If you drive into El Paso Texas on Interstate 10 from the west and look to your left, you will see a neat cluster of Tibetan inspired buildings that make up the University of Texas at El Paso. Look right and you will see a seemingly endless shantytown sitting on top of rugged desert hills, smoke plumes rising in the air. If you weren’t familiar with the area, you may not even know that you were driving between two countries and two cities. Two cities so far apart and so close together. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States. Ciudad Juarez is now one of the most dangerous places on earth.
When I think of Juarez, I don’t think of an ultra violent city. I understand what it has become, that’s just not the way I remember it. I grew up in El Paso. My parents still live there. As a child, my father emigrated from a small town in the state of Chihuahua a few hours south of Juarez. My mother has relatives who live in the city. For generations, geography, economy and family have interlinked Juarez and El Paso.
As a young boy I had mixed emotions about Juarez. I remember our weekly treks over the border to visit relatives. Every Sunday the routine was church, breakfast at my parents’ favorite restaurant, visits to my great grandmother's house and occasionally, a haircut at my father's favorite barbershop. A place that smelled like hair tonic and aftershave, where they still used hot towels and straight razors to clean a man’s face. I enjoyed visiting my family’s glass factory, where they hand crafted beautiful vases and figurines. I loved watching the artisans pulling out molten glass from the ovens and shaping it. And I enjoyed the color and commotion of the main downtown market. But, at the time, I mostly thought of Juarez as a dirty, boring, backwater. A reminder of my family's humble past. I felt like I had nothing in common with my cousins there. During most visits, all I wanted to do was escape. To return to my comfortable American existence a few miles away. It sounds crazy coming from a Mexican American, but I just couldn’t relate to the culture.
By the time I was 16, I developed a much greater appreciation for all that Juarez had to offer. Like many El Paso teenagers in the 1980s, I spent many a weekend night on “The Strip” in downtown Juarez. It was sooo easy. Five dollars to park, a quick walk across the Paso Del Norte Bridge and you were on teenage Pleasure Island. Pumping music, dancing, cheap booze, good food, girls! Every Friday and Saturday the clubs on Avenida De Juarez were packed with kids from El Paso area high schools. White kids, Hispanic kids, black kids. Rich kids, working class kids. Kids whose parents had no clue their innocent little babies were stumbling around drunk in a Juarez alley at 3am on a Saturday morning. We would rock out to The Cure and New Order at clubs like The Copa, Alive, The Sub, The Superior. Soldiers from Ft. Bliss would hang out at Spankys or Cosmos. My school, Eastwood High, practically had its own nightclub, The Tequila Derby. On some nights the Derby had a promotion called “Drink and Drown”. Five dollars cover charge, all you can drink. Seriously. I mean I was in high school. By the time I was a freshman in college I was spent.
My favorite hang out was a bar called The Kentucky Club, a classic western dive trapped in the 1930s. It is one of the many places that claim to have invented the margarita and once inside, it is like walking into a movie set. Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and Marylyn Monroe drank there. My interest in the Kentucky was that my hero, Steve McQueen, used to hang out there. The bar was well kept with rich hard wood and polished brass. Old gentleman waiters wore proper white aprons and the tables had actual linen. The bar was so old that the plumbing was a trough that drained melted ice and God knows what else, under the foot rail and into the street. You could buy real Cuban cigars. It made me feel mature and sophisticated to have a drink there.
Of course even then, Juarez had an edge. Besides the underage drinking, that edginess was part of the attraction to a teenager. But, if you weren’t careful, you could get into terrible trouble. My friends and I always stuck together. Girlfriends never strayed away even if they were pissed at you. The police kept a ruthless watch over us. If you got out of line just a little, got into a fight or walked out of a club with a drink, you might end up in a paddywagon until your friends collected enough “bail” money to spring you. A friend once got beat up and had his shoes stolen in one of those portable drunk tanks. We almost never strayed off the avenue. One night, my senior year, I got into a Juarez taxi with my friends Eric and Scott. We wanted to go to an off avenue club we had heard about. Something got lost in translation and the driver took us to a brothel out in the desert!
These days it’s just too dangerous for American teenage kids to hang out in Juarez. Compared to now, Juarez in the 1980s was innocent fun. By the mid 1990s the drug cartel wars were in full swing. So were more disturbing and unexplained acts of violence. In 1994, I was working in local TV news in El Paso when the bodies of brutally murdered young women started appearing in the deserts outside of Juarez. First a few, then a dozen, then hundreds. Las muertas de Juarez (the dead women of Juarez) they are called. In the summer of 1995, I walked into a field of desert scrub where the decomposing bodies of several women lay. The smell was overpowering. There were no police lines in Juarez so I found myself accidentally walking all over a crime scene. It would be years, not until my time covering the war in Iraq, before I would see horror like that again. Those murders remain a mystery. And now murder is so common that its hard to tell if it’s just drug cartel violence. That would be the most comforting explanation.
The cities descent into chaos has be hard on my parents. They used to love spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in Juarez. Enjoying a flavor of life you just don’t get in the States. Terrific shopping and great restaurants with the service and feel of a by-gone era.
This holiday season past, a cousin died in a car accident in Juarez. She was a woman with whom my mother had been close as a child. Normally my parents would not have hesitated to attend the funeral, but now they weren’t sure. A few weeks earlier two Texas Tech Medical School instructors were killed when a hail of bullets hit their car while in a funeral procession. After some discussion, my parents decided they had to go. They attended the service but did not follow the funeral procession. I called my mom one Sunday soon after and she said, “We won’t go to Juarez anymore.”
I live in Los Angeles now and hadn’t been back to Juarez since that summer in 1995. Then a few years ago, while covering a story at Ft. Bliss for CNN, I had a free evening. So I decided to cross the bridge and get a drink at the old Kentucky Club. Years of violence had taken its toll. Avenida De Juarez was empty, no drunk teenagers, no GI’s. Most of the clubs from those high school days, including the Derby, were out of business. But the Kentucky was still there in all its shabby glory. The bar was empty save a few old vaqueros quietly sipping beer. I took a seat, ordered a couple of Bohemia’s and thought about all the history in that old speakeasy. There wasn’t much else for me to do, so I walked back across the empty bridge to El Paso.
Juarez is a city I both loved and hated. It was connected to El Paso as much as any two cities could be, with the free flow of commerce and people. Overtime the border became a more defined line. Eventually that line became walled. Those walls have made the business of trying to get through them very lucrative, and very dangerous. Now, more El Pasoans than ever won’t go to Juarez anymore.