It's 9 am in Anthony, NM. I'm riding shotgun. As we hit the on-ramp for Interstate 10 East, it occurs to me that I have just signed on as an accessory to an international smuggling operation. This is my third trip to Ciudad Juárez with Angie in the past six weeks, but it will be our first trafficking attempt. It's been a summer full of firsts. What's one more?
Angie (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) was born in El Paso and raised on the other side of the river in Juárez. A raven-haired Mexican-American woman with inviting eyes and a warm smile, she is the mother of four and commutes weekly between her job at the Women's Intercultural Center in Anthony and her family home in Juárez. She has been making the commute for 11 years, since her husband was deported and is no longer allowed entry into the US.
"Every time my kids are off from school and I don't work, I am over there," she says matter-of-factly. "I come and go, but my life is there."
By mid-morning, it's already sweltering. Angie reads my mind, cranking the AC as we weave through construction zones, coasting down I-10 on our way to El Paso, where we'll cross the border. Soon, we slip across the state line into Texas. Our contraband jostles about in the backseat.
The payload Angie and I are hauling this morning is noteworthy for its novelty if nothing else; we're smuggling groceries: flank steak, orange soda, Little Debbie cakes. Surprisingly, many of these items are much cheaper in the US. But Mexican customs officers have been confiscating food from commuters like Angie for several weeks now.
"I don't know why," she says. "There is no alert, nothing on any of the government websites."
Angie describes one of her recent crossings, during which she saw an elderly couple detained at the Mexican inspection station and forced to hand over sacks of potatoes and dry goods. "To me, that's just plain corruption," she says. "Not every agent does it, but it affects a lot of people. You work all week and try to take your money and food to Juárez, and it's not fair."
Such are the travails of delivering American groceries to a Mexican dinner table.
I began making regular road trips from Santa Fe to our rendezvous point at the women's center in Anthony in late May. Each time, I arrive bleary-eyed and punchy from the long drive, grateful that Angie shuttles me the few remaining miles across the border. We have been working together to set up a multimedia project between residents of Santa Fe and a couple of families in Ciudad Juárez.
The premise is simple: Connect families and citizens from around the world at their dinner tables using video conferencing technology--Skype, in our case, since its basic service is free.
Until this past winter, this initiative--dubbed The Virtual Dinner Guest Project--was little more than a brainstorm. But then the Arab Spring came into bloom across the Middle East. In what were also called the "Facebook and Twitter revolutions," state-controlled media and brute force proved largely ineffective against the subversive force of these free and widely available internet services. If emerging technologies could be utilized to foment popular revolution, what potential might they have for securing global peace? If peace is not simply the absence of armed conflict, but the presence of justice, how might the global community utilize these technologies to connect and empower itself?
For a global dialectic to be manageable, responsible and illuminating, its organizing principles must be as important as the technologies that enable it. A simple and universal forum is invaluable. Why not promote the convergence of social media with humanity's most common social forum, the dinner table? I began to realize that I would need to incubate this idea a little closer to home, so I turned my focus south of the border.
As a lifelong binational resident, Angie's personal biography makes her uniquely qualified to help facilitate the Ciudad Juárez side of The Virtual Dinner Guest Project. She is my fixer, driver, interpreter and narco-pedia. Angie and her family have agreed to function as the human lens through which the American participants will view the realities of life and death along the US-Mexico border. Angie will be my phenomenological tour guide to the Mexican heart of an essentially American drug war.
"I want to know what the American participants think when they watch the news, when they see the images," she says.
Although she speaks optimistically about the project's potential, she is quick to demand that intellectual integrity and emotional authenticity remain fundamental.
"If you are going to talk about Ciudad Juárez or the violence, you better have some facts or be living it," Angie says. "If you don't have any of that, then don't judge."
While figures on body counts and drug seizures shed some light on the violence in Juárez, the press rarely offers detailed follow-up. Local media outlets are an increasingly unreliable source for accurate reporting in Juárez, and self-censorship has become institutionalized throughout the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Mexico eighth in its index of the least safe countries for journalists. In Juárez, it is not uncommon for journalists who refuse the cartel's bribes to be intimidated and ultimately killed if they persist in reporting the truth.
During my first trip to Juárez in May, Angie and I headed across the border with a backpack full of webcams and spent the afternoon setting up Skype accounts in the homes of her extended family members. While each of the homes was equipped with a basic internet connection, none of the families had ever participated in a video conference call. After a long afternoon, we managed to get the homes outfitted with webcams and Skype accounts. By day's end, we had completed our first practice call between the families.
