The Fight to Save Juarez

Ricardo C. Ainslie Chronicles Life During a Drug War In The Fight To Save Juarez


A version of this story ran in the May 2013 issue.

Above: The Fight to Save Juarez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War
by Ricardo C. Ainslie
University of Texas Press

296 pages $25.00

It was late December 2007, and Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz was looking out his office window at night. The city was lit for the holidays, but no one was out in Ciudad Juarez. Seemingly random daily executions kept them shuttered in their homes.

A few hours earlier, Reyes Ferriz had received a phone call from a high-ranking security official of the federal government, telling him it was urgent they meet.

“I have some disconcerting news,” the official told the mayor, who had only recently taken office: soon, full-fledged war would break out between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels over control of lucrative drug-trafficking routes. The violence, already bad, was about to get worse.

Ricardo Ainslie’s ambitious The Fight to Save Juarez begins with this thriller-worthy opening scene. The book covers the period between 2008 and 2010, when the government of President Felipe Calderon deployed the Mexican military and federal police to the city of 1.2 million, a stone’s throw from El Paso, and known until recently as “the murder capital of the world” due to at least 11,000 murders over a four-year period. Juarez, Ainslie writes, is “where the Mexican government came to turn the tide” against the increasingly powerful criminal organizations that threatened to overwhelm it.

Ainslie, a filmmaker and professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, was born in Mexico City, and his hopes for the country resonate throughout this book.

“I know the neighborhoods where the night belongs to the gangs,” he writes in the prologue. “I have gone to these and other neighborhoods trying to understand, trying to comprehend the nightmare that has enveloped the life of every person in this city.”

The book is anchored to four main sources: Reyes Ferriz, a lawyer and pro-business politician representing the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was ousted in 2000 by Calderon’s conservative National Action Party; Gustavo de la Rosa, the city’s fiercely idealistic human-rights ombudsman; Raymundo Ruiz, a stressed newspaper photographer who shows Ainslie the city’s grit; and Elena, mistress of a Juarez hit-man who becomes a successful brothel owner after her lover’s murder.

But the book centers most solidly on Reyes Ferriz, a Notre Dame-educated lawyer who envisioned expanding his city’s business ties with the United States, elected on promises to clean up a city where car theft was the main scourge.

“There was little in the mayor’s curriculum vitae or in his appearance that would suggest him as a likely candidate to face off with the most violent cartels in the history of Mexico or cast him in the role of the would-be savior of Juarez,” Ainslie writes.

Still, Ainslie’s admitted admiration for the mayor contributes to an impression that Reyes Ferriz somehow deserves credit for saving the city, where a $400 million federal social-support and infrastructure program called Todos Somos Juarez (We Are All Juarez) is just beginning to show results.

It’s too soon to judge whether violence has permanently decreased in Juarez. Debate continues about the reasons for a recent decline in the violence—whether it is because the Sinaloa cartel “won,” or because the military has pulled out.

Regardless, by Ainslie’s own account the mayor was often out of the loop on key decisions affecting the city he governed, and rarely invited to federal and state government meetings. Ainslie’s is a portrait of a man who had no choice but to accept military control over his city, where murders increased from 301 victims in 2007 to 1,500 less than a year after he took office.

“For mayor Reyes Ferriz, the world seemed to be closing in. His police department was being decimated by assassinations, resignations, and work stoppages … The circumstance pointed to a single, inevitable conclusion: the mayor had to put himself, and the fate of Juarez, into the hands of the federal government,” Ainslie writes.

The Fight to Save Juarez considers events and players from all rungs of society who had a hand in, or were affected by, Calderon’s decision to send the military to Ciudad Juarez—an action, partly financed by the United States, that will be debated for years to come.

Returning to Mexico in 2010 after several years away, to report a story on Ciudad Juarez for the Dallas Observer, I found it hard to locate a Juarez civilian who supported the federal forces, which numbered 10,000 at their peak. Initially welcoming, residents grew leery of the military presence as the violence increased and accusations of human-rights abuses became common—if seldom investigated.

“The military and the other federal forces were sometimes overplaying their hands, entering homes without search warrants and lifting [arresting and holding without charges] people to garner information, some of whom were tortured and some of whom died in the process,” Ainslie writes. “Such abuse was an inevitable outcome of the circumstances…”

Inevitable or not, such abuses were documented by human rights organizations, including Mexico’s own National Commission on Human Rights, which documented 1,250 complaints of torture and executions by the army during its two-year deployment in Ciudad Juarez, and decried the military for disappearances, torture and killings that bred further lawlessness rather than improving security.

In its Mexico report this year, Human Rights Watch said human rights abuses have been endemic throughout Mexico since 2007, reporting that in more than 140 cases, domestic security forces acted “in conjunction with organized crime.”

Reading The Fight to Save Juarez, it’s hard to forget Ainslie’s public support for Calderon’s military policy, and his stated belief that Mexico was “winning” the war—one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of Latin America.

“After a series of visits to Ciudad Juarez, the war’s epicenter, and interviews with federal law enforcement and intelligence officials in Mexico City, I see convincing evidence that the government has dramatically weakened the drug cartels, an essential step if the country is to restore peace,” Ainslie wrote in an op-ed published in the Houston Chronicle in June 2011.

In the book, too, Ainslie often comes off as overly trusting of the government officials who fed him information. And for all its detailed reporting, the book lacks footnotes that would let readers judge the cited sources.

It also fails to fully convey the air of sadness and doom that permeated the besieged city. Upon my return in 2010, the atmosphere recalled for me lawless Haiti under the Duvalier dictatorship, when the Tonton Macoute militia killed and tortured political opponents. I hadn’t sensed such despair again, until Juarez.

But Ainslie shines in his descriptions of citizens caught in the crossfire, impoverished people with little choice but to be absorbed by the violence.

Elena, for example: poor, uneducated, jobless—one of Mexico’s ubiquitous young NiNis (Ni educación, Ni trabajo).

“She was a NiNi who’d been fortunate enough to hook up with a narco” named Hernan, Ainslie writes. But when Hernan is executed by unidentified narco commandos, Elena is left with nothing but a young son.

“For a year, Elena cobbled together a month-to-month subsistence, borrowing what she could from family members and selling everything she could,” Ainslie, writes, until another “narco-widow” urged her to join her at work in a brothel.

It turned out that Elena was good at turning tricks. She was also skilled at recruiting other girls into prostitution.

“I really learned this from Hernan,” she tells Ainslie, who writes, “Within the chaos, Elena had found the turns her life had taken to be oddly empowering.”

Aside from such illuminating individual stories, Ainslie’s book mostly provides the government’s official account of a conflict that’s killed some 100,000 people and forced the disappearance of 25,000 more. But it is not likely to be the last word of a historical record that will undoubtedly take the Mexican government to task for its own role in the violence.