Ciudad Juarez: Murder, drugs and football on the Mexican border

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Children play football by the border with the US in Ciudad Juarez

Ciudad Juarez was the murder capital of the world.

Between 2008 and 2011, a wave of brutal violence broke across this Mexican city of about 1.3 million people on the border with the United States.

Thousands were killed as rival drug-trafficking cartels fought their battle for supremacy among the daily lives of ordinary citizens caught up in a spiralling and seemingly senseless bloodshed.

There was death everywhere. Supermarkets, wedding receptions and teenage birthday parties were all settings for shocking massacres.

But these years of horror, outrage and despair coincided with something different: Juarez had its best football team in a generation.

They were called Indios de Ciudad Juarez, and their star player was a home-grown striker who escaped gang life and drug abuse as a teenager.

The team’s success brought the city some respite, and provided a platform for its people to highlight their apparent abandonment to the nation and beyond.

Indios folded in 2012. But football fans from Juarez are still making their voices heard, because there is a new team in town. And the murder rate is rising once more.

The new team is FC Juarez. Their supporters’ group is called El Kartel, but their message is “football and peace”.

If there is one man who embodies that phrase it is Julio Daniel Frias – the star player of the old Indios team.

Eleven years ago came the best night of his football career. Within 12 months his half-brother was shot dead.

“I was involved in drugs from about the age of 14, until the age of about 17 or 18,” he says. “Cocaine, marijuana, pills.

“As a kid I went around in gangs for several years. Growing up in Alta Vista, one of the most troubled neighbourhoods in Juarez, that was part of life.

“But thanks to God I was able to escape, and football played a big part in helping me get out.”

Frias, now 39, still has a big following in Juarez. And in El Paso, the US city of 650,000 that sits on the other side of a reinforced metal wall erected in 2008.

His is a success story from a proud but damaged frontier territory where few are written by the least advantaged.

Frias was a naturally gifted player but only began to dedicate himself seriously to the game at the age of 20. After spells in the Mexican third and fourth divisions, and time at a now defunct team in El Paso in America’s fourth tier, he returned to Juarez, where he would shine with Indios.

At the start of the 2007-8 Mexican second division, they were not among the favourites to contest promotion.

But they won the opening league tournament, which guaranteed them a place in a play-off final that would decide which team would go up.

The first leg was played on 22 May 2008. The cartels’ turf war was raging, and a message went out warning people to stay indoors. Despite that, some 28,000 home fans packed into the Benito Juarez Olympic Stadium and watched Indios beat Leon 1-0.

A week later, Indios travelled 1,500km for the away leg. A 2-2 draw meant a 3-2 aggregate victory. Thousands of fans poured into the streets to greet the players on their return, lining the route from the airport to the cathedral and main city square.

Juarez would have a presence in the Mexican top flight for the first time since 1992, when Cobras – who later went out of business – were relegated. Indios were only formed in 2005.

“I still think about that night,” Frias says. “It was really special. An unforgettable experience. My best in football.

“The reaction was so strong because of our relationship with the fans. The team helped the city, and the city helped the team. It was critical, because it was a time of great fear.

“In Juarez at that time there was no better thing for the people than going to watch Indios play. When we played at home there was never any violence, but it would always return.”

It seemed every life in the city was touched by death in some way, the football team included.

In December 2009, Juarez’s under-17 coach was killed in a mobile phone shop, caught up in a gang shooting. The team’s third-choice goalkeeper fled in mysterious circumstances, apparently after receiving a death threat. One player had his car stolen from him at gunpoint.

Frias’ half-brother was another victim.

“He was shot and killed. It was a gang thing,” Frias says.

“We had grown up in the same neighbourhood, we were in the same gangs together when we were kids, but I moved away to play football and he remained involved.

“It was a terrible blow for all of us – the whole family – because we spent a lot of time together.

“But that is the way things are. In a sense you become used to life in this way. You have to learn how to deal with it and move on.”

