Four years ago, on the night of June 25, 2010, a group of my friends were murdered. The night of their killings, they had invited me to go out with them, but I made other plans and stayed in.
I was working as a correspondent at the EFE news agency at the time. That night, I was called in to cover the story without realizing at first the victims were my friends.
“I am being told that five young people were just murdered in a bar in your city,” the editor said, who was calling from Mexico City.
It happened at around 10 PM at a bar near my house. The local government in Ciudad Juarez had installed patrol cars, plainclothes officers and surveillance cameras, and called the area of nightclubs and bars, Corredor Seguro Gómez Morín — it was therefore officially a “safe corridor.”
But I found out that these efforts weren’t worth shit. I learned that no one was safe, anywhere, in Ciudad Juarez.
I drove to the place, a bar named La Habana. It was fenced off with yellow police-tape, so I couldn’t get very close. From there, I phoned Arturo Sandoval, then-spokesperson for the district attorney, to confirm the attack and to request the details.
I ran into a photographer who also worked for my agency where I worked and he showed me a few images.
A young man was lying face-up, with bullet holes in his face and right shoulder. A woman’s body lay before him, in fetal position, with a cell phone in her hand. Another, also lifeless, held the head of a young dead man. Yet another was visible, but he had fallen over sideways and I couldn’t see where he had been hit.
As Sandoval confirmed the attack and the victims’ ages over the phone, I saw a young man nearby being restrained by the police as he cried out, “That is my brother!” The young man screaming on the floor was a waiter at the bar, and also one of my friends.
'They have killed each other off, and those that haven’t have fled.'
That’s when it hit me. The victims in this attack were people I knew, the same ones who had invited me to go out to a bar. My friends were between the ages of 23 and 25 at the time, and we all knew each other since middle school. I could have been one of them that night, lying there dead.
After all three owners of the bar were murdered in a subsequent attack a few days later, as if someone had ordered them terminated, La Habana closed for good. After that, the bar-and-club area in the “safe corridor” also died. Downtown Ciudad Juarez — full of decadent bars from the 1950s — was shut down.
Bars, nightclubs, and practically every other business imaginable were subject to extortion payments from the cartel-linked gangs of Ciudad Juarez. If you didn’t pay, or if you someone else arrived and also asked for “protection” money, you would end up kidnapped or killed.
The chaos all began in late 2007, when a rumor started to spread that the Sinaloa Cartel was showing up in town, intent on “taking back” “the plaza” — the term narcos use to describe a territory or major point on a smuggling route to the US — from the Juarez Cartel.
The final tally that year was around 300 homicides, which was about the average for the previous years. But in 2008, the index increased steadily and swiftly: more than 1,500 murders were reported, according to the district attorney's office.
Mexico’s restaurant industry chamber announced that at the very worst period of violence in Ciudad Juarez, from 2009 to 2011, at least 50 percent of the restaurants and 18 percent of the bars in the city closed up shop.
In total, about 4,000 restaurants and 300 bars stopped operating. In 2009, the district attorney recorded 2,656 murders in Ciudad Juarez, another huge increase. By then, more and more businesses began closing their doors.
Around 300,000 people fled from Ciudad Juarez in the same period, the majority resettling in El Paso, Texas, or to cities in safer areas of Mexico. In 2010, Ciudad Juarez earned the worldwide title of “World’s Most Violent City,” as the homicide count reached more than 3,100.
I’ve covered the worst of the drug war in Ciudad Juarez, my hometown, where more than 10,000 died in the violence overall. But more than any other homicide scene I witnessed, the death of my buddies scarred me — as a Juarense, and as a journalist.
A war was occurring in my city, in which everyone ran the risk of becoming a casualty. My friends’ case, like thousands of others in Juarez, remains unsolved to this day.
Four years later, the situation at least feels like it is improving. Homicides have dropped overall and people are returning to the streets at night. This does not mean that we are not alert.
We are aware of the fact that this relative peace might be fleeting. In the last few weeks, a sudden increase in homicides has highlighted our fears that the war may return.
In May, 52 murders were reported, making it the bloodiest month of this year so far, overtaking March, which held the spot with 40 homicides, according to data provided by the Chihuahua district attorney.
