The central bus stop in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuaha sits on a filthy and noisy corner. It’s a spot for idlers and passengers, but most of all, dozens of men serving as drivers, vendors, and traffic controllers who spend most of their time yelling. It was there that I began searching for Lety, a certain bus driver who’s the only woman working at this stop. The route travels some of the most dangerous areas in the city.
After waiting for nearly an hour, I saw her pull up in her bus, its interior bearing red curtains, the Virgin of Guadalupe swaying above her head. She looked real tough in her tight pants and ponytail, maybe even a little scary, ferrying her passengers like a champ. I told her that her work struck me as very heroic. She laughed at me and said, “Well, get in then. You want to learn about me or what? We have a long way to go.”
She travels around such places as Lomas de Poleo, which in March of 1996 hosted the discovery of bodies of seven women who had been murdered and sexually tortured. This, along with other incidents of women being assassinated in Lote Bravo, on top of many cases of disappearances, caused a great deal of commotion, launching a series of investigations and demands by human rights organizations and society at large.
Over the years, the number of female homicides in this border city has risen and the government’s response has been, at best, insufficient. In 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights made a historic resolution by condemning the Mexican state as responsible for the case known as “Campo Algodonero” (“Cotton Field”), in which three women were assassinated in Ciudad Juárez. Unfortunately, that only counts for three of more than 450 deaths that were recorded from 1993 to 2009. According to the local newspaper El Diario, between January of 2009 and August of 2011, 609 more cases were recorded, making Ciudad Juárez the highest-ranking city for female homicides in the country. The worst thing about this tragic situation is that it pales in comparison to the 12,000 people, according to the Semanario Zeta’s count, that were assassinated in the state of Chihuaha due to the drug trafficking wars under Felipe Calderon’s government.
Under these circumstances Lety and I began our travels around Ciudad Juárez, a journey set to the songs of Jenny Rivera. Between the passengers who’d climb aboard and a drunkard who didn’t want to get off, angering Lety, we passed through La Frontera Baja, La Sarabia, and other districts. As I observed the lonely trip through the dusty windshield, the impoverished and abandoned scenery passed us by. It was impossible to not think about the dead.
We finished late that day and Lety invited me to her house for dinner and offered me her place to stay for the night. During our travels in her bus and the time I spent at her house, I took photos and listened to the stories that Lety had to tell.
VICE: How did you end up becoming a bus driver?
Lety: There was a period of time here when jobs were scarce and one would go around looking and looking for work. And so one of my brothers-in-law (he’s a driver on the route), told me, “Dive in, I’ll teach you.” Since I had a little baby who was born prematurely—and you see, one is capable of doing anything for their children—I said, “Fine.” And that was it, I trained in two days’ time and they let me work the job.
How were the first few days? How did the male drivers treat you?
They started messing with me, insulting me, calling me a butch dyke. They wanted to drive me away from the job, but no, that wasn’t going to happen. I’m one of those headstrong people who doesn’t quit until I achieve what I want, I find a way to persevere.
How did you earn their respect?
I would just slap them around a bit. One of them started making up gossip about me, so I went and confronted him. I said, “What’s your problem with me? If you have something to say, say it to me.” I had a lot of courage and so I smacked him. And that was the cure; from that point onward they all respected me.
What do you do on your days off?
I rest on the route, but here at home I can’t. When I’m home I spend my time cooking and cleaning.
What are you most fearful of as a female driver?
We’re experiencing a streak where there have been a lot of car accidents, by la Mina. A lot of people go through that area, and that’s a fear of mine. One of the drivers hit a lady and killed her, and now they’re blaming it on all of us.
How have you seen the city change over the last few years?
One time I had to deal with some guys in a car next to us calling out to two female passengers to get off the bus. I thought if I could save them, well…. So I took a risk. I called the police over the radio, because the girls were begging me, crying, saying, “Don’t let them make us get off, please.” With all the disappearances and everything that had been going on, I thought they probably wanted to kidnap them.
You pass through some of the most dangerous districts on your route. What have you seen around those parts?
I’ve seen them take young girls away by force. They put them in their cars, they cover their heads with jackets and bags, and they take them. I’ve seen them kill…One day, by the Santa Cecilia church, I was arriving when some guys pulled up in a car and ended up killing the passenger I dropped off there. He was with another passenger, who tried to run away but he still got shot. I got out of there immediately. When these things happen you have to just get out.
When I encountered a gunfight between officers and hitmen in Las Moras, I didn’t think about my life, I thought about saving the lives of the people I carried in my bus.That day I was returning from the ranch. When I was approaching la Chiripa [a roundabout in Northwest Ciudad Juárez], they told me to pull over to the side of the road because there was a shooting. I said, “OK, I’ll go this way, by the hillside.” And as I drove by the hillside we encountered another gunfight past Las Moras, and the officers started shielding themselves with the bus. They were taking cover; I would accelerate and they ran along with us. You could hear gunshots in every direction.
What do you find most dangerous about Ciudad Juárez?
What scares me is our relationship with the police. Because sometimes you find yourself on the wrong side.
You told me that one time a police officer assaulted you in your house…
One time, we were sleeping. I think they shot a few transit [officials] and started to search the area by the river shore. We were sleeping and the police arrived, kicked down the door, entered the house, and pointed their guns at our heads. They yelled for us to wake up because they were out looking for some hit men. They ravaged the house, stole my daughter’s cell phone, our money, and everything they could put in their bags. They ran off with the little value we possessed.
What’s your opinion of the quality of surveillance in your travels?
I’ve seen so many things that I don’t even know who to trust anymore. For example, I was assaulted by some kids, and another time before that by some officers who supposedly came to protect us. I worked nights, so they said that I was carrying drugs in my bus. I asked them why—I knew I wasn’t carrying anything, obviously. I don’t drink or smoke, I never indulged in any vices. Why would they say something like that? But they said that I carried drugs below, in my bus. Every day I sweep and clean, so you can’t just come with seemingly good intentions and accuse me of carrying drugs.
They said that they couldn’t treat me like a man but that they were going to be frank with me, and that they were looking for money. They took everything I had, my son’s high school registration, my bag, my wallet—they took everything.