EL PASO, Texas — Generations of Mexican students have been commuting to the El Paso campus of the University of Texas for almost a hundred years. Two of them were murdered in Juarez last week, riddled by 36 high-powered bullets as they drove home in a residential neighborhood where one of them lived.
Manuel Acosta, 22, drove his red Nissan Sentra from UTEP across the line on the early evening of November 2 to Colonia Rincones de Santa Rita where his passenger Eder Diaz, 23, lived only to die four hours later at a hospital. They were gunned down at the intersection of De La Arbolada and Manglares streets in their car near Diaz’ house.
Those of us who teach here in this beautiful campus now worry about the safety of every one of the some 1400 students who cross the bridge to study here and then go home late in the day, every day. I teach journalism and many of my former students commuted here to class and now write for newspapers in Juarez.
With the explosion of drug-related violence that started in 2008, UTEP enacted guidelines that prohibit any student or faculty member form engaging in any university activity in Juarez. Many of my students report for Borderzine.com, which is the hands-on newsroom capstone course in our journalism program. I now tell them that no story is worth a life and have forbidden them from reporting from Juarez. Even those who live in Juarez are not allowed to report from Juarez. That city is at war and there is no Green Zone.
In the past two years, thousands have been killed in that border city, so close to my classroom that I can see wash hanging on clotheslines on the other side of the interstate highway. In what we now call the drug war, some 6,800 persons have been shot to death, tortured, mutilated, hacked to pieces, beheaded and hanged like butchered animals from overpasses.
Roomfuls of persons have been machined-gunned to death in drug rehab centers and at birthday parties in private homes. Backyards have become shallow graves as drug cartels ruthlessly fight for power, for the right to smuggle drugs into the U.S. and then smuggle millions in cash back to Mexico.
And in the vacuum left by the absence of any effective enforcement of law and order, any kind of credible political authority, a host of criminal subsidiaries have overtaken the civil society. Even as fully armed soldiers patrol the streets, ordinary folks are kidnapped and ransomed for a fistful of pesos every day. One of my students narrowly evaded kidnappers a few days ago. They were already demanding a ransom by phone from his family as they chased him to the bridge.
Businesses of every size – from street carts to fancy boutiques – are strong-armed into paying gangsters protection money just to stay open. Any criminal is entitled in a city without legal constraints. Markets that once bustled with gringo tourists wait poor and lonely for the visitors who never returned. Gone are the days when we used to cross the bridge on a whim to visit one of Juarez’ world-class restaurants, always better than what was available in El Paso.
It has been said more than once that the U.S.–Mexico border forms a third country, not U.S., not Mexico, but Frontera, proud of a special heritage blended from both cultures. But the unfettered violence has driven a bloody wedge into the heart of our special way of life.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently lighted a furor in Mexican officialdom by calling the violence there an “insurgency.” They didn’t like it. Think of an insurgency as a war like the ones the U.S. with all its military power and NATO allies has been fighting for nearly a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In reality calling what is happening next door an insurgency is an understatement. Our sister city now is more like Mogadishu, divided up by warlords who finance the carnage with the export of illicit drugs and the import of truckloads of cash. They control the region and there is no viable opposition in sight.
Our sister city is a Grendel devouring its own children, a Llorona nobody wants to hear.