War Is Over, If They Want It
The war ended. No one knows for sure when or why, but some say that it happened in 2012, when security agencies and analysts from the US and Mexico began to publish reports confirming rumors that the Sinaloa Cartel had “hijacked the plaza” from Juarez Cartel, with pure violence and bloodshed.
Others say that it happened last year, when the streets — which at the time looked like a ghost town — became newly populated.
The clubs and bars reopened, the businesspeople who had exiled themselves to El Paso began to return with their things, and with their capital. And the gringos started to come again, to buy souvenirs in downtown Ciudad Juarez.
While the number of murders has decreased, local prisons have become overpopulated with alleged hit men and kidnappers, according to indicators by Ciudad Juarez’s Security Round Table, a civilian organization that measures the city’s security situation month by month, using data from press reports, and local and federal authorities.
The ombudsman of the Human Rights Commission in Ciudad Juarez, Gustavo Rosa Hickerson, attributed this decrease to the partial extinction of combating forces. “They have killed each other off, and those that haven’t have fled,” Hickerson said.
Some said that the fight’s finish came with the arrival of the controversial former military officer and former Tijuana police chief, Julián Leyzaola, a man with a reputation for gaining control of cities with torture and human rights abuses as his primary tools of justice.
Whatever the reason, in 2012, there were only 751 registered homicides in Ciudad Juarez.
Demetrio Sotomayor, the president of northern Mexico’s Chamber of Commerce, told VICE News that 90 percent of the more than 300,000 people who had initially fled, had now returned, among them, businesspeople who returned to the city to rebuild their businesses and lives.
Adrián Modesto, a chef who had escaped the violence in 2010 and moved to El Paso returned to Ciudad Juarez last year. Modesto said he was sick of living away from his hometown, and now that things had improved, he decided to return and support the local economy.
"I went (to live) in El Paso for security reasons, there I learned how to run a place and I was just waiting for things to get better in Juarez, because I knew eventually it had to happen, and I'm glad I did come back to my hometown," Modesto said.
The figures reported by the Chihuahua state district attorney show that this crime has decreased at an equal rate: 90 percent of the businesses that suffered from extortion are now operating without that threat.
To corroborate this, the same office told me that in the last three years, 600 members of 212 known extortion rings in the city have been jailed; 31 of them have received life sentences for related kidnapping charges.
Ciudad Juarez’s Security Round Table acknowledged the progress made in the fight against crime, but believes that citizens are still not safe.
“We have had positive results, to such a degree that in the U.S. we are seen as an example of success in the case of the fight against extortion, but it’s also true that there are still merchants who are paying the delinquents,” said one of the members of the citizens’ group, who asked me to not reveal his name.
The Roundtable also reported 485 homicides in 2013 — still more than 2007 levels.
The “safe corridor” — the area full of bars and nightclubs — has seen an intense resurgence nonetheless. Since then, around 50 new establishments have opened up in this area alone.
The restaurants and multinational franchises are open late, and almost every day of the week, the streets bustle with people. So far in 2014, the authorities have reported just over 215 homicides in Ciudad Juarez.
The Calm Before the Storm
The “rebirth” of Ciudad Juarez might just be a temporary phenomenon. Some believe that before the year is up, the war will return. Some believe has it’s already here, since the murder of a well-known lawyer last May.
On May 25, two armed men entered the office of Salvador Urbina, the charismatic ex-president of the local bar association in Ciudad Juarez, as well as the lawyer for the Ciudad Juarez Journalists Association. Urbina was having a meeting with César Cordero, a municipal judge, when they were both gunned down.
Chihuahua authorities made two arrests in connection with the case after circulating the surveillance footage from Urbina’s office, which shows his killers’ arrival and shows the armed men entering his rear office.
According to the reports from the public hearing against one of the alleged hitmen, the order to assassinate Urbina came from within the state prison in Ciudad Juarez.
The main investigative leads point toward the Artistas Asesinos (Assassination Artists) — a gang that serves under the Sinaloa Cartel, targeting the lawyer in retaliation for not delivering on promises made when Urbina took on one of the AA members’ case, according to statements made by the Chihuahua DA, Jorge González Nicolás, during a press conference.
In other words, a man inside the Juarez prison was displeased with Urbina for not winning his release.
The day after the double homicide, I spoke to an informant, who has been close to the drug cartels in Ciudad Juarez. He confirmed that the war had begun again and that — after Urbina and Cordero — the next victims in line would be the police officers, investigative agents and people “who are involved in this.” That is how he put it.
