wall across from the entrance to her son's primary school. "Right over there, cartel tags started appearing," she says. Before 2008, territorial markings were never so close to a school. Then the extortion began. In December 2008, teachers throughout the city's 900 schools were sent a clear message through the coded markings: Hand over your year-end bonuses (normally equivalent to a month's salary of $450 to $1,000), or students will suffer the consequences.

Esteban spent Father's Day at his grandparents' house with a number of his cousins, uncles and aunts.
Luis Aguilar
Esteban spent Father's Day at his grandparents' house with a number of his cousins, uncles and aunts.
Graffiti stencils are common in Juárez. This image lines the wall of the nearly empty canal that borders the city and El Paso.
Luis Aguilar
Graffiti stencils are common in Juárez. This image lines the wall of the nearly empty canal that borders the city and El Paso.

"It was a new low," Almada remembers, shaking her head. "But that's the thing about Juárez. You think you've hit bottom, and then it just keeps getting worse."
_____________________

Eleven-year-old Alfonso was returning from buying a soda at his neighborhood corner store this past April when he saw a friend pounding on the triple-locked metal gate of a house. "Come quick," he remembers hearing. "Pablo has been killed." Alfonso's grandmother, Rosa, tried to stop him from venturing around the corner to the spot where his favorite cousin was likely dying, but the fifth-grader couldn't help himself. He turned onto the adjacent street and saw 19-year-old Pablo blood-soaked in a car. Neither Alfonso nor his three friends beside him breathed. "We didn't hear any shots," Rosa says. In Juárez, that's code for a knife killing.

Alfonso is big for his age, and his bangs are long enough to almost cover his wide, dark eyes. He sits on the edge of the couch in his family's living room. The large curtains are drawn, and plastic flowers and fake-gold-trimmed furniture dominate the decor. Though there's a sweetness to him, Alfonso's sadness is palpable. "He was like our other brother," says the stocky boy who wants to be a chef, glancing toward his older brother, 16-year-old Raúl, who's perched on a stool across the room. Alfonso continues, "He would take us downtown to hang out and was very protective. You know, like, always worried that something would happen to us." His voice is barely audible above the hum of the air conditioner, and he's aware of the irony of what he's saying. His eyes linger on the floorboards: "When I listen to the music that he liked, I get sad. Sometimes it makes me want to cry."

When Alfonso is out of earshot, his mom, Laura, says, "He's become very nervous. When his older brother or I am late coming home, we find him in a corner, shaking." She attends a grief support group for parents and is thinking of taking him to one for children. Alfonso says he's willing, but he's also clear: "I want to leave Juárez."

He's not alone. A recent survey shows more than 60 percent of high-school-age youths say they plan to leave Juárez as soon as they can. Since 2007, nearly 250,000 residents have fled the city. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it's estimated that 100,000 have moved a few miles north to neighboring El Paso. Most remain there but maintain ties to the city that was once their home. Others inevitably head north or west, deeper into Texas and the Southwest.

Those who can afford to take the short trip across the bridge have the money to keep the family afloat. These wealthier juarenses also have more reason to flee, because they are increasingly victims of Juárez's two other main crimes: kidnapping and extortion. Small and large business owners alike must pay for "protection" to be left alone. Dotting the city are the charred ruins of businesses that don't pay; the common punishment is to burn the store down, often with the owner inside.

"Here, people trade in fancy cars for crappier ones," Almada says, because an expensive new car is a kidnapper's magnet. Walls around houses go up daily, and security guards multiply on sidewalks, but nothing seems to discourage the abduction-for-ransom schemes. "See this four-block radius?" Almada asks while driving through a particularly nice part of town. "Eighteen kidnappings in one week earlier this year."

Those who can't make it north go south. Many return to their hometowns. Juárez boomed between 1980 and 2000, when its population ballooned by nearly 1 million as the maquila factories — North American Free Trade Agreement-spurred manufacturers of everything from dresses to car parts for ready U.S. export — became one of northern Mexico's most reliable employers.

Now the recession has claimed more than 90,000 jobs, and the violence has spread. Lacking work and living in fear, 150,000 have headed south — some with the help of other Mexican state governments. During the '90s, factory owners sent buses south to transport workers to Juárez by the thousands. These days, states such as Veracruz send buses to Juárez to bring their people back.

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