Innocence Lost: Childhood in Juarez Often Is Spent Hiding Behind Closed Doors, Coping with Dead Bodies, and Seeing Ghosts

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico Esteban was riding shotgun in his family's rusted teal minivan when his dad, Lorenzo, suddenly stopped the car. It was odd — a vehicle facing the opposite direction blocked their way on the narrow street. They were just four blocks from home. The 6-year-old boy with soft eyes and a freckled nose noticed the glass-strewn pavement first. Next, he saw the vehicle was riddled with bullet holes "this big," he says, peering through a silver-dollar-size circle made with his thumb and forefinger. Last, he saw the two bloodied, dead bodies in the front seats.

"We had passed that same spot just 15 minutes before, and all was clear," Lorenzo recalls of that evening in 2008. Esteban's younger siblings, Rodrigo and Ana Clara, ages 4 and 2 at the time, slumbered in the back seat. Lorenzo still wonders how the baby slept through the neighbors' screams. The smell of gunpowder lingered in the air as Esteban, an eloquent, extroverted child, began to cry. His questions started right away and continued for days. "Do you think they had kids?" "Even if they did something wrong, they still didn't deserve to die, right, Daddy?"

They are tough questions for a first-grader. Yet in Juárez, murder capital of the world, they have become commonplace. Over the past 2 1/2 years, more than 5,000 people (an average of more than five a day) have been killed in an intensifying drug war that has reached deep into children's lives — kids gather at crime scenes, stumble onto recently slain bodies, are forced to witness relatives' assassinations, or are killed themselves.

Eight-year-old Esteban, pictured standing outside his family's house, first saw dead bodies two years ago, in a car four blocks from home. He asked his father: "Even if they did something really bad, they didn't deserve to die, right, Daddy?"
Photos by Luis Aguilar
Eight-year-old Esteban, pictured standing outside his family's house, first saw dead bodies two years ago, in a car four blocks from home. He asked his father: "Even if they did something really bad, they didn't deserve to die, right, Daddy?"
Guillermo stands in the alleyway between his house and where he says his next-door neighbor -- a ghost, "un niño" — lives. The first-grader has never seen a real dead body but is haunted by the phantom image of one.
Guillermo stands in the alleyway between his house and where he says his next-door neighbor -- a ghost, "un niño" — lives. The first-grader has never seen a real dead body but is haunted by the phantom image of one.

Ten thousand of Juárez's 500,000 children under the age of 14 have been orphaned, according to El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Juárez-based university and research institution. Of those murdered, 43 were between the ages of 12 and 15. More than 200 were between 16 and 18. It is impossible to know the number of youngsters, like Esteban, who have witnessed a killing or stood close to a corpse that's still warm.

The impact is lasting and widespread. Children across the border city of 1.5 million suffer from insomnia and nightmares; many have withdrawn or have been sealed indoors by frightened parents. Even those spared the disturbing firsthand visuals don't get off unscathed. The violence is all over television, in conversations around the dinner table, and — for at least one child interviewed by New Times — in the abandoned buildings inhabited by the ghosts of the murdered.

The brutality has only escalated since security forces arrived in 2008 to try to pacify ground zero in the Mexican drug war. Increasing numbers of children have been sucked into the world of crime: Gangs now recruit kids as young as 11, and assassin training begins at 12. In Juárez, 8-year-olds use cocaine.

But after two years of making extortion payments, venturing out only when necessary, and constantly listening for gunshots, juarenses are taking back the city. They are slowly occupying streets and parks once ceded to the drug war and demanding solutions such as early childhood services, hoping that intervention can break the cycle of violence. If the efforts persist and grow, they just might help Juárez escape its fate as a murderous no man's land.

If they fail, juarenses will likely continue to cross the bridge to neighboring El Paso, just a bullet's flight away. So far, the violence and sinking economy of the past two years have led an estimated 100,000 to escape north, further aggravating an immigration conflict that has turned the U.S.-Mexico border into a battleground and making any resolution as elusive as an end to the drug war.


That fateful day during Esteban's first-grade year coincides with the beginning of Juárez's transformation into the world's most violent city. In early 2008, a turf battle was raging between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. What had always been a brutal rivalry was exploding across the city. Early that year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón had sent nearly 2,500 soldiers and federal police, known as Federales, to restore order.

"We were kind of glad to see the military arrive," says Josefina Martínez, an editor at Juárez newspaper El Diario and mother of two. "The city had become a drug sanctuary, and we really did think that maybe the military would change that." But now she laughs at the memory.

Despite the arrival of the first round of soldiers and Federales, the murder rate rose above 1,500 that year. Another fleet of more than 5,000 security officers arrived the following year and was given control over civilian institutions, including municipal police and the prison system. Still, the 2009 murder count reached 2,290.

But the growing numbers painted only part of the picture. The violence changed. Killings were no longer contained to the targets. Murders began happening everywhere: in and around churches, homes, parks, playgrounds, daycare centers, schools, community centers, restaurants, and rich and poor neighborhoods. Every square inch of the city became a potential crime scene — and every resident a potential witness or victim. Juarenses struggle to explain why things changed. It seems the military presence drove the cartels to flaunt publicly the same violence the government forces were sent to quell.

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12 comments
Talk2sk1951
Talk2sk1951

So because Mexico does not give one flying crap about its people...we should bring everyone here and take care of them? The world is a sick and sad place for people. This is not Americas fault. But we have a duty to protect what we do have. Let God take care of the other countries.

