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A decade after publishing his vivid account of the places and people most affected by the US-Mexican ‘war on drugs’, Ed Vulliamy returns to the frontline

A portion of the US-Mexico border seen from Chihuahua State in Mexico, some 100 km from the city of Ciudad Juarez
A portion of the US-Mexico border seen from Chihuahua State in Mexico, some 100 km from the city of Ciudad Juarez. Photograph: Hérika Martínez/AFP via Getty Images

If you drink the water in Ciudad Juárez, there you’ll stay, goes the saying – Se toma agua de Juárez, allí se queda. It’s not a reference to the quality of drinking water (about which polemic abounds because it is so dirty) but to the beguiling lure of this dusty and dangerous yet strong and charismatic city. It’s a dictum that might be applied to the whole 2,000-mile Mexico-US borderland of which Juárez and its sister city on the US side, El Paso, form the fulcrum.

Ten years ago, I returned from several months’ immersion along that frontier, reporting on a narco-cartel war for this newspaper and eventually writing a book, Amexica, about the terrain astride the border, land that has a single identity – that belongs to both countries and yet to neither. A frontier at once porous and harsh: across which communities live and a million people traverse every day, legally, as do hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods annually.

In the past 10 years I’ve returned scores of times and even lived there for a while, but now the border crisis is so urgent – with regard to narco-traffic and migration – that I felt I needed to go back and revisit voices and themes, try to measure what has changed and what has not since I wrote the book. Amexica + 10, if you like. This is now a frontier on which US president Donald Trump fixates, pledging a wall to run its length as a rampart against an “invasion”. Thousands die or disappear trying to cross it, desperate migrants gather on its southern side, with dreams and illusions of America, only to be incarcerated, separated from family and deported when they get there.

What were lonely desert byways 10 years ago now host traffic jams of reporters and TV crews, as the border becomes a place of humanitarian disaster, main mast of Trump’s re-election campaign. Back then, you had to explain who and what Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his Sinaloa cartel were. Since that time, we’ve had TV series Narcos ad nauseam, the films Sicario 1 and 2, some wonderful journalism and El Chapo’s trial-as-theatre in New York.

Ten years ago, the story along the borderline was narco-traffic, to which the theme of migration played an accompanying role, as the cartels moved in on human trafficking. Now the world is on the move, and much of it has converged on “Amexica”. While 10 years ago, most migrants at the border were in flight from violence and poverty in Mexico, now thousands flee gangland violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras; in Ciudad Juárez, a “little Havana” of waiting Cubans is established; they come from eastern Europe and Asia; Haitians arrive in Tijuana; migrants gather in Ciudad Acuña from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa.

A decade ago, the administration of Barack Obama began a clampdown on criminal immigrants, and accelerated deportations to record levels. Now, Trump has shocked his own country, collided with federal courts and outraged the world with policies separating children from parents, appalling conditions of incarceration, wholesale roundups of immigrants without papers – or criminal records – and the sending back ofasylum seekers to “remain in Mexico” (rather than wait for their initial hearings in the country where asylum has been claimed as per international law).

But drug violence, cartels and their conviviality with government are perennial and ubiquitous. Amexica was published after the government of Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in late 2006, after which murder rates hit the highest since the Mexican revolution, and Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world. Homicides then waned, only to spike again now: last year was the bloodiest yet in Mexico, and 2019 is set to overtake it, with the government last week counting 29,574 reported homicides to the end of October.

Ten years ago, the task was to report how Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel supplanted rivals along the border west of Juárez, for export mainly of cocaine; then downriver, less successfully, confronting the Zetas and Gulf cartels in Coahuila and Tamaulipas. Now, with Guzmán jailed and his cartel fragmented, the plaza – the drug traffic turf – is unquiet again, as the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación stakes its claim, trafficking mainly in synthetic drugs and fentanyl to fill a vacuum left by the clawback on prescribed opioids in the US. Violence increases when the plates shift, and while it used to be worst along the border, now – though Tijuana is Mexico’s, and the world’s, murder capital – killing is across the country, through Jalisco, Colima, Guerrero and Veracruz in particular.