On my second trip, in early June, Angie reported that the family members had cut back on cell phone calls and were now using Skype as a matter of course. All we needed now was to direct their voices toward Santa Fe. We had set July 8 as the date for our first Virtual Dinner Guest event. The Santa Fe Complex had agreed to donate its space to host the half-dozen participants, along with seating for the general public. The Mexican families would participate from their homes in Juárez.
Though, for Angie, the US-Mexico connection already exists, as much emotionally as it does physically, she perceives a need for stronger relationships.
"I know a lot of people in the US who don't even want to hear about Mexico," she says. "I have family in Mexico who don't care about the US at all."
Together, we are hoping to change that. We are banking on the notion that the path to a nation's heart is through its stomach.
It's late June now--my final trip to Juárez before the Virtual Dinner event--and we're approaching the border. Roughly two miles outside of El Paso, the US-Mexico border fence abuts the shoulder of the interstate. On the other side of the fence, just a few yards away, lie the colonias, small communities that cluster and define the periphery of Juárez. The colonias are economically desperate, even by local standards. Cables strung from power lines, pirating electricity to houses up and down the block, are ubiquitous. Many of the homes lack plumbing or basic amenities.
As we approach the international bridge, I make a mental note of the various signs indicating that firearms cannot be taken across the border.
Guns and money flow south; people and drugs flow north: It's a refrain that has acquired the status of proverb along the US-Mexico border.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, according to a July 7 US Department of Homeland Security press release, "DHS has seized 75 percent more currency, 31 percent more drugs and 64 percent more weapons along the Southwest border as compared to the last 2 1/2 years during the previous administration."
Despite these successes, the number of homicides in Ciudad Juárez almost doubled during that same period, increasing from approximately 1,600 in 2008 to more than 3,000 in 2010. In early 2011, Juárez averaged eight homicides per day.
In total, close to 40,000 Mexicans have died since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared an all-out war on the drug cartels within days of taking office in 2006.
By contrast, El Paso, Texas, just across the border, is one of the four safest big cities in the US, according to a 2010 FBI report.
Once, Juárez and other towns along the US-Mexico border were destinations for cheap dentistry and discount prescriptions. These days, the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels battle for control of the territory surrounding the US ports of entry--the gateways to American noses, veins and lungs.
According to the Mexican Citizen Coalition for Public Security (known by its Spanish initialism, CCSP), Juárez became the "murder capital of the world" in 2009, well ahead of Caracas, Venezuela, and New Orleans, La. Upwards of 20 percent of all narco-related deaths in Mexico have occurred in Juárez alone. Daylight and public spaces provide no refuge, and children rank among both the casualties and the killers. With kidnapping, torture, beheadings and even car bombs as features of the escalating violence, Juárez is the new Baghdad--and it's right next door.
The violence touches everyone. Angie lost a 20-year-old nephew in 2010. His family suspected he was "in the life" after he started coming home with a new car every weekend.
"He started fixing up my aunt's house, buying plasma TVs--even though he had no job," Angie recalls.
One day, she says, he realized that he was being followed. When he parked his car and got out, two people attacked him.
"He received 13 shots to the front and back of the head," she says.
The murder remains unsolved.
Around 11 am, we approach the border crossing. Women in brightly colored ethnic garb panhandle for change at the gates while minstrels in cowboy hats pluck a surreal soundtrack on their weather-beaten guitars. We manage to pass without being flagged aside by Mexican officials. The border agents are preoccupied with emptying the trunks of two nondescript sedans while several sharp-featured, diminutive Mexican soldiers look on, moving stiffly in their helmets and body armor and toting rifles that measure half their height. Bienvenidos a México. We'll be cooking chicken chow mein in an hour.
During my first crossing with Angie, I checked the side mirror constantly, my heart pumping faster with each passing block. But on subsequent trips, I begin to let my guard down. It becomes easier to entertain the delusion that this little van enjoys some sort of elevated diplomatic status: the embassy of the Republic of Mom, sovereign and sacred, perfectly immune.
Yet it's not immunity that keeps Angie safe, but rather a combination of caution and immeasurable luck.
"You always have to be watching your back, the side views when you are driving," she says. "Some people hear one gun shot and they will never come back. In Anthony, we have a lot of [immigrants] who say, 'We love Juárez, but we will never go back.'"
After crossing the border, we meet up with Angie's husband, Antonio, at a corner tienda, and he jumps into the driver's seat. As we bounce along the scarred and dusty streets, Antonio gives the butcher's tour while Angie interprets. Idling at a red light, he points across the intersection. He once saw an execution right here, he says. He learned later that the assassins had followed a prominent local figure from the Juárez airport and, after botching their initial attempt, caught up with their target at this street corner. They sprayed his car with their assault rifles and then sped away.
