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The Chihuahua Express

A trip from Santa Fe to Mexico reveals the growing influence of the narcoguerra

November 24, 2010, 1:00 am

“Before, it wasn’t like this,” Juan says. “The violence is much worse now, especially in Juárez and Cuauhtémoc,” a city just south of Chihuahua. The capitol, he adds, is dangerous, too.

Statistics bear out Juan’s perception. According to a CBS special report this month, 10,000 people have been killed so far this year in Mexico’s drug violence—a 53 percent increase over 2009.

In mid-November, the violence in one border city grew so bad that its residents fled, leaving behind an apocalyptic ghost town that has since been occupied by Mexican troops.

Sonia Torrez, the owner of the Santa Fe-Chihuahua Express, says the narcoguerra has actually helped her travel business, since many people bound for Chihuahua are too afraid to take their cars.

Perversely, Sonia’s transport business is booming.

“People no longer want to drive their cars; they’d rather go in one of our vans,” she explains. “They don’t want to take their cars because, down there, [the narcotrafficking organizations] are stealing their cars. The hitmen, all those people—if they see a new truck, they take it away at gunpoint. Or if they see someone driving a good car, they might think he has money, and [they say], ‘Get out.’” She makes the shape of a pistol with her hand.

The vans—well-used, with cracked windshields and missing seat belts—bring to mind Baptist church group outings. Sonia says they haven’t had any such run-ins with the drug gangs—“Gracias a Dios.”

The van leaves Santa Fe at 7:30 am. Its passengers, fueled with gas station coffee and all with seats to themselves, include Nacho, the driver; a woman named Sandra from Cuauhtémoc; Juan and me. The sun is up, turning the plains before us pale yellow and the distant mountains a dusky blue.

Nacho is a fast driver and, at 8:45 am, he parks outside a Mexican market in Albuquerque’s South Valley. The market has become a de facto depot for similar transport companies; next to ours, an identical van unloads people heading south from Colorado.Sonia says the demand is such that, by Thanksgiving, she’ll start offering direct trips all the way from Denver to Chihuahua.

She has competition—three other similar van services operate out of Santa Fe—but so far, she says, they’ve presented no serious threat.

Sonia has been in this business since 2007; the man who started it with trips to Juárez has a legacy “many years old,” she says.

During peak times—Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer vacation and Easter—Sonia sends as many as 12 full vans to Chihuahua each week. Mostly, she says, her passengers are older people visiting relatives.

At the market, three more customers board: Eva Vázquez, a garrulous, gold-toothed Chihuahuan who now lives in Albuquerque; her solemn goddaughter, Salma; and a barrel-chested, white-mustached man dressed entirely in denim. In my notes, I dub him the Taciturn Cowboy for his immense cowboy hat, ostrich boots and general reticence.

Once the new cargo is loaded, Nacho slams the doors shut and takes off back toward the highway. Eleven hours to go.

For the first 10 minutes, nobody talks. Then we discuss the cold. Then Juan announces, “She’s a reporter!” and jerks a thumb in my direction.

“Dios le bendiga!” Eva says with a gasp. “Be careful! It’s very bad right now, much worse than ever.”

Eva travels to Ciudad Juárez, where she and her husband own land, “every time there’s a holiday.” And though Juárez is a major focal point of Mexico’s drug-related violence (according to the US State Department, since 2006, three times as many people have been murdered there than in any other Mexican city) Eva says her experiences have been peaceful.

“The war is between [the drug traffickers],” she explains. “It’s not about us; it’s about them. If you happen to be in the same place as a narcotraficante, then you’re in trouble—but we’ve never seen anything.”

This, it turns out, is only half the story: Eva later explains that her life in Juárez is a voluntarily limited one.

“I don’t go out at night,” she says. “I buy all my food and cook at home to avoid going to the stores.” 

Even the Albuquerque health clinic where Eva works as a housekeeper, she says, has officially banned its employees from traveling to Ciudad Juárez. US State Department travel advisories urge visitors to visit “only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours.”

As we hurtle through the pastoral South Valley, backyards full of goats and chickens, little plots of corn and signs offering hay and “hen scratch” line the highway. In the back seat, Eva—who is dressed in a gray Eeyore hoodie and pink fleece pants—and Salma, an alert sixth-grader with raven hair and the ability to switch seamlessly between Spanish and English, have spread a blanket over themselves.

Eva returns to the subject of Mexico’s drug violence.

“The problem,” she says, “is that [Mexican President Felipe] Calderón is [helping] the biggest narcotraficante there is”—she looks around cautiously and lowers her voice—“El Chapo Guzmán.”

Though Eva at first asks that her name not be used in connection with that of Mexican kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzmán Loera, she later relents. 

“Everyone knows it, but no one will say it,” she says. “They put him on that list, the list of criminals—what is it called?”

“The most-wanted list?”

“Yes! That one. They put him on the most-wanted list, and they say they’re hunting him. But you’ll see him at a café, surrounded by police!” She shakes her head. “How could they be hunting him? He’s protected—and he’s one of the richest men in the world.”

In March 2009, Time reported that Guzmán—among Mexico’s most wanted since his 2001 escape from federal prison—has an estimated net worth of approximately $1 billion, placing him at No. 701 on that year’s Forbes list of billionaires, “between a Swiss oil tycoon and an American heir to the Campbell Soup fortune.”

Eva’s is a popular theory for why, despite the time and energy the Calderón administration has invested in dismantling organized crime, the situation only seems to deteriorate.

This August, the Associated Press reported that drug-related violence had killed 28,000 people since Calderón began his crackdown in 2006. 

“When we elected Calderón, immediately it got worse,” Eva says. From the front seat, Juan nods in agreement. “They say they’re trying to clean it up,” she continues. “What they’re trying to do is eliminate the other groups so that El Chapo Guzmán is the only drug trafficker.”

As for Calderón, she says, “If he turned his back on the narcotraficantes, they’d shoot him, too. They’d shoot the president! They don’t care.”

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