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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

The Juarez Vignette: Humanity in the Heroic City

Originally published 1 March 2016

A Mexican family visits loved ones at the San Rafael Municipal Cemetery in Ciudad Juarez. (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

There are countless places we simply don’t care about. They are either too far away to matter, or just too far removed from the reality of our daily lives to seem relevant. These places and the people living in them are often so different from us that caring, which would require a substantial investment of time and energy just to learn what we are caring about, hardly seems worth it. And to be fair, the people in those places probably don’t care about us in any real sense, either, so why should we care about them? Why not recognize and even embrace our disconnectedness?

In the theory-peddling beggar’s universe of social science, we academic types are trained in nothing if not to answer this very question, and with the utmost persuasiveness, no matter the obscurity of our subject matter. We are commandos of persuasion, one might say, capable of selling relevance like a politician sells fear. This is because the endless rabbit holes of our inquiry (and our paychecks) will dry up and cave in the minute people or institutions stop caring about the minute details of human existence to which we dedicate our lives. Our job is to convince the world that those minute details matter, and only then can we really even begin to discover the truth behind it all. Only then will the truth have any meaning.

When asked why we should care about Ciudad Juarez, I used to balk at the question, for at first glance its relevance seemed to me so very obvious. Just a few years back we called it the “Murder Capital of the World,” I reminded people, emphasizing that death haunted the capitals of war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan to a lesser degree than in this expansive hub of assembly-line production on the US-Mexican border. It was the epicenter of our war on drugs, and a very failed one at that, I urged on. It is where, in the span of a single presidential term, more than ten thousand human souls were slain within miles—and often within yards—of El Paso, that strange urban outpost of the Texas panhandle championed as the second safest city in America.

Ciudad Juarez is, moreover, where half of our “Made-in-America” car parts are produced, where our broken cell phones and computers are fixed, and where our plasma-screen televisions are assembled. In the words of the late Charles Bowden, it is the “laboratory of the future.” It is where we test the viability of a new world economic order, or a new world division of labor, in which entire cities are organized to produce things at low cost so that other cities far away can consume them with reckless abandon.

On top of all that, Ciudad Juarez is where tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants pass through each year to come to the United States, and where tens of thousands more are deported to on their way out. It is Adam Smith’s unsung conundrum, a free market without the free movement of labor. It is the coagulum of modern capitalism’s gaping wounds.

And it is right in our back yard! How can we not care about Ciudad Juarez?

Occasionally I have been able to convince myself and others that, considering the extent of human suffering so near to us, and the depth of our economic interdependence, we most surely should care about Ciudad Juarez. But this has always had the same ring to it as so many other vacant “shoulds” one speaks and hears throughout a typical day, like “I should drink less,” or, “I really should get more exercise.”

Tens of thousands of people fled Ciudad Juarez during its most violent years. Many of those who stayed found themselves living in virtual ghost towns. (Photo: MJW)

Part of the problem is that human suffering is so ubiquitous the world over that any discussion of it feels redundant and bores the mind, save for the momentary entertainment value of wildly spectacular violence. The matter of economic interdependence, for its part, is really only interesting to the investor class (maybe that is you, but probably not), and even then only to the extent that taxes are low and labor is abundant and cheap. For most of us, we might agree about the importance of recognizing how our consumer paradise in the Global North is dependent on Nineteenth Century-style labor exploitation in the Global South, but talking about it feels like eating steak in front of a street child’s starving eyes. It is best to just not think about it.

Another part of the problem is that even if we did care about a place like Ciudad Juarez, it is not at all clear what kind of actions caring should invoke. Should we just think about it more often? Should we start visiting its bars and brothels again like old times? Should we write columns in our local newspapers about business opportunities or the plight of the impoverished, violence-stricken masses? Should we be urging our politicians to work more closely with their counterparts in Mexico, maybe to open up the border to a freer flow of peoples? Or should we treat it like the Middle East and airdrop foodstuffs, guns, or motivational pamphlets? Should we send in the incorruptible US military to bomb and smoke out the drug cartels? Or should we just quarantine Ciudad Juarez with a massive wall, make Mexico pay for it, and then consider the matter settled?