But Juárez-style violence isn't always that organized. Your killer could just as easily be a 14-year-old with a head full of coke and something to prove.
"Before, the cartels used to respect families," Angie says. "Now, they are hiring a lot of kids--kids who are under the influence, who have never handled a firearm and who just want to be hotshots working for the cartels."
Antonio continues the tour, pointing out local businesses that have been burned down and others where the proprietors have met some grisly or mysterious end. Rows of empty storefronts now linger as monuments to the general social decay.
Just a few weeks earlier, after receiving phone calls threatening arson, Antonio's relatives closed their electronics shop and began selling the equipment out of their home. Theirs is a small family business, one that likely doesn't generate enough revenue to attract the attention of the cartels, so Angie and the family suspect "common criminals," perhaps even family "friends."
Another family member, a local physician named Pedro, was kidnapped a couple of years back in what Angie describes as an "express kidnapping"--a phenomenon common enough to merit its own nomenclature.
"An express kidnapping is when they follow a person, pick them up, take them to a safe house, contact the family and give them 24 hours to come up with the money," Angie explains. "They don't take more than 24 hours."
Pedro, however, was released the same day, after his family paid a ransom to his abductors.
Angie and her family insist that much of the violence visited upon everyday people is perpetrated by common criminals, unaffiliated groups "taking advantage of the situation" brought on by the war between the federal government and the cartels.
"The reason we don't believe it was the cartels that kidnapped [Pedro]," she says, "is that they don't waste their time with common people."
We round the corner to the home of one of the Virtual Dinner families. Antonio takes the groceries inside and begins cleaning the chicken. The house is a simple concrete structure. A single light bulb illuminates the living room. The kids play soccer in the dirt lot out back. Soon Antonio emerges from the kitchen with a massive skillet filled with home-cooked Chinese food.
At this final practice dinner, we test and retest the Internet connection and hardware to be sure things run smoothly the night of the Virtual Dinner with Santa Fe. A computer screen and webcam are positioned at the end of the dining room table. We all crowd together and give the other participants a ring. The video exchange goes well enough. We end the call and get to the business of eating and talking among ourselves.
I'm seated next to Roberto, one of Angie's in-laws. With a shaved head and neatly spaced teeth, he resembles a 30-something Telly Savalas, dressed for comfort in a Lakers jersey and sneakers. Roberto works answering phones for a telecommunications hotline, which pays him extra for his English language skills. He speaks without an accent.
"When I used to get calls from people in the states, they'd say, 'It's so good to talk to an American!'" he says with a chuckle.
He tucks into his plate of chow mein, and we pick up the conversation that we began during my last visit.
Roberto was born in Mexico but spent most of his childhood and young adult life in Dodge City, Kan. After serving in the US Army during the Gulf War in 1991, he was picked up and deported for selling drugs. He snuck back across the border and was arrested again. This time, he was incarcerated for several years in the US. During his time in prison, he applied for a hearing to petition for US citizenship on the grounds that veterans are supposed to be placed on a fast track. He got his hearing date, but could not attend. He has not petitioned since being released from prison and deported for the second time.
I ask Roberto which of the three circumstances he considers to have been the safest: serving in the US military during wartime, selling drugs in Dodge City or living in the "murder capital of the world."
He thinks for a minute, then weighs the pros and cons.
"There is an increased likelihood of something bad happening in a war zone. You never know what can happen selling drugs," he begins. "Americans want to know about the violence here in Juárez? Crime isn't running rampant in the streets down here. I'd have to say that Juárez is probably the safest of the three. I think selling drugs was the most dangerous."
But "safest" doesn't equal "safe." One afternoon, as we drive the last few blocks to his home, he reflects, "Here is when I can breathe again on my way home from work, when I can take a deep breath and say 'I made it home.'"
We end lunch around 2:30 pm and clear the table. Angie and I drop Antonio and the kids off at their home and head back toward the border. I hang clumsily out the window, snapping photos. A municipal cop spots us and pulls us over. He cites us for a seatbelt violation and informs Angie of her options: She can give up her license, give up her plates or "make arrangements to settle the fine right here." Angie opts to hand over her license and take the fine. The ticket is approximately $60.
"We justify the corruption when we pay them off. I never pay the bribes," she says.
"And besides, my license is expiring in a few days anyway. No big deal."
As we drive on toward the US port of entry, her casual reflection gives way to frustration.
