‘THE MURDER CAPITAL’

My cell phone rings. I answer and it’s a good mate, Mike Amor – the Seven Network Australia Bureau Chief. “Jay .. What are you doing?”, Mike says. “I’ve got a little trip to Mexico I need your help with. It’s a few days filming and producing at a resort. It’ll be fun, there’s a pool – bring your shorts!”

(Video Courtesy of Seven Network Australia)

Johnny Varga and Justin O’Brien standing on the Mexic0 border side of the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte).

Immediately the image of drinks by the pool at a five star resort spring to mind and without hesitation I say, “YES .. Great .. When are we leaving?” “Next weekend”, Mike replies. “I’ll get Kimmy (the travel agent) to send you the flight details”.

Two days before our departure Mike comes clean. It’s not a Cabo San Lucas resort we’re heading to, but the 2010 ‘murder capital’ of the world. A Texas-Mexico border town called Ciudad Juárez. Mike’s joke was good, but the destination change made no difference. My answer would have been ‘Yes’. In journalism, there is an unwritten motto – never say ‘NO’. Plus, it was an adventure, a chance to see first hand Mexico’s ‘Drug War’ and at the same time hangout with two good mates, Mike (Reporter) and John Varga (Cameraman).

Johnny and I flew into El Paso, Texas. It was midday Saturday when we landed and stinking hot, around 101 degrees (38 degrees Celsius). Gustavo Ortiz, our driver for the next three days met us at the arrival gate. For safety, we hired a driver in El Paso, Texas. Our major concern in Juarez was being kidnapped by a local driver and transported into the waiting arms of a drug Cartel!  

Gustavo Ortiz

Gustavo grew up in Juarez. Married with two children he made a living buying used cars in Salt Lake City, then selling them at a car yard he owned across the border. But three years ago, unwilling to pay a US$1000 a month bribe or be kidnapped, Gustavo packed up his family and moved to El Paso. “That’s just the way it is in Mexico”, he said. “I am lucky, I can cross the border legally and keep my family safe”.

Researching this assignment, I ‘Googled’ Juarez. The first Google results was an August 2010 CBS News story about the US border town and the deadly violence engulfing it. At that stage 28,000 people had been killed in the four-year-old drug war. Crossing over the US-Mexico border, I expected to see roadblocks manned by heavily armed soldiers and police on every street.

Two hours after landing – Gustavo, Johnny and I were driving through Juarez on our way to the hotel. There wasn’t a roadblock in sight. Women with small children sat at bus stop outside an ‘S Mart’ grocery store and banners above bars promoted the ‘Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley’ boxing match, screened live from Las Vegas Saturday night. Juarez looked like any Mexican Baja town I’d seen many times before. The streets were dusty, rundown buildings stood desperately waiting for owners to reopen businesses closed long ago. But, it wasn’t the war zone I had expected. There were people on the streets.

Waiting for us at the hotel was Jordi Lebrija. A Reuters journalist who’d flown in from Tijuana to be our

Jordi Lebrija

fixer/translator. A trusting extra set of eyes and ears we could rely upon. Again, we feared hiring a local fixer who for a few ‘pesos’ wouldn’t hesitate to ‘sell us down the river!’

Checking in, the clerk laughed at John’s surname (Varga) when he handed over his identification. Varga pronounced in Spanish sounds like ‘verga’ which means cock or dick! So, we added ‘pequeño’ which is Spanish for small and for the next three days Johnny’s nicknamed became ‘pequeño verga’ – ‘small dick’! 

That’s the great thing about travelling with mates your trust. Nothing’s too tough, you ‘take the piss’ (joke around), have fun and you lookout for each other.

The ‘Mercado Juarez’ (City Market) in Juarez is now a ghost town. Several years ago it was impossible to find a car park because of all the tourists.

Back out on the road we headed to the ‘Mercado Juarez’ (City Market). Hoping to film a ‘lively bustling’ market, we en-counted a ghost town. Shuttered windows greet anyone willing to visit. Gone are the mariachi bands and the outdoor dining areas that used to feed hungry visitors who made the short border crossing from El Paso, until the Cartels and the drug war killed off Juarez’s tourist industry.

‘Sunglasses .. sunglasses’, said a 70-year old man in Spanglish. ‘Good price for you’. Three years ago he made US$50 a day selling sunglasses, now the old man said he “was lucky to make 50 pesos”.  

It’s a catch-22 situation. Tourists won’t return until they know it’s safe and locals can’t prove Juarez is safe until the market is again filled with tourists.

Across the road, is ‘the Ladies Bar’. A sign written in Spanish

‘The Ladies Bar’ across from the ‘Mercado Juarez’. The bar is now open only two nights a week.

on the door reads – “wanted .. pretty girls of 18-25 years .. good presentation .. thin and willing to flirt”. Jordi translated the sign for me and commented, “things are so tough in Juarez, that even the bad girls have left!!!”  