What happens along this frontier is a prism through which to examine a world where the illicit economy bleeds into the supposedly legal one, to render the border between them a sieve like the physical border itself, as high street banks launder profits of drug traffic with impunity. Amexica ended with the story of the Wachovia bank moving $378bn from Mexico, much of it from the Sinaloa cartel, without adequate checks. HSBC, too, was caught moving El Chapo’s money. No one from either bank has been arrested, let alone jailed. Following Guzmán’s conviction, US government forfeiture of his alleged $14bn value is all “back in Mexico” – money sent to be laundered south of the border – the small change; none of the hundreds of billions sent into the “legal” economy by Wachovia or HSBC are in their sights. I call it the lie of legality.

And so, in what is supposed to be peacetime, a new kind of 21st-century war rages across this enthralling country. The official number of homicides in Mexico since 2007 – 307,624, excluding the disappeared, until October this year – stands at a level akin to that in some of the worst wars in recent history, yet effervescent Juárez is not like, say, besieged Sarajevo. Part of my book’s aim was to describe unspeakable violence in places where life goes on and daily encounters were generally a delight. This does not change: in no place I know are the ready smile, the unnecessary chat, the twinkle-in-the-eye so pervasive. Uber works fine, people go to mass and to market, shopping centres open, burritos and pastries are delicious, restaurants full again. “It looks normal,” says Julián Cardona, who took the photographs in Juárez for this article, “but it’s not.”

Cardona has coined the term “urban Frankenstein” to describe his adoptive city. Last January, the bodies of a family running a grocery in Juárez were discovered only after stray dogs found and started eating them. In Tijuana, I reported on the abduction and murder of two Honduran migrant boys – Jasson Ricardo Acuña and Jorge Alexander Ruíz – and the testimony of a third, who survived and led police to the scene. José Alberto Álavarez, Tijuana’s district attorney, showed me photographs of the victims, aged 16 and 17: “I fear to note that one of the deceased was dressed in women’s clothes,” he says, showing a lifeless body, bloodied and strangled, wearing a brassiere and red skirt. “Not only that, but when the survivor took us to the house, one of the killers was still wearing the clothes and shoes of the deceased. Two days later. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Ciudad Juárez

Pastor José Antonio Galvan with Yogi and other residents of the Visión En Acción centre in Ciudad Juárez.

Pastor José Antonio Galvan with Yogi and other residents of the Visión En Acción centre in Ciudad Juárez in 2010. Photograph: Julian Cardona

First stirrings precede first light in the Chihuahua desert, beyond the frayed edges of Juárez. Mumbling, moaning, crashing of pans heating coffee and the odd scream, at Visión En Acción rehabilitation centre, or “rescue asylum”. As the sun’s fiery rays break over the scrub, residents emerge from their sleeping quarters around a courtyard, deranged but dutifully carrying soiled blankets to be bleached in the heat. Rafael heaves his pungent load, saying first that he was a missionary from Veracruz, but then again, he was a dealer from Juárez; actually, he’s a millionaire from Zacatecas – he’s not sure.

This sanctuary for the abandoned mentally ill and other vulnerable people has been run for 24 years by pastor José Antonio Galván, who joked 10 years ago that the city out there – full of yonkes, junkyards of cars totalled in America, refitted for the road – was actually a “human junkyard”, while this was “a haven of peace”. Which it is, in a way: where recovering addicts, penitent cartel sicarios (hitmen) and their mistresses, psychos, street dealers and those discarded by the city’s assembly plant economy are refitted for life. Last time I was here, I spent a few nights sharing quarters with a man called Josué, who told me he had been “dead when I got here”, from street-gang life in Los Angeles and heroin in Juárez. Today, all that remains of him here is his degree certificate, framed on the pastor’s wall – Josué is now a practising nurse.

Galván still looks like the teddy boy he once was – in a purple paisley jacket that seems, and doesn’t seem, out of place here – and greets me with the poised fists of the boxer he also was. “The Lord is on my side,” he says, punching the air. I feel 10 years older, I tell him, yet he seems younger. “Have passion, have faith, have life,” he laughs. “These are my people, under my wing. I feel part of this desert now, like a lizard – you’ve got to look carefully, know what you’re doing and move fast.” Threats from cartels and gangs seeking out patients to enact vengeance have eased, he reports, but “they never go away”.

