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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

By 6:30 the next morning, I’m in a cab, speeding past the well-fortified mansions of Avenida Francisco Zarco on my way out of Chihuahua. The mansions fade to smaller buildings, then to tire shops, and then to abandoned storefronts adorned with graffiti and barbed wire.

The taxi stops at a storefront on a roundabout. It’s incredibly windy but, inside, there is a pot of freshly brewed coffee.

Mexico’s narcoguerra, or drug war, is the perennial focus of Mexican newspaper and TV reports. Journalists themselves are not immune to it; during SFR’s trip to Chihuahua, two local reporters left Mexico after receiving death threats.

Before long, Juanito arrives and herds us into the van. After one more stop outside the city, the van is beyond capacity; one man crouches on the floor. We stop again at Villa Ahumada so that a pair of companionable grandmothers can buy several pounds of the famous local cheese and the rest of us can order our fill of burritos. There, I meet Ricardo and Allen Prieto, a father-son duo from Albuquerque. Ricardo says they’ve lived there for nearly 30 years, but they come back to Chihuahua a few times a year to visit relatives. Before long, we reach the first customs stop, where a sniper waits at an intersection under a dusty, blue Pepsi tent, surrounded by stacks of old car tires.

The inspection is routine but, as we draw closer to the border, there’s a glint of metal. The line of cars is not as long as Saturday’s, but it still could take hours.

“It’s the drug harvest; that’s why it’s so slow,” someone murmurs.

Without warning, Juanito jerks the van’s wheel to the right and, suddenly, we’re driving through the desert. 

“I’m not going to cross; I’m just going to get you guys closer so you can walk,” he explains, deftly maneuvering the van over sand and gravel. There’s a collective groan. A soldier in fatigues stops us.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“I’m just going to drop them off at the border,” Juanito says.

“You’re not crossing?”

“No, I’m just dropping them off.”

“And, excuse me, but why did you get out of line?” the soldier asks. The van is idling at a crazy angle, with two wheels on asphalt and two on sand.

“It was taking too long, and since I’m not crossing…” Juanito trails off.

“OK,” the soldier says. Shrugging, he waves us through.

A few feet from the black metal fence that delineates the division between countries, Juanito stops the van. We pile out and lug our baggage into an airy, modern office, where a friendly border guard greets everyone in Spanish.

“Can we just walk right through?” a woman asks.

“Sure, but I’ll detain you!” the guard jokes. Everyone seems to think it’s funny.

When he checks my passport, the guard doesn’t seem to care that I never bought the required tourist permit or even had it stamped.

“Where were you?” he asks.

“Chihuahua,” I say.

“You have family there?”

“Um, no.”

“Why’d you go?”


“To Chihuahua?”


He raises his eyebrows. “Brave girl,” he says.

On the other side, Juanito—who crossed after all—bids us goodbye, and we transfer into the US-side van and settle in for another five-hour tour. As we merge onto Pete V Domenici Memorial Highway (“the newest borderland multi-lane transportation link,” according to the state’s Border Authority), someone passes me a copy of the Chihuahuan newspaper Juanito bought for us to share.

The news that day is as grim as ever: In Juárez, another three people have been executed. Two journalists, after receiving death threats, have left the country. In Hidalgo de Parral, a city in southern Chihuahua, the doctors’ fears came true: A suspected drug trafficker had followed his intended victim into a medical clinic to “re-kill” him and ended up shooting patients. Most striking is a report that the past two years represent both an unprecedented increase in drug violence and a 19 percent decline in investigations by the Mexican attorney general.

“There are more deaths than investigations,” the article—published without a byline—states simply.

Somewhere north of Las Cruces, we pull over to use the bathrooms at a gas station staffed by non-Spanish-speaking attendants. The grandmothers, linking arms, stand in the center of the convenience store, looking lost.

“They don’t have bathrooms,” one of them says in disappointment.

Ricardo points to a sign that reads, “Rest Room.”

“Ah!” they say. “Gracias!”

The sun sets and, by the time we reach Santa Fe, it is dark and freezing again. We say our goodbyes, and the grandmothers urge me to stay with them the next time I come to Chihuahua. 

The next morning, I check the US papers. News of the narcoguerra is nowhere to be found.  SFR

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