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Cover of Juarez book: man climbing over border fence

Juarez 5: Easy to Forget {format} {format} 8:44 Scott Carrier

Numerous murders plague the border town.

Broadcast: Jul 19 2004 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Juarez: City on the Edge Subjects: Hispanic, International, Justice

Profile: Ongoing struggle to solve the numerous murders in Juarez, Mexico

July 19, 2004 from Day to Day

MADELEINE BRAND, host: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Regular listeners to the program know that we have been spending part of the summer in Ciudad Juarez. That's the Mexican border town across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Writer Scott Carrier has been exploring the violent nature of the city that's been called a laboratory for the future of globalization. This is the final report in his series.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

The stories you hear in Juarez are hard to believe, even shocking. But when you leave, they're surprisingly easy to forget. This is a quality the city has. Some cities are known for seafood, some for air pollution; Juarez, it's easy to forget. When you're there, you're just shaking your head in disbelief; when you go home, it's all gone.

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CARRIER: I was there for two weeks, and every day I rode around with Julian Cardona, the photographer. It was tough because Julian is a man who sees everything, and he grew up in Juarez. I was seeing it for the first time. Julian believes the purpose of photojournalism is to show the social effects of power. His photos are like scars, things you carry with you. People will be looking at his photos 200 years from now and they'll have the same scar.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

CARRIER: In his bag in the backseat were two leicas and two lenses worth 16 times as much as his car. For two weeks, the bag was never out of his arm's reach, and yet he never took a picture. That became my job. It was his city and he was showing it to me and the camera was in my head. He was OK with this because there are things his camera can't record, like the things people say.

Ms. EVANGELINA ARCE: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: There was a woman we went to see late at night, Evangelina Arce. We looked for her house for over an hour, driving around the barrio. When we found her, she was outside sweeping her porch. She said she was tired and didn't really want to talk, but Julian said something that made her change her mind. I don't know what it was. I think maybe she just trusted him. She was 55 or 60, small, 4'8", wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. She sat on the couch staring at the floor telling us how her daughter disappeared.

Ms. ARCE: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: Her daughter, Silvia, was last seen outside a bar downtown getting into a car with some federal police, but the local police, she said, didn't investigate. After four years of waiting, she started speaking out in public and in the media. After that, she said, three men attacked her on the street.

Ms. ARCE: (Through Translator) The 30th of April, they hit me when I was downtown. I came out of the offices of the Commission for the Protection of Human Rights and they pushed me and I landed against a wall.

CARRIER: A man driving by yelled at the attackers and they ran away. But after this, Evangelina said, men started sitting outside her house in trucks. She started to get threatening phone calls.

Ms. ARCE: (Through Translator) I don't go out alone. I don't walk alone. I'm fighting for justice, but the government is deaf to our claims. They hear us like we're dogs barking.

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CARRIER: Like Evangelina Arce, Lorenza Benevidas de Magana(ph) also had a member of her family disappear, her brother-in-law, who was a commandante in the state police.

Ms. LORENZA BENEVIDAS de MAGANA: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: One day, he answered his door, got into a car with some men and never came back. That was 10 years ago, and still every day Senora Magana's mother-in-law asks her: `Have you heard anything? What do you think happened to him?'

Ms. MAGANA: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: Senora Magana said she thinks he was killed, but without a body there's no way to be sure. She'd heard some terrible stories about what happens to the bodies.

Ms. MAGANA: (Through Translator) The stories they tell us are quite frightful. They talk to us of crushing machines. They've taken us to the cement factories and where they make cold cuts. They talk of acids or how the bodies are slowly burned in gasoline until there's nothing but ashes. We also hear that their bodies are sandwiched in the walls of mansions downtown. So many ways to tell us that their bodies will never be found. When somebody disappears, it's as if they were swallowed by a black hole or they were taken by UFOs or who knows by whom. They disappear into oblivion.

Mr. SERGIO DANTE ALMARAZ: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: Sergio Dante Almaraz is a high-powered defense attorney in Juarez, a brave man. We were in his office and he started telling us the names of the men who killed his law partner, high-ranking officials in the Chihuahuan state government. He said they were the same men who tortured his clients into confessing to murder.

Mr. ALMARAZ: (Through Translator) When they were brought forward into the courtroom, I saw they had been brutally tortured, terribly tortured. And I asked the judge, I said to the judge, `Listen to me, sir. Put the injuries of these men in the record.' My client had a protruding swollen area where he had been kicked. It was purple and green with dried blood on it. His penis had been burned by electricity.

The other client, the one nicknamed El Foca, had 10 centimeters of his intestines coming out of his anus because of the force of the electricity applied. I asked the judge to put these injuries in the public record. Initially, the judge denied me, saying there was not enough light to see. Can you imagine a courtroom, any courtroom, where there isn't enough light to see?

CARRIER: Almaraz gave us the names of the men responsible, and I asked him if he really wanted us to play these names, and he said...

Mr. ALMARAZ: (Through Translator) I think they must pay. I feel that these crimes they've committed are against humanity, and they must pay.

CARRIER: But I'm not going to play the names. It would be an exercise in futility, and somebody might get killed. An exercise in futility like taking pictures without any film in the camera. As you look, you learn the government publishes fiction, the newspapers lie, people are afraid to speak, official records are not kept or they're lost or there never was an investigation to begin with. I can't confirm anything these people told us. All I can say is it's what they told us.

Also, there is a common believe in Juarez that their system of justice is like a pyramid, where the people on top have impunity to do whatever they like, get away with murder, while the people on the bottom have no rights at all and can just disappear into thin air.

Maybe none of it's true. Maybe these stories are exaggerations or exceptions that play into stereotypes of the corrupt Mexican. There is, after all, violence and corruption in American cities. Even in my neighborhood in Salt Lake City, a 14-year-old girl was abducted from her home. There is a difference, however, between the violence in Juarez and the violence here, and it's that in Juarez, there's no hope the perpetrators will be caught and brought to justice. Charles Bowden spent seven years researching and writing a book about crime in Juarez, and he describes it this way.

Mr. CHARLES BOWDEN (Author): Everything that happens in Mexico goes through three phases. First, there's the thing that happens. Then, secondly, people create fantastic stories explaining what happened. The third phase is always the same: it never happened.

CARRIER: The stories you hear in Juarez are hard to believe, even shocking, but when you leave, they're surprisingly easy to forget. The city has this quality.

Mr. BOWDEN: There's an onion. You keep peeling it to get at the center. And when you get to the center, there is nothing there, nothing at all, and you're left with this disorderly heap of peelings that now denies even the idea that it was once an onion.

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CARRIER: This is Scott Carrier.

BRAND: Scott's reports on Ciudad Juarez, come to us through the independent radio cooperative You can get Scott's other stories in this series and see pictures from his friend, Julian Cardona, at our Web site,

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BRAND: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.