An estimated 40,000 people have disappeared since 2006 in Mexico – one of the most outrageous aspects of this war – and some are found by Peludo, the centre’s pet dog. “He keeps finding legs, then a head, different bodies in different places, of people who have been kidnapped and disappeared in the desert,” says Galván. “Sometimes when it rains, bodies surface, and come floating.”

In the yard, “his people” greet Galván, hugging his waist while he pats their matted hair, strokes their scars, each precious to him. Things change, and they don’t. Becky, former pole dancer and crackhead, is dead now, as is big Oscar, former sicario for the Barrio Azteca gang, street affiliate of the old Juárez cartel. But Yogi is still here, shaven-headed 10 years ago, now sporting a jester’s hat. He has Down’s syndrome and schizophrenia.

There’s been impressive building work in recent years; what were timeworn breeze-blocks are now whitewashed walls; there’s air conditioning, even a TV area for telenovelas and baseball. Across the patio, the mazed eyes, mind-sickness, and poignant affection between Galván and what he calls “my family”, echo down 10 years on different faces. The drugs, too, are different, says Galván – “We’re seeing less crack, more crystal meth, and synthetics” – but their ravages are the same. The shelter’s nurse, Imelda Castro, explains that it takes “a balance between miracles and medication”.

The place is staffed, as it always has been, by former patients, and Galván feels that the story of his last decade can best be told through their example; they are disarmingly open about where they’ve come from.

Pastor José Antonio Galván, who runs the Visión En Acción asylum outside Juárez, with residents (Yogi in the jester’s hat): ‘I was one of them,’ he says.

Pastor Galván with Visión En Acción residents (Yogi in the jester’s hat) in October 2019: ‘I was one of them,’ he says. Photograph: Julian Cardona/The Observer

When Vera, the accountant at the centre, arrived four years ago, she was “completely wild”, says Galván. Born to a middle-class family in Guanajuato, Vera had “entered a life of prostitution and pole dancing – pregnant at 15,” she says. “I attracted bad people: narcos, sicarios, jefes…” Before long, she was one of them, selling and moving drugs for the Knights Templar cartel.

“I saw everything: murder, kidnappings. So much violence, so many drugs, so much sex, you don’t see it for what it is. I admired the power of these people, and respected their authority.” But such proximity was also dangerous, as the Knights were overrun by the Jalisco Nueva Generación: “They kill women because they have so much information; the favoured women know everything.”

After a disastrous relationship, Vera attempted suicide, but was rescued by her parents and placed in a psychiatric hospital. Her parents sold their house to pay for treatment at a shelter and finally Vera arrived at Visión En Acción.

“Vera has a keen sense for things,” Galvan comments, “and [while helping in the office] she spotted something wrong with the cheques. She suspected a man called Beto, who was my right-hand man. She was right – Beto was stealing from us. He quit and I gave Vera the job. “You see,” he adds, “my job is to find the treasure in people they don’t even know is there themselves.”

That must have been difficult in the case of Neor (not his real name), host for my overnight stay. He had had a “bad life” with his father “taking drugs, whipping us all – no money, no food”. Neor started on crystal, crack and solvents at the age of 12, then started “robbing and killing for money”, and inevitably did so for a major cartel. “I was a sicario,” he says.

“Once you’ve killed the first time, it gets easy – I was taking so much crystal, I could handle it.”

Then one day the time came for him to kill a man who had been given the task of selling a large amount of meth, but had kept and spent the money. “It was a big hit. For some reason I didn’t want to do it, but they said if I didn’t, they’d kill me.” After a shootout at his house – “I took a bullet in the leg”, Neor shows me the scar – he escaped and went on the run. He had heard about a former drug dealer now working at Visión En Acción, and was brought here. How long ago? He beams: “Four months ago.”

