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Cover of Juarez book: man climbing over border fence

Juarez 1: Poverty in the Global Economy {format} {format} 8:44 Scott Carrier

Juarez, Mexico: Part 1 of a 5-part report.

Broadcast: Jun 21 2004 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Juarez: City on the Edge Subjects: Hispanic, International, Justice

Profile: Unsolved murders in Juarez, Mexico

June 21, 2004 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Across the border from El Paso, Texas, is the city of Juarez, Mexico. For a week now, an official investigation has been under way there into how authorities bungled the attempt to solve or at least end a long string of murders in the city. They've been going on for a decades. Most notoriously, the victims are women, but many men have also been killed. And this in a city that one writer has called a laboratory for the future.

Scott Carrier is a magazine writer and radio producer who's spent his life in the West. DAY TO DAY sent him to Juarez for a series of stories about life for the people who live there and the Norteamericanos who visit each day. We're going to run a series of Scott's reports in the coming weeks. This is the first.

SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

From above, it looks like a city in a valley between two dry mountain ranges, a city all alone in the desert. But if you look closely, you can see where a river runs along the bottom of the valley, cutting the city in half. On one side, it's El Paso, Texas; on the other side, it's Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua; two cities, two countries. At two and a half million people, it's the largest border community on the planet.

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CARRIER: You pay 25 cents to walk over the bridge, crossing from the United States into Mexico. You walk fast, no lingering in the gap. It's like the space between tectonic plates. Charles Bowden, who's written two books about the city, calls it an ecotone(ph), a concept he borrowed from ecology, meaning a place where two habitats meet.

Mr. CHARLES BOWDEN: If you get to the border, you have a Third World country we call Mexico, you have the greatest industrial power on Earth we call the United States, and they're rubbing against each other. And the border is violent, it's dirty, it's full of poverty. It's a depressing city, you know, but there's a part of it--you feel alive there. There's no rules as you're accustomed to them. The police no longer protect you; they're the robbers. People have guns, but you don't know who they are. Anything could happen to you and nobody would do anything about it. And not because you're an American, because you're a human. There are no empty moments in Juarez.

CARRIER: Juarez has always been known for vice and violence, but starting in 1993, a new kind of violence came to town. Bodies began to turn up in vacant lots, out in the desert and down by the river: men who'd been tortured before being brutally murdered; women and young girls, 12, 14 years old, who'd been raped and tortured before being brutally murdered. It seemed their bodies were dumped almost as a public statement. Julian Cardona is a photographer who worked for the Juarez daily, El Diario, for most of the 1990s.

Mr. JULIAN CARDONA (Photographer): I have seen the way these people die, extreme violence against their bodies, against their flesh. Extreme violence can be like a man burning for the whole night in a fire made of tires, looking like a Freddy Krueger body, with the body steaming still. Or a head exploded with rounds of AK-47 bullets being dumped in the desert. I have seen that.

CARRIER: The dead men were thought to be, in one way or another, involved with the drug trade. The women and girls, however, were often workers in the maquiladoras, the assembly plants along the border. Sometimes they were prostitutes; always they were poor and powerless. And these murders were not easy to understand. They seem beyond evil, monstrous. Julian began describing some of the dead women he saw, but then he changed his mind.

Mr. CARDONA: I would like to--this part of women be cut, not used.


Mr. CARDONA: I think it's more natural for a man to die, for a man. It's hard to face when children or women die. And I must say I deeply respect the mothers of the victims. They are very strong women. They have showed this big courage for fighting. They were stronger than men, for sure. So it's a matter of respect to the women not describing the way their bodies were found.

CARRIER: Julian and about a half-dozen other news photographers in Juarez were seeing these murder victims because part of their job was to listen to the police scanners and get to the scenes. But their photos weren't being published and the papers weren't reporting the crimes and the police were not investigating. So in 1995, Julian and the other photographers organized a photo exhibit of their work, photos showing the murder victims as well as the social conditions of the city: the maquiladoras, the drug trade, the poverty. According to Julian, they wanted to show the effects that power has on people. They called the exhibit (Spanish spoken), Nothing to See, and very few people came and nothing happened until Charles Bowden saw the exhibit and wrote a story for Harper's Magazine.

It came out in 1996, and was widely denounced as being untrue. But in 1998, Aperture magazine published a book of the photographs, with essays by Bowden, and this is when people started listening. Reports appeared in US newspapers, video documentaries were made, Amnesty International did an investigative report. But at this point, the story changed. It became a story about violence against women. It became a sex murder-mystery. And there were many theories: organ harvesters, sexual predators from the United States, producers of snuff films, the police themselves, drug-addicted Satanists, the sons of the wealthy who did it for sport, even the theory that the girls brought it on themselves by taking jobs and becoming independent and going out at night to party. Many theories, but after 10 years, there's been only one conviction for the crimes and still the killings and disappearances continue. Charles Bowden.

Mr. BOWDEN: People are interested in the dead women of Juarez because it's a way not to look at Juarez. If you say it's young girls, 16 to 18, being killed by a serial killer or rich guys for fun or whatever, then you have a finite problem and you don't have to look at the city. And you can ignore the fact that, well, one to 300 women have vanished, depending on who's counting; 2,800 people have died. You can ignore the fact that 700 men have disappeared in the same period. You can just pretend that really the only problem in Juarez is this bizarre slaughter of young girls, and then you're safe. And you don't have to deal with the fact that this economic idea we had of border factories, etc., is a goddamned disaster, that it's killing people, that no one can live on the wages, that workers leaving American factories spend two hours getting home to a cardboard shack and they're working 44 to 48 hours a week and you wonder why they get violent.

If you have questions about what the global economy will eventuate in, go to Juarez. The global economy--what we call the global economy, no tariff barriers, etc., has been running there since the late '60s. You've got a 40-year record. And what it's produced is one of the most violent cities in the world.

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CARRIER: This is the point it become easy not to think about Juarez, or decide that somehow none of it is true. You pay another 25 cents and walk quickly over the bridge, get up high and look down and it's just a city all alone in the desert. This is Scott Carrier.

CHADWICK: Scott's series on Juarez will run for the next four weeks on Mondays here at DAY TO DAY. He comes to us through the good graces of folks at For more on his series, and on Juarez, you can visit our Web site,

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CHADWICK: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.