“The information that I have is that the Juarez Cartel is returning to take control again, because the Sinaloa Cartel is weak, they are fucked. I honestly don’t know about what happened to the lawyer, but it is part of the rearrangement process. They are gasping and drowning,” the informant said in El Paso. The informant also said a faction of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and the Zetas is supporting the Juarez Cartel.
Scott Stewart, vice president of Stratfor — a US-based intelligence and analysis firm — said he agreed with the assessment, in an interview with VICE News. “The border corridor of drugs between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas is returning to the hands of the Juarez Cartel, after a weakening of their rivals in Mexico,” Stewart said in a phone interview.
His investigations point out that the return of the Juarez Cartel will be a calm one, “very quiet,” Stewart said.
“The cartels have made a pact to keep their leaders under a low profile and not recur to the use of extreme violence, at least not to the levels that were seen in prior years in Ciudad Juarez. Rather, they will keep a low profile, like they do in the United States,” he said.
On June 9, in a neighborhood near Urbina’s office, the residents discovered a trash bin with a dismembered body inside.
The authorities confirmed the find; however, they chose not to reveal details about the homicide. This occurred just a week after nine people were shot to death in one day, four of them in the middle of a busy road.
After the war
In the attack of June 25, 2010, one of my friends lived. He was shot in the leg, but survived by playing dead.
In front of him laid his dead girlfriend, with a cell phone in her right hand. As soon as he left the hospital, he fled the city. We didn’t speak during this period and neither of us attended the funerals of our dead friends. This year, my friend decided to finally return to Ciudad Juarez.
“That is in the past,” he told me last week at a bar in downtown Juarez. “I can’t be paralyzed and stay here all paranoid, because just imagine, that is not really living.”
My friend is living with the symptoms of war, telling stories of our dead friends, while avoiding the details of what he lived through that night. “Everything is just as fucked up as ever, but there is more movement. There are more people in the streets, and more money, but there are still criminals and narcos and all that crap,” he said.
People in restaurants tell their war stories, in hushed tones. They talk about how they watched a man get murdered, how their neighbor was orphaned when his parents were murdered, how the uncle of a friend is a drug mule, about the safe house next to their home, etc.
Dr. Georgina Cárdenas, the director of the Virtual Teaching and Cyber Psychology Faculty of National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), even has a program set up throughout the city for victims of violence, whom she treats using virtual reality.
This therapy, Cardenas explained, is for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is typical of survivors of war. It consists of exposing the patients to virtual images, which create a violent situation on the streets of Ciudad Juarez.
“Currently, 30 percent of the 1.4 million inhabitants of Ciudad Juarez suffer from PTSD as a direct consequence of the wave of violence,” Cardenas said in an interview.
The goal is for the people of Juarez to recover and become the people they once were, before the traumatic event took place, and to eliminate the symptoms, such as hyper-vigilance.
Juan Carlos, a 40-year-old man who witnessed the death of his brother in front of his home in 2009, has been in therapy for almost a year.
He says that this treatment has helped him overcome some of the paranoia related to the trauma that he experienced. He said that he used to have nightmares, and that every time someone spoke of the violence, he would have to excuse himself, out of fear of facing reality.
“Now I won’t say that I am not sad or scared because of what happened to my brother, but I know how to deal with it, I can go somewhere without thinking that at any moment someone is going to kill me,” he said.
The Answers May Be Elsewhere
After my friends were murdered, many versions of the events that took place began to circulate. The Chihuahua DA told me last week what I already knew: the case is still under investigation, four years after the attack.
One thing I am sure about is that a trafficker, or leader of some drug cartel, someone who might be incarcerated in the US, knows what happened that night and why.
I have been to all of the public hearings in court proceedings against members or associates linked to the two cartels that operate in this border region. All these sessions have taken place in the US Court for the Western District of Texas in El Paso, waiting for someone to confess, so that the complete story may finally be known.
Until now, details about my friends’ murders have not been aired in a court in Mexico or the United States. For now, with beer-in-hand, the survivor and I tensely await what lies ahead.
“I don’t even think about it anymore. In any case, I am going to die eventually,” he said, as he finished his drink.
Follow Luis Chaparro on Twitter: @luiskuryaki
All photos by Jorge CVS