“I’m strict,” says Galván, “afraid of nothing.” One recent morning, though, Neor found himself out on the highway, planning to return to Guanajuato. “I started shaking,” he says, “and a voice in me said: ‘Don’t. Go back to work’.” “There’s a devil waiting to lure them back any time,” says Galván, “and I gotta beat that devil up.” I had for a moment forgotten that the pastor himself was once an addict on the street. “I learned that,” he says, “when I was living among the trash cans – when I was one of them.”


Law enforcement agents pose in front of a bonfire of drugs, Tijuana.

‘La incineración de droga’: law enforcement agents pose in front of a bonfire of 26,000 kilos of heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and other drugs, September 2019, Tijuana. Photograph: Photo by Ed Vulliamy

On a rainy September morning in Tijuana, at the border’s western edge, an ostentatious but imposing ceremony was arranged: an incineración de droga by combined law enforcement agencies, where they set fire to 26,000 kilos of heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and other drugs. A torch is applied, flame spreads across the hillock of drugs, black smoke billows skywards – and a platoon of agents from the Agencia de Investigación Criminal line up for a team photo against the backdrop of the inferno. It’s been a while since this was done publicly here, but everyone knows it won’t be the last time, and that – gallant though the choreography is – this pyre represents but a grain among millions, on the move, out there.

My journey through Amexica 10 years ago began and ended here when Tijuana was second only to Juárez in its murder rate. Last year, a report by the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, which measures homicides per capita, found six of the world’s 10 most murderous cities to be in Mexico, and Tijuana top of the list.

The epilogue to my book was an interview with Antonio Irán “Hiram” Muñoz, whose macabre expertise at the prosecutor’s office was to analyse the mutilations of cartel victims to decode any messages they might contain – he called it “necropsia” rather than “autopsia”: severed feet or toes if someone walked from a cartel, the sliced tongue of a snitch. A forensic expert, but also a philosopher, Muñoz was furious at how few prosecutions resulted from his work.

We meet now at the Ateneo de Ciencias Universitarias y Artes. Muñoz himself founded this college “to train young people to blend the ‘criminalistic’ – what is found at a crime scene, scientifically – and the ‘criminological’, which is psychological, why the criminal did what he did”, he says. “Ten years ago, we talked about terrible things happening in this city. But I was failing to change things at the prosecutor’s office, so decided to create my own university and impart what I knew to the next generation.

Ten years ago forensic expert Antonio Muñoz worked analysing cartel victims’ mutilations. He now runs his own criminology college in Tijuana.

Ten years ago forensic expert Antonio Muñoz worked analysing cartel victims’ mutilations. Photographed here in September 2019, he now runs his own criminology college in Tijuana. Photograph: Photo by Ed Vulliamy

“[Back then] mutilations were a controlled way of communicating messages. That still happens in the south, but no longer here. In Tijuana now, they just shoot each other on street corners like dogs. Now you just find bodies – usually killed in one place, and dumped in another.” Before, he posits, “the narco only killed who he needed to kill. Now, anyone can be a narco – and they kill anyone.”

This change has come about because Mexico’s domestic drug market – the so-called narcomenudeo – has increased further since Amexica and is now believed to account for even more violence than that caused by competition for “export” plazas. “The drugs don’t just fly to the north,” says Muñoz, “they also stay here, so that now there’s a war for the streets here – and this contributes to the general collapse. There is no message to send now: I just erase you from the point of sale. Kill one, and I have four more waiting to replace you.”

Muñoz notes the arrival of fentanyl on the domestic and export markets: “It’s cheap to make and easy to smuggle. I also come across it in my forensic investigations – more deaths from fentanyl, often mixed with cocaine, without the addict knowing. Dealers cut other drugs with fentanyl to make them even more addictive.

“Human beings are addicts, addicts of pleasure and power – coffee, alcohol, sex, extreme sports – and drugs are the most addictive of all. It’s never going to go away, and what makes this war pure stupidity is that we are never going to win it unless we see the addict as a sick person, not a criminal.”

