The soccer stadium in Ciudad Juárez looks pretty good these days. It's been painted, outside and in. The advertising banners ringing the stadium are new and have been washed clean from a sandstorm that rolled through last night. Cemento Chihuahua, Coca-Cola. The most prominent banner is not really an ad but just a picture of Pope Francis smiling down at the players warming up on the field. An hour before kickoff, taco vendors work their carts in the parking lot, drawing me outside with their sizzle. A truck from one of the national networks aims its satellite dish skyward. Still standing on an adjacent lot is the giant altar where Pope Francis himself held mass, only a couple months ago.
It feels almost rude to think about the severed head. I am thinking about it, though. I distinctly remember the severed head found here at the stadium. It belonged to a federal police officer, a guy murdered and dismembered before his body parts were scattered along the river that separates Juárez from El Paso, Texas. His head, deliberately, for maximum shock value, landed at the stadium. That was not so long ago, 2010. Or maybe it was a very long time ago, because no one here is talking about it, or about any of the other killings that made Juárez the murder capital of the world back then, when I used to live here. What everyone tells me instead is that Juárez is better now.
"Juárez is better now, definitely," says Whiskey, the equipment manager for Los Bravos, the soccer team I've come back to Juárez to root for. "Juárez is much better now," says Miguel Carbajal, a friend of mine and a capo of El Kartel, the Bravos' barra brava supporter group. It's the Bravos that upgraded the stadium. These Bravos, and their spectacularly rapid success on the field, are being presented as the clearest possible proof that Juárez is back, that everything is better now. I can believe it, too. In the few days since I returned to the border, I've seen how much better the city looks. It even feels better, calmer, safer. In the parking lot outside the stadium tonight, I hear the bass drums and trumpet bleats from El Kartel, warming up for the game. I can't wait to watch the Bravos play. Those thoughts about the severed head? I try to push them out of my mind, like everyone else has.
Los Bravos de FC Juárez are one of the most remarkable teams in Mexican soccer history. Launching last July in the Liga de Ascenso, the second division of Mexican soccer, the Bravos took home a title in their first season of play. That trophy put the Bravos halfway toward promotion to Liga MX, Mexico's top level. The win returned Juárez to Mexico's soccer map, which is something I didn't think I'd see for a while. I kind of doubted I'd ever see it again.
I followed Juárez's previous team, Los Indios, when I moved here in 2009. Violence in the city was particularly nasty then. Looking back now, it feels antiseptic to call it "violence," or even to use an adjective like "nasty." It was worse than that. The year I got here, 2,700 people were murdered, out of a population of 1.3 million or so—roughly the size of Philadelphia. The next year, while I was here, there were 3,910 murders, according to officials from the state of Chihuahua. That's more than ten killings a day, obviously, every day after day after day, all year long.
"I never saw anyone get killed," says Eduardo Uribe Vargas, the head of Juárez's parks department. "But I did see bodies in the streets afterwards, when I would drive home from work or out to my ranch in the valley."
I never saw anybody get killed, either. But I, too, saw my share of dead bodies. Three in total on the street outside my apartment. Two at a convenience store near the airport. One in front of my grocery store. Another in the parking lot of my laundromat, that victim the colleague of a friend. A different co-worker of yet another friend was murdered next. Driving to the Rio Grande Mall to get coffee on the last day of the worst year, a friend and I slowly drove past the dead bodies of three women lying in the middle of Avenida Paseo Triunfo de la Republica, a main street. We turned into the mall, sipped our beverages, and by the time we came out the bodies were off the street, traffic flowing normally. As if nothing had happened.
Indios players and coaches navigated the violence like everyone else. A midfielder's car was stolen from him at gunpoint. A goalkeeper fled with his family after a ladron pointed a gun at his head. Someone shot an Indios coach dead in a cellphone store—we don't know who shot him because criminals in Juárez are almost never caught nor punished. When the Indios rose to the top league, in 2008, they were declared a civic vitamin, the one thing in Juárez that worked. But as they tried to play around the violence, they floundered on the field. The club bumbled its way through 27 straight games without a win, a dubious league record. In 2010, the year of the worst violence, the Indios dropped back down to the minors. A year later, the club folded altogether.
"The Indios were hurt by that time, of things going dramatically to hell," says Alejandra de la Vega, the principal owner of the Bravos, the new team. "It was impossible. Juárez was a ghost town then. Juárez is better now."
De la Vega is third-generation Juarense, and a major player on both sides of the border. Her family cornered beer distribution in the city, which made them rich. De la Vega grew richer still when she married a Texas oil billionaire. She lives with him across the river in El Paso, commuting to her family business in Mexico, rolling through Juárez in an armored SUV with a driver who keeps an automatic rifle by his seat. Although she could live anywhere, she stays on the border by choice. "It's not always black and white," she says, "but Juárez is a big part of who I am."
When the violence broke out, de la Vega gathered with colleagues on the Juárez side to brainstorm ways to stop it. They studied Medellin, Colombia, and Palermo, Italy. What had those cities done? Sports, she determined, were a necessary part of the solution. Even though the Indios had failed so spectacularly, she decided her city should try again to field a team.
