At an abandoned-looking truck stop beside the highway, Eva and Salma hug me and hop out. Eva’s husband is waiting and, together, they disappear into the belly of Ciudad Juárez.
We speed past slums dotted with mangy dogs and piles of trash, “yonke” (junk) yards and disreputable-looking beer joints. At a gas station on the southern edge of Juárez, we stop for fuel and cash and to drop off Taciturn Cowboy. As quickly as we came to Juárez, we’re gone.
Farther south, the landscape grows prettier—hillier, more verdant and reminiscent of northern New Mexico.
In the middle of the desert, another customs stop appears, and a surly official gives Juanito the third degree about the packages in the back of the van. Juanito is a fixer—a fast talker who deals with these officials twice a day, several times a week. He’s always exceedingly polite and respectful and, generally, it works out—but this particular official is clearly unimpressed. Finally, he lets us go. A sign on the way out reads, “We’re Here to Protect You: No Corras.” It means “don’t speed,” but it could also mean, “don’t run.”
In the four hours to Chihuahua, we sleep, except during a brief stop in the highway town of Villa Ahumada for burritos and cheese.
By the time we reach Chihuahua, the sun is setting. Juanito drops me off first, at a grocery store on a busy road.
“You’ll find a taxi here,” he says. “There aren’t any here now, but they’ll come. See you Monday!”
I wave goodbye and ask the guard stationed in the grocery store to call me a cab. Two appear in a matter of minutes. The driver I choose has never heard of my hotel—which I reserved on the recommendation of an American acquaintance—but tells me to get in.
We take back roads through rough-looking neighborhoods, and we drive for so long in silence that I indulge, for half a second, my irrational fear of taxi drivers who take unsuspecting women into the middle of nowhere and leave them for dead.
Eventually, of course, the hotel appears. I fall asleep by 9 pm to CNN en Español.
In the morning, sunlight pours over Chihuahua’s dun-colored hills. On the flat-screen TV in the hotel room, the narcoguerra is all over the news. Fifteen minutes after I had arrived at my hotel the night before, Mexico’s director of prisons and his son were killed and left on the side of the road—legs on the sidewalk, faces in the gutter—for the newspaper photographers to find. The director had been in office for only two weeks.
Four other people have been killed in Delicias (a local paper uses the words “execute” and “liquidate”). In the neighborhood adjacent to my hotel, residents have cordoned off their own streets in an attempt to prevent the daily burglaries, robberies and shootings. Calderón has admitted on television that narco-trafficking organizations have infiltrated the Mexican government at the highest levels, but he won’t say where. Doctors are toying with the idea of declining to care for gunshot wound victims to avoid unwanted attention.
All of this is reported with laconic matter-of-factness.
Downstairs, a group of conference attendees with name tags enjoys the free continental breakfast—which, here, includes scrambled eggs and refried beans—and ignores the CNN special on Mexico’s drug war.
I spend an hour looking up hostels, since the antiseptic Sleep Inn affords few opportunities for interacting with other guests. The hostels are all closed, their phones disconnected or their proprietors sleepy and unprepared for tourists seeking a place to stay. Pictures of bodies lying in pools of blood and cars on fire flit across the TV screen.
Eventually, I pack my things and take a shuttle downtown to a more central hotel. It’s a good jumping-off point for my self-guided tour of Chihuahua: street food (gorditas, cucumber covered in mysterious spices, tacos, burritos), a $25 teeth cleaning and a couple of free museums.
I spend that night in the hotel bar, soliciting opinions on the narcoguerra from a balding bartender named Leonel Vargas who, before mastering the art of the dry martini, studied criminology and dental surgery.
“Calderón isn’t involved,” he says. “He put a stop to it—or he’s trying to—so the [traffickers] hate him all the more, and they’re putting up a fight. The real problem is that the US keeps wanting drugs.”
Leonel says efforts to legalize drugs in the US have, in his opinion, only made things worse.
“How can we fight the drug war when the US only wants more?” he asks. “That’s where the narcoguerra is made: in the US.”
Calderón himself has said the same. On Oct. 27, he told the BBC that California’s proposal to legalize marijuana was “confusing for our people to see…while we have lost lives and we invest vast resources in the drug war.”
Leonel tells me that he’s visited his family in Texas only once and was unimpressed. The culture was OK, he says—but he saw drugs and violence there, too.
“There’s violence everywhere, in every country,” he says, pouring a cold Bohemia. The last half of an American football game is over; now the strident voices of soccer announcers fill the almost-empty bar.
“I’m afraid to go to the US because the violence is the guys on the frontera—what do you call them?” Leonel says. Suddenly, he remembers: “The Border Patrol.”