Brownsville/Matamoros, Rio Grande valley

Migrants from Guatemala cross the Rio Bravo

Migrants from Guatemala cross the Rio Bravo (as the Rio Grande is known in Mexico) to request asylum in El Paso, Texas. June, 2019. Photograph: José Luis González/Reuters

The road bends, along stretches of new fence, to the river’s end, where the twin towns of Brownsville and Matamoros, one of six bi-national metropolitan border areas, face one another. A decade ago, Michael Seifert had recently left the priesthood at his parish of San Felipe de Jesús in Cameron Park, Brownsville, fallen in love with a paediatrician and married her. But he continued to work for the community in a post-pastoral role, until this poorest, entirely Hispanic, quarter of town became the last to be “incorporated”, with running water and electricity in almost every home. Still devout, but a radical theologian, Seifert posited 10 years ago that the Virgin of Guadalupe portrays a dancing Madonna, pregnant with the mestizo Mexican race – mixed because it was the product of rape by Spanish conquistadors. We meet again: “I had Mexican seminarians walk out on me for that,” he says with a smile. “She’s supposed to be immaculate.”

Seifert remains “plugged in to Cameron Park, all the better to keep people connected”, but has adapted his work to the migration crisis, for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with an “integrated advocacy” team guiding migrants as they cross from Matamoros into Brownsville in the US, and writing regular internet reports entitled Views from Alongside a Border.

“These people came here,” he says, “because they wanted to be safe. Yet over in Matamoros, they are prey to deadly criminals, and here they are met with a system carefully designed to fail them. They can have no idea of the evil genius of our immigration and asylum apparatus, satanic in its cleverness in keeping them out, and in danger.”

Michael Seifert, a former priest and now migrants’ advocate, at the border fence he crosses regularly for this work, between Brownsville and Matamoros.

Michael Seifert, a former priest and now migrants’ advocate, photographed in October 2019 at the border fence he crosses regularly for this work, between Brownsville and Matamoros. Photograph: Photo by Ed Vulliamy

In January 2019, despite an outcry over child separation, the Trump administration introduced “Migrant Protection Protocols”, whereby asylum seekers, rather than wait for their “credible fear” interview in the US (as per the 1939 Montevideo treaty on political asylum), are sent back to wait in Mexico. The Mexican government of leftwing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has given full support, earning compliments from Trump for “spectacular” results: some 58,000 asylum seekers are now reported returned to, and waiting in, Mexico.

Immigration courts on the US side are perfunctory and dysfunctional. I was forbidden entry to the huge tent – or “soft-sided facility” as the government calls it – erected on the Brownsville side of the river to hear pleas by video link. But I did visit two courts dealing with detained migrants at nearby McAllen and Port Isabel: rows of shackled, confused, weary people hustled through production-line “justice”, with, in some cases, no more exchange with the bench than a nod to indicate understanding of their “rights”, before deportation.

Beside the Gateway bridge connecting Matamoros to downtown Brownsville, across a few yards of river and reed bank, is a tent city of around 1,000 people, encamped for safety in numbers, mostly “waiting in Mexico” for the date on their crumpled but clasped Notice to Appear given to them before they were sent back under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. A higher proportion are returned to Matamoros than anywhere else on the border, for all the dangers.

My book Amexica ended with the story of the massacre of 72 migrants at San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010. Migrant massacres and disappearances have become increasingly common. On Christmas Eve 2011, 15 migrants were dragged from a diocesan shelter in Matamoros, and never seen again; scores of disappearances have followed. Staff at the bus station have witnessed, on many occasions, the macabre arrival of baggage belonging to migrants on board coaches from the interior, with no one to claim them. In Nuevo Laredo last month, Aarón Méndez, manager of a Presbyterian shelter, was abducted after refusing to hand over those in his care to a unit of gunmen.

Glady Cañas Aguilar, advocate for refugees, waiting in Matamoros to cross to the US.