"For us, football is very powerful because it provides aspirational models," she says. "We had taken surveys in the colonias," or neighborhoods. "Some children said they aspired to become sicarios. It really makes you step back and say we need to provide dreams for the community. If you don't then these kids will grow up to be the ones that kill your kids."
It's remarkable how quickly she got the Bravos up and running. In only six weeks she picked a name, found a stadium, designed sharp new uniforms, and assembled a full roster. At the league draft down in Cancun, she and her coaches asked prospects if they were comfortable living in Juárez. Were they willing to visit schools, hospitals, and to tour Juárez's many factories? The players sound more like social workers, the way she talks about them. Collectively, they're paid more than any other team in the league, which may be a key reason why they played so well. Right from the first game, the Bravos were contenders.
"This is an incredible opportunity for us to try to project the Juárez brand better," de la Vega says. "Bad news travels very fast. Good news not so fast. We want to be known for things other than bad things that happened in a few bad years. We are so many more things."
De la Vega says her team's name, Bravos, was selected in a public vote: "I think we were very democratic in picking the new name. It's the community's team, not mine. It belongs to the people."
She admits, though, that Bravos was her personal preference—"I wanted something fresh"—and that in the popular vote, her chosen name actually came in fourth, behind a rerun of Indios. That's no surprise. Almost every team in the city, from an old baseball team founded by her father to a brand new basketball team to the hurdlers and long jumpers representing the university in track and field, are known as Indios. That's what the people of Juárez wanted, but de la Vega went with Bravos anyway.
She also decided that the new uniforms would be green, with a big red X across the chest, evoking a landmark sculpture that towers over the border. I think the shirts look terrific, but they were met with strong opposition from El Kartel and other fans. This also was not a surprise. The Indios wore red, white, and black. The Indios baseball team still wears red, white, and black. So does that new Indios basketball team. Green is the color of the club Santos, from Torreón, one of Juárez's soccer enemies. And, far more controversially, green is the primary color of the PRI, Mexico's dominant political party.
"Yes, very much so," says Miguel of El Kartel when I ask him if the PRI association is a problem. Miguel and the rest of the barra brava refuse to wear the green kits. They won't wave any green flags during games. They don't want FC Juárez to be seen as PRI's team, or the team of any political party.
De la Vega's brother-in-law, Alvaro Navarro, is a Bravos vice-president. He basically runs the day-to-day operation. The club's temporary offices have been crammed into the space he keeps at a water bottling company he owns. He's also a political operative, active in PRI politics. He's served as Secretary of the Economy for the state of Chihuahua. When I met with him at his water bottling plant, I saw pictures on his office wall of PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto, and also of César Duarte, the PRI governor of Chihuahua. While Alvaro and I were talking, he interrupted me for a moment to take a phone call from Enrique Serrano, until recently Juárez's mayor, a man who stepped down from office to run for governor. Serrano is PRI.
"We really need him to get elected," Álvaro told me after he hung up, apologizing for the interruption. "He will do so much for Juárez."
The election is in July, not only for governor but also for a new mayor in Juárez. Billboards for the candidates blanket the city. Most prominent are the ads of Teto Murguía for mayor. His smiling face leers from what seems like every street sign and lamppost. That's the way it was when I lived here, too: Teto was everywhere, again running for mayor. This time there's even a new statue of Teto outside the soccer stadium, ostensibly honoring the professionals who played soccer in the city. Teto, shiny silver and larger than life, kicks a ball with the tip of his dress shoe. Teto never played professional soccer in Juárez, but whatever. Teto is PRI. He is trying for his third term in office. If he's still on the scene, I wonder, how different can Juárez really be?
A Mexico City newspaper accused Teto of funding his first campaign with money from the Juárez drug cartel. Three months after his first term expired, Teto's handpicked chief of police was caught transporting more than a ton of marijuana into Texas. Teto claimed to have no idea his longtime friend and business partner was a drug trafficker.
Teto's main opponent this election, Armando Cabada, was for years the lead newscaster on Juárez's popular Channel 44. As part of his campaign, Cabada watched a Bravos game at the stadium, standing with El Kartel. He promised the barra brava that if elected, he'll get the team to drop PRI green from their colors. He'll try to get them to change the team name back to Indios, too. Recently, two narco banners were found strung across Juárez streets. Signed by "associates of Farfan," the banners stated, "Cabada, you and your wife 'La China' robbed the cartel. Now we are coming for ours."
In a press conference, Cabada admitted his wife was first married to Joel Farfan Carreno, an associate of the Juárez Cartel now serving a 25-year prison term in the United States. Cabada's wife, he said, divorced Farfan after only six months of marriage, as soon as she learned of his drug trafficking. "I'm not going to be intimidated," Cabada said at his press conference. "I have nothing to hide, and I don't owe anything to the narcos."
