© copyright 2012 by Sara Jacobelli
Just finished Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens’s memoirs. One part that stayed with me was Hitch’s excitement about coming to North America when he was twenty-one. “Songs that were loved in England, like Simon and Garfunkel’s lines about “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,” or Judy Collins’s or Bob Dylan’s version of “Lost in the Rain in Juarez,” could now be visualized by me as poems and pictures of real places.” 
Juarez as a real place. Juarez. Juarez. The Killing Fields. Where the blood of thousands, yes thousands, has been shed in brutal drug wars. Between the ruthless narcotrafficantes holding the city hostage, crooked cops and politicians taking bushels of money to look the other way, and psychotics killing young women by the truckload, has there ever been a more violent place? Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Africa, Rwanda? Juarez, where everyone gets murdered, and the mayor moved to El Paso, Texas, too frightened to even live in his own city. Where families are too terrified to go out to dinner to celebrate a birthday, or to let their children play outside. Where anyone who can come up with the money flees town, going anywhere. Deeper into Mexico’s interior. Texas. Arizona. Colorado. California. Anywhere. Anywhere but there.
I’ve only been to Juarez once, in the summer of 1983. It was my first time in Mexico. Although I’ve been to Mexico eight or nine times since then, Juarez; sad violent tragic Juarez, still holds a place in my heart.
I was in my mid twenties on a cross country trip with a guy I only knew a few months. We were moving from New Orleans to San Francisco, bumming around the country on the way. Everything we owned was stuffed into Sammy’s beat up 69 Chevy Impala, called sometimes a beaner wagon, sometimes called a hoopdie. I named the car something, but can’t recall what it was. I was leaving behind my cute little Bourbon Street studio apartment and a bartending job and my French Quarter friends for I-didn’t-know-what. Sammy was rather full of himself, we didn’t have much money. We were going to San Francisco. Everyone says the border towns “are dirty and ruthless and violent” and “aren’t really Mexico.” But I didn’t care. I wanted to see Mexico.
I had only been out of the country once, to Niagara Falls, Canada, where I hitched with my boyfriend Carlos as teenagers. Canada was pretty cool, everything so clean, even the “bad” neighborhoods. Everyone so trusting and friendly, so cute and cuddly, saying, “eh, eh?” We were dazzled by the majestic view of the Falls, which was much more poweful from the Canadian side. Coming back over the border into the U.S., I was terribly embarrassed to have a male customs officer prowl through my T-shirts and undies in my backpack. They found a roach clip in Carlos’s backpack and made him sign an “abandonment form,” which we thought was hysterically funny.
Back to the San Francisco-bound trip with the arrogant guy. We stopped at a cheap motel in El Paso and decided to walk over the border for dinner. This was about nine thirty pm. There was a white-shirted security guard at the motel who tried to talk us out of going. He even said, “Please, please, don’t go to Juarez.” It sounded like a bad line in a bad movie. I was surprised that a motel that cheap would spring for a guard. Although Juarez was not nearly as violent in the eighties as it is now, it still had a reputation as a tough town. That only made me more interested. I’ve always liked sleazy neighborhoods, dive bars, noir movies. Besides, there was nothing in El Paso but a McDonald’s and a laundromat, and they were both closed.
We crossed the border. No one paid any attention to us. It was a weeknight. Not much was happening. I liked walking the streets, it reminded me of New Orleans, the old buildings, the run down neighborhoods. Much poorer than the poorest parts of New Orleans. I bought a juice drink from a street vendor, insisting I had a “cast iron stomach.” (I did. I was twentysomething).
We found an open cantina. While sitting outside, a couple of boys around nine or ten years old, kept watching me. I was eating soft tacos, and every time I raised one to my mouth, they imitated me. They imitated me taking a drink, smoking a cigarette. They mimicked the way I sat, the movements of my hands when I talked. Every time I looked at them they laughed, and I laughed too.
Sammy and I walked the streets looking for an open bar. I was embarassed by how tall, white and American he looked. We spotted red lights and realized that we were, literally, in the Red Light District. We wandered into a bar, which also was a brothel. He headed for the bathroom. I sat at the bar. Half a dozen bored girls in their late teens, early twenties, lounged on couches or played pool. They wore Harley Davidson T-shirts and underpants, and perked up a bit when we walked in. There were no other customers.
A no-nonsense type middle aged woman materialized behind the bar. She leaned forward, conspiratorially, asked in halting English, “Would you like a private show, for just the two of you?” She pointed to the pool playing girls.
“Uh, Uh, no, no. A couple shots tequila. And a couple beers.” She looked disappointed and went to retrieve our drinks. Sammy came out of the bathroom. I told him what happened, and he thought it was really funny. The fact that he found it funny bothered me.
I looked at the girls again. They looked just like the girls who hung around the biker bars I worked in in New Orleans, except those biker chicks would have had their jeans on. The concept of exploiting people’s bodies for sex always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I waved goodbye to the girls as we left. They laughed and rolled their eyes.
As we walked through the night streets, it drizzled slightly. I kept hoping it would really rain. It never did. No matter. I already had the words singing in my head, sometimes by Collins, sometimes by Dylan.
Could you walk through the dark streets of Juarez today and live? Probably not. People are scared to walk around Juarez in the daytime. Hell, they are scared to come out of their houses. They even get fire bombed in their own houses.
I live in New Orleans, where we are fighting our own daily battle against violent crime. Not nearly as bad as Juarez, but when you have a loved one killed, statistics don’t matter. I’ve lost a cherished loved one to the violent streets of New Orleans. I’ve lost several friends and numerous acquaintances. And I’ve known people on the other end, those who committed the violence. There’s nothing worse for a city than to be held hostage by violence.
As for the drug war? It’s a stupid, non winnable war. It’s modern Prohibition. Making drugs illegal just puts more power in the hands of the gangsters. More power and money.
But Juarez. I may never see you again. You were my first Mexican city. I had a good time there. My memories of you are sweet. And silly. And harmless. I only hope that someday, we can all get lost in the rain in Juarez. And not get murdered.
Washington Post Article about Juarez:
New York Times Article about Juarez:
Articles about violent crime in New Orleans:
David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire and Treme, has a new documentary about the failures of the Drug War, “The House I Live In.”
Lyrics to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:
Ciudad Juarez is No Longer the Most Violent City in the World:
- “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Words and music by Bob Dylan. From the album Highway 61 Revisited. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music.
- Both the Bob Dylan version and the Judy Collins version are hauntingly beautiful. Many other singers, including Nina Simone, have made recordings of this song.
- The names Carlos and Sammy are pseudonyms.
Photo Credits: “Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood,” by Wikipedia. Non Free, Could Qualify as Fair Use.
 Hitchens, Christopher. Hitch-22: A Memoir. First Published by Twelve, Hachette Book Group; 2010. 2011. 220. (The song Hitchens is referring to is actually titled, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. “Lost in the Rain in Juarez” is the most memorable line in the song).
August 2013 Update: Check out the powerful new AMC TV series, The Bridge, a compelling crime drama dealing with cops and cases in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. It features Demian Bichir as a streetwise and charming Mexican police detective and Diane Kruger as an American detective with Asperger’s syndrome. The program is well written, crisply acted, and dares to avoid formulaic cop drama stories.