I have seen troubled cities in Latin America before. Bombs would go off at night in Santiago, Chile as the Allende regime began to collapse. I was downtown the day the tanks of a military unit surrounded the palace of government for several hours and I saw a chunk of the brain of a bystander, killed moments before, splattered on the wall of the second story of the building he was next to when the bullet hit. After that there was a strict curfew in the weeks before President Allende was killed in a military coup. In Bogota bombs went off day and night in Colombia a few years ago and conflicts between the FARC, drug traffickers, paramilitary forces, and the Colombian military affected public security in various other cities near the Venezuelan border. I was in San Salvador when the wealthy were being kidnapped and shopkeepers were being charged "war taxes" by guerrilla forces as part of a fund-raising effort to support the war, and hundreds of suspected communists were killed each week by death squads, and then after the earthquake hit and later when the crime rates escalated as the wars ended and the armies demobilized.
But I have never seen anything as bad as Juarez for the past two years, a colossal failure of public policy to deliver public safety to the people of a major city. There are many aspects to this failure and writers will be debating the causes and consequences of Juarez 2008-2010 for the rest of the century; the story is rich, and well worth telling.
Given the lack of even the most elementary coverage in New Mexico of events in Juarez over the past two years, and with only limited time and resources available, I have tried to present snippets of stories that have appeared in the major news outlets of Juarez, without much editorializing on my part. My goal in doing so has been simply to inform readers about some of the atmosphere in Juarez, to convey something of the flavor of events as they unfold. From the feedback I've received it appears there is some desire in New Mexico to follow what is happening in Juarez more closely than the occasional story that breaks nation-wide or in an occasional Sunday supplement. I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of how events in Juarez have affected some of their neighbors in Southern Dona Ana County, in some of the lowest-income communities in the United States. New Mexicans don't only ignore Juarez; they also ignore that part of New Mexico living in the shadows of El Paso and Juarez. We brag about our multicultural heritage but sometimes act as though Mexico exists only in the past tense.
The people of Juarez are my neighbors. I live within 40-50 miles of the heart of a vibrant, endlessly fascinating city. The late Ricardo Aguilar, prize winning novelist and a colleague and friend of mine, wrote passionately about its people and its foibles. The city has been likened to the Alexandria depicted in the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durell, one of the great novels of the 1950s. Countless corridos mention its name. Along with its sister city of El Paso, it remains the cultural capital city of the U.S.-Mexico border region. And for the past couple of years the city has been in serious trouble.
I have heard severe criticisms from New Mexicans angry at the Clinton administration for its failure to act in Rwanda in 1993, when a million Tutsis and Hutus were being slaughtered by official acts of genocide. I have heard neighbors in Las Cruces agonize over poverty they witnessed on visits to exotic places in South America, and contribute to orphanages in Africa publicized by movie stars. I've known dentists who travel far and wide to fix teeth in remote villages of Central America. Twenty years ago many churches in New Mexico proudly served as "sanctuaries" for refugees from the Central American civil wars, and there was a good deal of piety about having the courage to violate the spirit and sometimes letter of our migration laws to protect these migrants. I remember a celebrated trial of a journalist who actually assisted migrants to come in from Central America, in part so she could write about it. But I have yet to hear much of a peep or debate in New Mexico about what our responsibilities to our neighbors In Juarez might be in their time of agony, what kinds of things we might do to express our sympathy, or somehow alleviate some of the pain.
Last February, after 15 high school students were killed by accident in Juarez, the mayor of El Paso's reaction was to advise El Pasoans to avoid going to Juarez. I was proud that the legislature in New Mexico passed a memorial expressing condolences to the families, but I don't believe any newspaper or TV station in New Mexico recorded this fact, nor the gratitude toward us expressed by Diario contrasting the mayor of El Paso's reaction to that of New Mexico's, something that, had it been publicized, we could all be proud of, and which might have served as a springboard of sorts to begin a statewide discussion about Juarez. And I have noticed that my own university, aside from stern admonitions about going to Juarez, has had no official reaction to any of the events of the past two years, no sponsoring of academic conferences, no expressions of sympathy, no reaching out. The university of New Mexico, which just received a grant of $2 million to support its Latin American studies program, has shown a similar lack of interest in Juarez. Not enough grant money available right now to make it worthwhile, leave it to others, never mind they are our neighbors. Shouldn't at least a small sliver of our tax dollars to higher education in New Mexico go to try to understand better what is happening at our doorstep? Doesn't our economic development in Southern New Mexico depend in part of our relationship to Chihuahua?
Can we be good Samaritans? Good neighbors? What might this mean? Yes, sticking our nose in their business without knowing what we are doing could be a very costly mistake. But to do nothing, no discussion, no expressions of sympathy? Is that the right thing to do?
As I reflect on the deep tragedy that is Juarez I don't feel a lot of pride as a New Mexican. Much as we brag about our Hispanic cultural heritage and appropriate money for museums, Juarez might as well be in a country with a name ending in "stan." It isn't our affair. We don't do Juarez. I don't pretend to have all the answers about what, exactly we might have done or might still do, but as a minimum we might exhibit more caring, more concern, more expressions of affection and good will. The pictures you see to your right? These are our neighbors.