Glady Cañas Aguilar, advocate for refugees, waiting in Matamoros to cross to the US in October 2019. Photograph: Photo by Ed Vulliamy

Seifert had put me in touch with his opposite number on the Matamoros side of the border, the kind of person these situations throw up, hurricane heroines and heroes of the hour. Glady Cañas Aguilar is in her “office” in a small row of shops. A crowd awaits her; everyone wants a piece of her – a moment with her. About 80% of migrants, she says, come from Honduras, fleeing gang violence – also from El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba, and some from Africa. “People often stay for months,” she says, crossing in groups of 15 according to a system operated by the border patrol known as “metering”, which limits the number of people who may apply, creating numbered waiting lists on the Mexican side. “More than 250 tents and we cope,” she says, “just about, but they’ve been here too long and it’s all too much – chicken pox, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and waiting, waiting… Here, they’re safe, but out in the town, absolutely not.” Cañas Aguilar blames a “falta de amor” – lack of love – in the world. But she must go now: a group of Tzotzil Mayans has arrived from the Mexican town of San Juan Chamula, evicted by fighting between rival political militias; she takes control of the chaotic scene, distributing sanitary kit and clothes – including a silver-sequined tunic for a girl called Flora.

Back to Juárez

A view of Ciudad Juárez. The sign on the hill reads: “Ciudad Juarez, the Bible is the truth. Read it.”

A view of Ciudad Juárez in October 2019. The sign on the hill reads: “Ciudad Juarez, the Bible is the truth. Read it.” Photograph: Photo by Ed Vulliamy

In Amexica I quoted the great writer of the borderland Charles Bowden: “If the Pulitzer [prize] stands for publishing the truth against the might of governments and at risk of your life, then this year the nabobs of American journalism have it easy: give all the newspaper prizes to the people of El Diario.”

Ten years ago, Sandra Rodríguez was mourning the loss of her colleague on Juárez’s daily newspaper, El Diario. Armando Rodríguez was shot dead in his car as he prepared to take his daughter to school in November 2008. Sandra Rodríguez took the same risks, wrote the same kind of stories for which her friend died. She was preoccupied by what she called “the culture of impunity in this city, from its very design, to the way the economy works; from the street to the top”. She published an important book of reportage from the city in 2012, La Fábrica del Crimen (The Crime Factory), which was published in English as The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father and His Sister, which he did.

Rather than write about capos and sicarios, Rodríguez’s subject is the brutalisation of Mexican society. Vicente did what he did, he said, “porque puedo”, because I can.

Over the past decade, Rodríguez reflects, “the story of Mexico is as Vicente predicted: you can do whatever you want, with impunity. You can kill whoever you want, kill in broad daylight, kill a journalist, disappear 43 students – and get away with it. Vicente has become a metaphor for the whole country.”

As news editor, Rodríguez faces a dilemma. “We have a picture,” she says, “of two people walking past a corpse, and they don’t even glance at it – this is Juárez after 10 years. I want it on the front page, but my editor says: we don’t have a story to go with this, and he’s right. Or we have a 16-year-old killed, without a birth certificate or school record. Again, this should be front-page news. But it’s not: people being killed is no longer news in Juárez, or the rest of Mexico – killing has become normal and crime has become a habit.”

Rodríguez has since lost another friend, Miroslava Breach, an investigative journalist from her home town of Chiuhuahua, murdered in 2017 when leaving home, like Armando. Twelve journalists have been killed in Mexico so far this year, so that – according to a report on US National Public Radio last month, Mexico has overtaken Syria as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. On the day I crossed from El Paso to Juárez this time, a correspondent from National Geographic was shot and wounded.

“It’s outrageous,” says Rodríguez. “It comes from the same disease, impunity. They do it because they know they can, to silence the press.” And yet, for all this, when a friend in our company asks: “Have you ever been really happy?” Rodríguez does not hesitate: “Yes, my city makes me happy. I love Juárez; it kills people, but gives me life.”

Kill it certainly does. The culture of impunity, says Rodríguez, has its roots in the 90s, “with the killing of 300 women in this city, when we realised nothing would happen to the killers”. The so-called “Femicidio” brought Juárez to the attention of the world, and me back to the city in 1999. The misogynist “style” of killing – a word used “not lightly” by anthropologist Cecilia Ballí in Amexica – seemed to take the violence to another level. In her thesis, Ballí explored this “sexual murder” in the light of a “hypermasculinity in US-Mexico border zones, informed by the history, style and logic of militarisation and organised crime”.

Maria Sagrario González , who was murdered at the age of 17 in 1998.

