Recently my mitigation work took me to Ciudad Juárez. In the last few years, the news from this city, just across the border from El Paso, has eclipsed its rich libertine history. Throughout the 20th century, both well-to-do Mexicans and night-tripping tourists enjoyed clandestine sex, inexpensive booze, as well as other undercover intoxicants in this town. It is hard to believe, but not long ago stars such as Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong entertained at the now-defunct Fiesta night club downtown.
Today, of course, Juárez has distinguished itself as having more murders than any other city in the world, including war zones.
In the mid to late 1990s, the brutal killings of hundreds of women, mostly young factory workers, made international headlines. The cross at the bridge which takes you to Texas is in their memory.
In the last two or three years, much of President Calderón’s failed war on drugs has been played out in Juárez, where literally thousands have been killed. Many of the murder victims have been police and soldiers, and some have been drug traffickers. Unfortunately a huge number of the casualties have been among people whose involvement in the trade is penny ante, or people who have had the bad luck to be tangentially associated with such people.
The red-light district has been almost completely demolished, to make way for a proposed shopping mall.
I went to Avenida Juárez, the traditional honky tonk strip, one late afternoon. There weren’t many people out. The bars were mostly deserted, except for a few stragglers at the Club Kentucky, in business since 1920. They say that at one point or another, “everyone” had a drink here – from Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, to John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and the Gipper himself, Ronald Reagan.
I was in Juárez from a Saturday to a Tuesday. The headline in Monday’s tabloid was that in the previous three days, forty-two people had been murdered.
After the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed in 1994, a huge number of assembly factories were built in Juárez, creating steady if poorly paid employment for thousands of Mexicans. Most of them manufactured products for consumption in the U.S. Since the U.S. economy tanked two years ago, many of these factories have shut down or drastically reduced personnel.
Some estimates say that about a half a million people have fled the city in the last couple of years. It is more and more difficult for Juárez’s citizens to make ends meet, which is one reason many have taken to petty drug dealing. A lot of them are ending up dead. I don’t pretend to have the answer to the problem. But for practical purposes I’d like to see drugs legalized. After Prohibition was repealed, people stopped killing each other over barrels of whiskey.