The Chihuahua Express

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

At 6:40 am on a Saturday in November, the sun lingers below the mountains, and the temperature in Santa Fe lingers below freezing. Outside Tequila's, the south side liquor store plopped on a graveled lot near Santa Fe Place, four people in hooded sweatshirts and ski hats stamp their feet to ward off the cold.

"Didn't used to be like this," the biggest man says, in Spanish, to one of the others. "Used to be you could just go."

The other man nods, a tiny movement abbreviated by the cold. His breath hangs, cloud-like, in the air.

We are waiting for la camioneta, the 15-passenger van that makes the 12-hour trip from Santa Fe to Chihuahua, Mexico, four days a week. At this hour, the streets are deserted. One of the men, who later introduces himself as Juan, goes to sit in the passenger seat of a pickup truck.

A few minutes before the van's scheduled departure at 7 am, Sonia Torrez, the owner of the Santa Fe-Chihuahua Express, arrives. Inside Tequila's, she writes each passenger's name in a large registry book, collects fares ($75 each way) and motions passengers toward the van parked outside.

Juan stows several packages in the van's small, white trailer decorated with a single bumper sticker that reads, "I trust Obama."

The Santa Fe-Chihuahua Express at its pickup location outside Tequila’s.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

Inside, he settles himself against a worn pillow and pulls a thick, blue ski hat down over his forehead. He wears a brown canvas jacket, blue jeans that look brand-new, and freshly polished cowboy boots. Half of his front teeth are missing, but he smiles easily.

Juan is from Delicias, a Mexican city southwest of Chihuahua, the capitol of the state that includes Ciudad Juárez. He was in Santa Fe on a three-week trip to visit some cousins, he says, and he liked it, except for the cold.

As with most conversations related to US-Mexico travel, this one turns quickly to the narcoguerra, the drug-related violence that has plagued Mexico for more than a decade. In some respects, it is now a full-blown war.

"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." By late morning, the land outside the van's windows becomes desolate and barren. Despite the growing heat, Juan has fallen asleep in his heavy coat and ski hat.

The conversation with Eva shifts to American politics. She shakes her head unhappily.

"On Veteran's Day, we had a party, and everyone was celebrating," Eva says. "They were all happy Susana Martinez won. I wasn't. I was hoping [Democratic candidate Diane] Denish would win, even though the polls said Martinez was ahead."

Eva Vázquez and her goddaughter, Salma, take frequent trips to Ciudad Juárez, the violence-plagued city across the border from El Paso.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

In Eva's opinion, many Mexican immigrants voted for Martinez "just because of her name and because she speaks Spanish. They didn't actually analyze what she said—that she wants to take away our driver's licenses and stop immigration."

On the national scale, she says, "The Hispanos voted Republican because Obama said he would do immigration reform and he didn't."

When asked if she's noticed a decline in new immigration to the South Valley, given the US economy, Eva shakes her head. Mexico's economy, she says, is still worse.

"The majority of us come here to work," she says. "The economy is bad in Mexico, and there's so much corruption. It's good to have your job, your house—that's why we risk it and come here."

The economy may not be growing, she adds, but the risk is.

"Everything [has changed] because of the narcotraficantes," she says. "People who want to cross, they kidnap, rob and kill."

A few long, scrubland-lined miles after Hatch and then Las Cruces, we pull into a parking lot on the US side of the Santa Teresa border crossing.

Santa Teresa's motto, on the New Mexico Border Authority's website, is "Modern! Convenient! Fast!" Nacho says it's much safer than coming in through El Paso to Ciudad Juárez. A hot wind whips sand devils up from the desert as we pile out of the van. Nacho unloads the trailer while Eva explains that we'll have to switch to a different van for the Mexico portion of the trip.

Within minutes, Juanito, who will take us the rest of the way through Mexico to Chihuahua, appears in an almost identical van. He explains that he's a few minutes late because one of his passengers had to solicit a visa for entry to the US. He launches into a story about people in his van some time ago who tried to cross the border without papers and were arrested.

"I was ready to leave them, to say I'd never seen them before and they weren't with me," he tells us. Behind me, Eva gasps.

"What happens to people who don't have their papers?" she asks worriedly.

"They deport you," Juanito says.

"I don't have my papers," she whispers as a group of American customs officials flag down the van. She has a driver's license and Social Security card, she explains, but not her proof of residency. In general, no one seems quite sure of what the Customs and Border Protection officers will want.

Juanito rolls down the window.

"Buenas tardes," a blond, blue-eyed officer says in flat, unpracticed Spanish.

"Buenas tardes," Juanito responds.

"Papers," the officer says.

With a rustle, the documents make their way to the front of the van. Eva sighs with relief when they wave us on.

At the next customs stop, Juanito holds out an open palm—another step in this border-crossing dance—and, wordlessly, the passengers who are bringing back things to sell (clothing, coffee, sugar, utensils) pass forward $5 and $10 bills.

The next obstacle in the course is a roadblock manned by Mexican federal police. There are rifles everywhere and, to one side, a sniper crouches behind a makeshift screen of tumbleweeds.

Two soldiers approach Juanito. They look like teenagers, and they wear their helmets strapped on tightly, with the chin straps cinched just below their mouths. After a few cursory questions, they motion us forward. On the Mexican side of the border, there's a seemingly endless line of cars waiting to cross into the US. People sit on the hoods of their cars, playing cards and talking. The odd vendor hawks gum, candy or peanuts. Somewhere near the end of the line, a brass band plays.

"Sometimes the lines stop for hours," Sonia says. "It happens when they find drugs. They have to detain the person and, sometimes, they just close the border."

Last year, approximately 2.5 million people entered the US through New Mexico's two main ports of entry, Santa Teresa and Columbus. David Zapp, the supervisory Border Patrol agent for the area that includes El Paso, Texas, and all of New Mexico, says apprehensions of illegal immigrants have decreased since the Border Patrol more than doubled the number of agents it has in the area—from 1,278 to approximately 2,700—over the past five years.

"That increase of manpower, infrastructure and technology has frustrated the smugglers, which has increased the amount of border violence we've seen," Zapp says.

The Border Patrol has been working with Mexican authorities to create better security, Zapp says, but that hasn't stopped the violence. And the murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz this March has stoked fears of its spreading to the US.

Just past a final army stop, Eva gathers her things and touches my shoulder.

"Be careful, and don't tell anyone you're a reporter," she says gravely. "Don't be scared because, if they see that you're scared, they will mess with you. Just be careful."

But, she repeats, she's never witnessed any violence. She taps Taciturn Cowboy on the shoulder.

"Have you?" she asks.

"Oh, yes," he says. "Many shootings." 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.

The Taciturn Cowboy (Francisco Torrez) lives in Ciudad Juárez, where there are three times as many murders as any other Mexican city. He was visiting relatives in Albuquerque for a few weeks.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

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." 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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