But it wasn’t all-bad. Jessica Simpson Meraz, a close friend in Los Angeles grew up in El Paso. Jess spent her teenage weekend’s visiting Juarez, eating and shopping. Her assignment to me was find a restaurant called ‘Barrigas’ (‘bellies’) and order the ‘Tampiquena Arrachera’ (a Mexican spiced skirt steak). The fresh crushed lime margaritas were great and the food was amazing. Just as amazing were the half dozen tables full of men and women in their 20’s dressed in prom dresses and tuxedos. Jordi said they were celebrating their graduation from College or University. Not the sight I expected to see in an alleged war zone. They were putting the ‘street’ troubles behind or at least saying – ‘we are going to live our lives’.

‘Barrigas’ Restaurant – ‘Tampiquena Arrachera’

After dinner we headed to a bar called ‘Tabasco’ to watch the ‘Pacquiao and Bradley’ fight. The bar was packed. I smiled at several woman in their mid-20’s sitting nearby, they smiled back. I then looked at the Rolex wearing, gold chained, slicked back hair middle aged men sitting with them. My eyes instinctively shot up to the big screen showing the ‘Pacquiao’ fight and I never looked back! Were they Cartel? Maybe, maybe not. I didn’t plan on finding out!

An hour later Johnny, Jordi, Gustavo and I were across the street at a bar/cantina called ‘San Martin’. All the seats and tables were full, it was standing room only as the crowd moved to the tunes of duelling mariachi bands! The atmosphere was great. It was as if the locals had said ‘enough is enough’ .. ‘we are taking our town back’. At one stage a couple came over and wanted to have their photo taken with us. Obviously they hadn’t seen foreigners in a while. Did I feel safe? Yes. But, Johnny and I stood-out. We were the only gringo’s in the bar. An easy target.

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Our ‘real’ assignment in Mexico, was to profile an Australian priest whose Corpus Christi Parish sits in the poorest area of Juarez. Father Kevin Mullins stands out. Not just because of his Aussie/Spanish accent or the reflector aviator sunglasses he wears, but the adulation thrust upon him by locals who flood to his Sunday service.

“I think about 200 parents have named their son’s Kevin since I arrived here”, Father Kevin Mullins said. “But .. I told my superior don’t worry. None of them have blue eyes!”, Father Mullins said jokingly.

11-years ago 30 people would turn up to the Sunday service. Now it’s more like 400 and people flow out the doors. Before we started filming, I asked Father Mullins how long the service would go for? He replied with a smile, “An hour and a half to two hours. They like a song and dance here”. He wasn’t wrong!

A father and daughter attend a Sunday service at Corpus Christi Parish, Juarez Mexico.

I was struck by the number of families – husbands, wives and children in their best clothes jammed together, sitting on pews. Then when given the opportunity, everyone was jumped their feet singing and clapping. I couldn’t help compare my own life in Santa Monica, where it’s all about what car you drive and eating organic foods. These Juarez locals have nothing, but at the same time they have everything.

Outside, we spoke to several locals about the drug violence. “Yes it’s very bad, but we have no choice .. we live here”, said Juan Lara. Drug related deaths have dropped 70% in the past three years, down from between 13 to 20 murders a day to one every second day. “Right now it’s going down the violence .. no it doesn’t stop, the violence still .. the kidnapping, it is coming now”, said parish assistant Gregorio Soto.

We head back to the hotel. Travelling in Gustavo’s Ford Explorer we discuss past assignments – Libya, Iraq, Haiti, Hurricane Katrina – we decide Juarez is not as bad as what everyone says. Talk quickly turns back to girlfriends. Jordi’s 23-year old girlfriend keeps calling to say ‘she loves’ him. While Johnny is ‘coping it’ for giving up his apartment to move in with his new girlfriend. “You’ve got the ‘furry handcuffs’ on mate”, says Mike when suddenly Gustavo points out a ‘Policia Federal’

Filming a Mexican Policia Federal (Federal Police) Truck loaded with balaclava wearing heavily armed police.

(Federal Police) Truck loaded with balaclava clad armed officers dressed in dark blue fatigues.

Gustavo speeds up. Chasing the cops so we can get close enough to film them. The sight of the Mexican Federal Police, their identities hidden and holding American made M-16 assault rifles is a reminder, all is not as it appears in Juarez. The local police chief Colonel Julián Leyzaola, who successfully battled corruption in Tijuana, is credited for reducing Juarez’s drug related deaths. But locals fear it’s just a lull in the violence, hinging upon who wins Mexico’s Presidential Election next month. “The Cartels just want to be left alone to do business”, a Juarez resident told me.   

Late Monday afternoon, we headed back across the US-Mexican border and into the safety of El Paso. Driving East along Interstate 10, there is a twinge of sadness as we look back across the US border towards Juarez and the ‘dusty’ suburbs we’d spent the past three days. It was a shared adventure and a fun time. Would I go back? Yes. Would I let a woman I love go to Juarez? NO WAY!!! 

‘SNAP SHOTS’

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