"You think that law enforcement is there to protect you," she says. "As you get older, you realize that they are the ones at fault. You realize that they are the ones who are protecting the cartels. You hear about cops being executed; [it's because] they have denied their involvement with the cartels. Local cops benefited from working for them, and now that the drug war is happening, they want to clean up their act," she continues. But often, it's too late.
"The cartels don't forget," she concludes. "If they lend you 100 pesos, you just sold your life to them. If you owe them, they will come for you."
By late afternoon, we are back in the US. In Anthony, Angie and I part ways with a hug.
The two weeks that remain before the July 8 dinner pass quickly. Practice calls are made, and dinner guests confirmed on both sides. At one point, the whole project is placed in peril when one of the Juárez locations falls through. Interpreters and venues are lined up, and a local chef generously volunteers her talents.
Finally, the night of the dinner arrives, and the lights dim as we take our seats. It's burritos in Santa Fe and menudo in Juárez. The audience sits in a horseshoe around the table and looks on as we dial and connect with Angie and her family. I am a nervous wreck. Fifteen minutes into the meal, I find myself sweating in a dark corner at the back of the Santa Fe Complex's massive conference hall. Then I hear something that cuts through the anxiety of the past six weeks like an industrial-grade solvent.
The awkwardness of the audio hiccups and tentative banter soon give way to provocative questions about US attitudes on race and immigration, the Mexican government's ill treatment of Central American immigrants illegally crossing Mexico's southern border, the inevitable speculations about root causes of the violence, even such topics as primary and secondary education in Mexico. One of our Mexican guests makes the evening a trilingual affair, having her mother translate from the interpreter's Spanish into International Sign Language.
Some of the Santa Fe dinner guests volunteer to give up their seats, and a few audience members take the opportunity to join the conversation.
"The event created human-to-human contact and transnational dialogue that you can't really put a price on," Santa Fe dinner guest Jakob Schiller reflects. "It lived up to the billing that people on the ground can overcome the headlines, hype and detachment that we typically have from the news, to make these events real, personal and meaningful."
Angie, for her part, found a connection with one of the Santa Fe dinner guests who also has a foot in both worlds: a Mexican immigrant who now works as a New Mexico state attorney.
"When you have that mentality and don't forget where you come from, then you see things from both perspectives," Angie says. "A lot of times, Mexicans are blamed for the violence in Mexico by members of our own community, the Hispanic community in the US."
In light of such assumptions, she sees the virtual meal as a much-needed opportunity to create deeper connections.
"I loved the project," she says. "It's a chance to be more open--to inform one another, not just about the hot topics like immigration and violence...but for Americans to see real Mexican families."
In Angie's view, the event's only flaw was its brevity.
"We needed more time," she says. "Just when everything was getting hot and interesting, we had to cut off."
Angie and her family have agreed to participate in more Virtual Dinners with Santa Fe, and there are tentative plans to incorporate the project into her work at the Women's Intercultural Center in Anthony, where she coordinates the center's Border Awareness Experience, a multiday tour of institutions, facilities and homes in and around El Paso. Plans are also underway for future Virtual Dinners with Israel-Palestine, Pakistan, Liberia, Columbia and Uganda.
For now, Angie continues to buy her groceries in the US and make weekly trips across the border--a journey of just a few miles that, by a quirk of political geography, places her life at the intersection of two countries, two economies and two cultures. While the national debate concerning Mexico and its citizens is as divisive as ever in the US, the growing Hispanic voting demographic has made long-standing cultural connections a formidable political force. The economic ties between our two countries remain strong, and Americans need look no further than their pantries and dinner tables to see the evidence in the multitude of products that carry the label "Hecho en México." But our illicit economies reflect this trend, too--and border towns such as Ciudad Juárez continue to pay a heavy price.
On the evening of my final journey back to Santa Fe before the dinner, I am driving with the windows down and the radio blasting. The trip back north is wearisome, lonely and long, but as the mile markers measure the growing physical distance between Angie and me, I realize that my next commute will cover a distance no greater than the length of a dinner table--a table that will close the distance between our worlds with some shared conversation and a simple meal.
Though it is only the beginning, it is clear that together we are creating the first of what could be many connecting points between communities across the globe. It has been a summer full of firsts, but I am hoping that our dinner together is the first of many. SFR
Editor's note: Below, watch local filmmaker Eric Maddox' short introduction to the Virtual Dinner Guest Project. Maddox last contributed to SFR in February, when he wrote "A Letter to Sen. Udall Concerning Egypt." You can learn more about the project by visiting the VDG website or Facebook page or by contacting Eric Maddox directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.