Perhaps the most compelling reason why we don’t care about Ciudad Juarez even if we should, however, can be reduced to an analogy: Like the plumbing under our floorboards, places like Ciudad Juarez are invisible necessities that, no matter how nasty things get down there, we simply choose not to think about them until the main drain bursts and our homes start to flood.

For a while, more or less between 2009 and 2012, we did start to care about Ciudad Juarez, and it was precisely because of the fear that Mexico’s bloody drug war might spill over the border. As the main drain seemed to be on the verge of bursting, the US Border Patrol complained of being outgunned by the cartels, and at one point Texas ordered National Guard troops to patrol strategic border crossing points. There was even some discussion of deploying US Army units to the border in anticipation of the coming onslaught.

Tarahumara (Raramuli) women in a basketball tournament, Ciudad Juarez. (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

But these fears proved to be unfounded. This is because criminal violence is shaped by the institutional environment in which politico-criminal power struggles unfold, and institutions in Mexico and the United States work in very different ways. The police, gangs, and drug cartels that kill so much in Mexico have little interest in bringing the same strategies across the border, and for the most part they never did, or at least not in the same excruciatingly public way. In fact, during the peak of violence a few years back, it was common for rival gang and cartel members to live in peace with each other in El Paso by day, while crossing over to Juarez to kidnap, torture, and kill one another by night. This can be boiled down to a basic difference in police and judicial institutions: While ninety-six percent of homicide cases in El Paso end with convictions, less than one percent do so in Ciudad Juarez. In other words, criminals and criminal organizations are no less rational than you or me. They calculate risks and rewards based on semi-predictable conditions of play, and they choose whatever course of action will most likely maximize their returns at the lowest cost. It is simple, killing is easier to get away with in Mexico, and that is why criminals organizations do it more there.

Again, like the plumbing under our floorboards, Ciudad Juarez might be nasty inside, but as long as it doesn’t burst open and flood our nice homes with its filth and grime, there is really no compelling reason to think more about it. And so it is. Ciudad Juarez is but one of the many pipelines through which the developed world carries in its lavish sustenance and flushes out its noxious waste. It is a necessity, but thankfully an invisible one. We don’t have to look. We don’t have to think about it. Case closed, story told. There is, at the end of the day, no reason to care about Ciudad Juarez.

Or is there? A nagging feeling deep inside still insists that care we should, and care we must. Maybe it is simply the taunt of the realities of home ownership and the fact that my plumbing actually did burst open not long ago. Or maybe it is the memory of so many real people in Ciudad Juarez, people so complex and true and straddled with struggles, who have generously shared their stories and small pieces of their lives with me, such that now I feel indebted to them. But there must be something deeper still, perhaps something so essential to the human experience that we can’t help but to look right past it. Something…Something…

For the time being this elusive something escapes my intellect, but it continues to grate at my soul. Deep down I constantly feel it gnawing and scratching, even letting out the occasional scream, always urging me to mind its menacing and do something. Alas, it is in capitulation to this unintelligible, deeply intestinal complaint that I begin this project before you.

I call it The Juarez Vignette: Humanity in the Heroic City. On its surface, it is simply a collection of photographs of seemingly random people living in Ciudad Juarez during and after the drug war (2008-2015), accompanied by descriptive vignettes about their lives or about my encounters with them. In this sense, it is similar to Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, only thicker with prose and thinner with posts, and of course, portraying a city much smaller and much more forgotten. But taken together, the vignettes tell a story far deeper and more complex than their aggregate total would suggest. It is a story of human struggle amid the greatest of obstacles. A story of great triumphs and terrible defeats. It is a story of massive social transformation in the era of globalized capitalism. A story about abject poverty and savage inequalities coming to life and bringing us to death. It is a story about love, hate, hope, and resignation. It is the story of Ciudad Juarez.

A young man sings a "corrido" (folk song) on the Santa Fe International Bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. The corrido tells the story of a Mexican boy who was shot and killed by a US Border Patrol agent the day before. The boy had been throwing rocks at the agent from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River Canal. (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff).
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