There's still murder in Juárez. While the volume of the killing is down—way down—the murders look a lot like the ones I saw while I lived here. They still are rarely investigated by the police. The day before the game, three men were shot near an elementary school; witnesses watched the assailants speed off in a red pickup truck. On the same day, the body of man showing signs of torture was found along the side of the Pan-American Highway. A similar dead body—tortured, side of highway—had been discovered earlier in the week. These deaths are violent and in their way routine. They often seem like cartel hits. Just like before.
Soon after I returned to Juárez, I got a chance to visit with the current mayor, Javier González Mocken. He stepped in when Serrano left to run for governor, and he's only holding the seat until the election. He's PRI, and he talked about the Bravos, mostly. "I'm very happy for the team," he said. "Bravos is a new identity for the city. It's no longer cartels or drugs."
I see all the improvements. The old downtown, El Centro, right across from El Paso, is undergoing a massive remodeling. The main strip of bars features new facades, new streetlights, and even a new street. The transformation isn't yet complete—half the buildings in El Centro still look abandoned, or perhaps bombed out—but many of the empty, crumbling structures have been whitewashed with clean paint, which seems to help. An ambitious tunnel project transformed the square around the Juárez Cathedral into a pedestrian mall. The changes are appealing, mostly. Nice even, if you like grit and imperfection and atmosphere. Which I do.
But I also see ghosts. Everywhere. The night before the game, driving from the stadium to El Centro, I passed a futsal court, an indoor/outdoor hybrid, the playing surface walled in with hockey boards. I recalled a body found right there, on the artificial turf, lying face down below a sign with the city's upbeat slogan of the time, "Juárez Lives!" Cruising past City Hall, I recalled two men shot in a Jeep Wrangler near the Santa Fe Bridge to Texas, an unremarkable murder during the peak. I was with Mike from El Kartel and he suggested we go to Yankee Bar, down Juárez Avenue from the bridge. I flinched, because I once had seen a head wedged between the sidewalk and the front door of that bar, the head still attached to a dead body. But when we stepped inside this time, I found that the Yankee Bar had transformed into a regular old normal sports bar. The televisions showed soccer games. We drank beer. I tried to have a good time.
"Things are better," a friend told me that night. She was sipping a margarita at the Kentucky Club, which claims to have invented that drink. She's from Juárez. She lived here during the worst of it. I told her that it almost feels like nothing bad ever happened in the city, that maybe I've imagined all that death. She nodded her head, to my relief. She understood. Two of her friends were murdered back then, not that long ago. Everyone in Juárez knows someone who was killed. Everyone has to carry that weight.
"We all live with it," she said. "It lives inside all of us."
Kickoff is at 7:30, after the sun falls behind the Sierra Madre foothills. I slip back into the stadium, zipping my jacket up to my neck against a desert night. The Bravos take the field in long sleeves, their green uniforms looking pretty sharp, in my minority opinion. The opponent is Leones Negros, another second division team from Guadalajara. It's a league cup game, which isn't as important as a regular season match. Still, it's being broadcast nationally, Juárez back in the spotlight in a good way. There's a decent crowd, too, especially for a Tuesday night. It helps that there are no bad seats in the small stadium, and that tickets for the game cost less than $5 each, which I so love.
When play starts, it takes me a few minutes to recalibrate from all the European soccer I've been watching on television; Liga de Ascenso isn't exactly La Liga. The Bravos are not playing as well in their second season as they did in their first. "Championshipitis," says a friend of mine who blogs about soccer for the El Paso Times. Juárez won't even make the playoffs, which means they can't win a second-straight title and automatic promotion. Even so, they'll still get to face this season's winner, in a home and home playoff series, to see who rises. Juárez is already halfway there.
I buy a beer. Looking up to the stadium's only private suite, the owner's box, I see Alejandra de la Vega standing there, prominent as she cheers on her team. I walk over to the south end of the stadium, where El Kartel hangs out. I must convince a security guard to let me into their section, as the barra brava has a reputation for violence. I don't think it's deserved. I've never felt threatened around these guys, many of whom I consider friends. One Kartelero immediately passes me a second beer, and then a handful of buttered pumpkin seeds to chew on. I join in the songs, all in Spanish.
"Vamos vamos a Juárez. Your people are here to support you. Visitors or home, we will never let you down."
"We are going to win, Ciudad Juárez. We are going to win."
With all the singing, I have a hard time following the action, which is fine with me. It's not like I know the players, and it's not like the game itself is the main point. "The big thing is we have a team to cheer for again," says Juvie, a Kartelero who used to live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, until he got deported. ("I got in a little trouble up there," he tells me with a sheepish smile.) After ninety minutes, the final score is a tie, 1-1, good enough for Juárez to advance in the tournament. A Bravos striker runs over to the bleachers, stripping off his shirt to toss to El Kartel. His bare skin steams in the cold. His jersey is accepted, even if it is the same green color as a certain political party.
I look over to Alejandra de la Vega in her box. She's waving, and appears happy. I'm happy, too, for sure. I'm hoping the Bravos rise to Liga MX, that Juárez continues to win attention for something other than murder. All that murder is old news anyway, right? Perhaps it never even happened.