Rjr261
Rjr261

This is not America"s fault? Are you kidding? Have you not heard of the rule of supply and demand? If America did not have such a huge appetite for crack, coke, marijuana, steroids, etc. Mexico woul' nt be having drug cartels fighting for "transportation routes" Wake up. This has alot to do with America!

Daria Marjanovic
Daria Marjanovic

Reading this article, I can hear in my head the voice of Joan Baez singing: "Show me the alley where the bombs had to fall..." Because I myself grew up in a very quiet alley with the friendliest neighbors you can imagine, gardens with flowers and birds singing in the trees. And all of a sudden the bombs started falling on people's heads. Unfortunately, the name of the town may sound familiar to you, as it has become the symbol of war - Sarajevo. In Juares it is not called the war, but in my opinion naming the degree of violence is more or less the matter of terminology. But why I am bothering you, good people of Phoenix, with these things? It is only a political question, far away from your children. And it really happens for most of you mostly on TV and newspapers, although the border is only miles away. Like it was happening in Beyrouth or Dublin for the children of Bosnia before the bomb situation. Or for the children in Juares many years ago when Mexico was just a romantic place for vacations. We think too often that things happening on TV to other people can't really happen to us. And only when they come to our doorstep, most people start thinking that maybe it could have been solved before it was too late - with talks, negotiations, fair international agreements, law and justice, police doing their job, judges prosecuting bad cops here and politicians spotting bad guys not only over there. And what can possibly do a simple person who is totally out of horrors of illegal trafficking of any kind? Probably just what La Otras Hermanas are doing - helping to the affected individuals the best way they can. Being simple human beings who really care about other human beings.Being a patriot doesn't necessarily mean being stupid enough to think that we can never ever be wrong about anything. I would like the fellow readers to think about it. The bullets flying over your head change the processes going on in the head. And it can happen to everybody just like it happened to me.Lost European

Stevemallman
Stevemallman

2 weeks on the internet and only 8 comments including mine.Maybe it's about time to shut down and go somewhere else like the northeast where they don't think they have an illegal immigration problem.

Charis
Charis

Hello All,

The good thing is that here in Phoenix there is Las Otras Hermanas. We work with women and their families in Juárez, Mexico providing them with more than sustainable economic opportunities. We are helping a community organization to build a community center for children with a library and childcare. We are working on building a new culture of safe educated children and economically independent women. The women we work with have been part of our programs and have been able to acquire sewing skills and resources as well as business trainings. We support their efforts to conduct workshops on gender equality and we have started a library for children out of the existing center where the women construct a fair trade organic clothing line.

We have a store in Phoenix where you can purchase the items. We are currently relocating to 1524 East McDowell inside of Hair Pollution Salon and will have our grand opening on October 3rd. We are 100% volunteer run organization and ALL of the profits from the store go towards our Income Generation Program.

To learn more email me at charis@lasotrashermanas.org or simply visit our website:

www.lasotrashermanas.org

So despite this awful situation in Juárez, there is something you can do, now, to change lives of women, children, and families in Juárez.

Charis ElliottFounder, Executive DirectorLas Otras Hermanas

Dreamer441984
Dreamer441984

This is very sad circumstances. I truely believe that stopping all illegal traffic on our borders, be it human smuggling or drug trade, and aiding Mexico's government in effectively stopping these cartels, is the best solution for all. If the factories were required to take better care of their employees then honest work could become more appealing again. If Cartel's couldn't move their product to the U.S. then dishonest work would become much harder and less appealing.

Guess
Guess

The truth is many young people consume drugs here in the United States. I say to families here in the USA to start educating their kids about not using drugs, maybe these kids when they grow up are anot the future consumers of drug dealers. Mexican cartels are active because there is too much demand for drugs here in the United States. The key is, if you want to have kids you need to be educated to know how to educate. American Families need to stop the drug use by putting attention to their young adolecents and give the the info about why not to use drugs. If there is no demand here in the USA there will be no supply. No border, military soldiers or laws will stop the cartels. The consumers will stop them by making the choice of not consuming because they know better.

jDub
jDub

Guess, we have been "educating" youth against using drugs for over 40 years. It is the illegality of drugs that keeps the cartels in business. We need to legalize drugs, seal the border, and simplify our immigration policies. Problem solved

Johnny
Johnny

I am from Ciudad Juarez, and everything they say here it's true, what i can say to all our American Friends, is that please for your own safety don't go to mexico, it's really a bad place to visit now.

Anyone can be a victim, not even mayors are safe

Ambeckman
Ambeckman

I have a friend who just moved to Poza Rica on the east side of Mexico to be with her husband who is only a legal citizen of Mexico. Her two children born in the US went with her, they are 3 and 1. I am scared to death for her - she speaks little Spanish and does not know anyone except for a couple of his family members. She has no job and has the kids with her all the time and her husband works 2 jobs to pay debt to his family for going into business with them. I pray everyday for her that she stays safe as well as her children. I have been to Mexico many times...beautiful country but it is being overtaken by drugs in which our country is responsible for supplying. Drugs are horrible, but if we legalized them I don't think our plight would be as bad. It's so messed up and we're now paying the price for not doing something sooner.

CC
CC

That is just scary. . . I can't imagine living a life so full of fear and injustice. It makes me shudder to think about it. . .Now I know to not take my own lifestyle for granted.

 
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