Maria Sagrario González , who was murdered at the age of 17 in 1998.

Among the mothers who suffered unfathomable grief at the abduction, violation and murder of a daughter was Paula Flores, the body of whose 17-year-old daughter Maria Sagrario González was found dumped in the desert in April 1998. She had disappeared after leaving home early to take a bus to work in one of Juárez’s hundreds of maquiladora assembly plants, bedrock of the city’s economy. My chapter on the Femicidio opened with Paula imploring the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which Sagrario wore around her neck: “Where were you when they did this to my little girl?”

Flores’s face has changed remarkably little since I last saw her 10 years ago, or indeed since I first interviewed her in 1999 and again in 2002. It carries that same wounded but indomitable fortitude. She lives in the same house, attached to the family’s grocery store at the top of the Anapra barrio, a quarter called Lomas de Poleo, on the north-western outskirts of town, right against the border. An old, repainted American school bus grinds up the dusty slope, with the mountains behind El Paso as backdrop.

“Time passes,” Flores says. “It’s been 21 years now and everything is the same – nothing has happened. We are marked for life, and will remain so while there is no reckoning with what happened. There can be no recovery. And it continues: women keep disappearing, keep being murdered.”

On the other hand, “I have my store, and my family. At weekends we are all together, all from Durango, though my grandchildren were born here. Eleven of them now, some of the age Maria Sagrario was, and that can be traumatic.”

In 2005, a man called José Luis Hernández was jailed for the murder of Maria Sagrario – sentenced for 28 years. “But I fear he will be out much sooner,” says Flores. That is not the end of the matter: “He said he was paid $800 to be part of this. But by whom? Who else was involved, and why? We have always said that everything rests with the authorities, that the authorities were complicit in the murder of women in Juárez.

Paula Flores

‘We are marked for life’: Paula Flores, whose daughter María Sagrario, was murdered in 1998, photographed earlier this year. Photograph: Julian Cardona/The Observer

“Every year, on the anniversary – 16 April – we get together and repaint the crosses,” says Flores – they are black on a pink background, painted or placed on walls, lamp-posts and public spaces around the city. In 2012, the mayor of Juárez, Hector Murguía, announced he would ban this practice and “apply the law” on defacement of public space. “He threatened us, but we did it,” says Flores, though “this year only four of us turned up.”

The mothers of six murdered women, including Flores, filed a suit – Silvia Elena Rivera Morales et al vs Mexico – through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, over the authorities’ abrogation of responsibility. A hearing was held in Washington DC on 29 September. “Though my daughter’s case is from 21 years ago,” Flores told the commission, “I still feel the same pain of my daughter not being here. She deserves justice.”

“Yes,” she says now in her kitchen, “with the other mothers, we’re still pushing this. It was all very nice there in Washington, and the president of the court offered his sympathies. But they’ve had this case since 2007, and it’s a verdict we need, not sympathy. I don’t think they have any idea of the emotional toll, the pain involved.”

Flores seems rightly exhausted with trying to find words for the unspeakable. Two of her other daughters arrive, and there’s a delicious lunch of spicy beans, cheese and tortillas, a portrait of Maria Sagrario staring down from the back wall. There’s discussion of music, grandchildren, climate crisis and life around the barrio. We’re done for today with what Edgar Allan Poe called “the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed”.

But there’s one final question: where was the Virgin of Guadalupe when they did that? “I asked the same question to the cross on her coffin, and the virgin on her locket: why didn’t she protect her?” says Flores, “and I’ve asked it every day since, and I hear no answer. I still believe. But how can it be? Maria Sagrario was not against God; she was a believer, she sang in church, and helped at Sunday school. During Lent that year, I prayed for the protection of my daughters. Three days later, Maria Sagrario disappeared.

“I try to ask myself not so much ‘Why did she die?’ but ‘For what?’ Maybe for the school. Maybe so that with the help of the other mothers, I can raise awareness about what is happening here. So the world would take notice – maybe.”

A 10th anniversary edition of Amexica by Ed Vulliamy will be published by Vintage books next year.

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Sorgente: Back to the border of misery: Amexica revisited 10 years on | World news | The Guardian