Against the odds, Indios survived their first season in the Mexican top flight, and reached the post-season play-off semi-finals in 2009. But the next year they crumbled. A league record 27 games without a win. Relegation.

The club’s owner Francisco Ibarra said his players had been targeted by threats from “bad people”.

“Some of the players are still being extorted now,” he said in 2010. “All the players are affected by it. Crime has kidnapped my city.”

American writer Robert Andrew Powell lived in Juarez at the time. He covered Los Indios and developed a close friendship with Marco Vidal – the player who had his car stolen at gunpoint.

“What the team had to put up with went way above any other team on the planet,” says Powell, who wrote This Love is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez.

“They were trying to figure out the usual things like what formations to play and which players to start, while also dealing with this epic daily violence.

“Living there, you saw how it affected everyone. There was a time when 10 people a day were getting killed and you would be around death all the time. The general feeling in the city was: just give us a winner between the cartels and settle this.

“Vidal, an American-Mexican player who is sort of the main character in my book, left Juarez after they were relegated. He was car-jacked. There was a cop close by and when Vidal went over the cop wasn’t interested because he knew if he chased the car down, he could easily get murdered.”

Like Vidal, Frias also left. He wanted to continue at the highest level and joined Jaguares de Chiapas, a bigger club in Mexico’s top flight, and played in the Copa Libertadores. Perhaps the most prestigious of his football achievements, if not his most cherished.

He returned to Los Indios for what would be their final season in 2011-12 before they folded, blighted by financial problems. He ended his career with an indoor football team across the border – El Paso Coyotes. He now wants to start his own football training school.

“I wasn’t afraid then and I’m not afraid now. I love Juarez, it’s my city,” he says.

“I wasn’t afraid, even though the violence really was intensifying in those years. Some of the gangs were stronger than the police force – they had more guns, and a lot of police were killed. The gangs had more control than the police, and there was a lot of corruption too.

“Many people who had nothing to do with any of it were killed, like our coach. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Those are words you often hear said about Juarez.

Tomas Aguero says them too. He is 23 and works in construction in El Paso. He spends as much of his time and money as he can supporting FC Juarez, the new club founded in 2015.

He has followed them all over the country, and has sometimes been the only away fan. In the Mexican second division, not many supporters tend to travel as far as 2,500km by plane and coach for 90 minutes in grounds that do not have away sections.

Tomas does, and loves it, because he loves his club and loves his home town. It is a passion not without difficulty. Once he was stranded in the middle of the night in the desert after his bus broke down on the way home.

He is a member of El Kartel – the club’s supporters’ group.

“Even though you might see our name as promoting violence, it’s the exact opposite,” he says. “We are promoting peace and football.

“The name is like our way of taking ownership of the wrongs in the community, to make it good. We hold events and go on marches that highlight what is going on here.

“There are the murders and the bodies but, whatever has been happening, match day is when you forget about everything and escape. Your reality is the 90 minutes.

“Football and supporting my team is what gives me happiness, it’s what gives me purpose. It’s a motive to be alive.”

FC Juarez’s average attendance is about 9,000 – up 50% on last year. This season the team are guaranteed at least a place in a promotion play-off. They won the season’s opening league championship – just as Indios did in 2007-08. One of their main rivals – Dorados de Sinaloa – are managed by Argentina legend Diego Maradona.

Juarez’s owners have big ambitions. There are plans to build a new stadium, and there is hope a more secure financial footing will help achieve longer-term success this time.

“The club is going to change the life of the city and its image, nationally and internationally,” says vice-president Alvaro Navarro.

“We are making a huge investment, with several families from the region involved, both from Juarez and from El Paso.

“All our players are very happy here. Living in the border towns, I can tell you it is so interesting. It is a different kind of life, there are different problems but also opportunities. We have the best of two worlds.

“Years ago it was bad but now lots of things have improved. Juarez is a very nice place to live and work.”

That optimism is shared by Mark Lowry, the 33-year-old English manager of Juarez’s sister club El Paso Locomotive. They are about to start their first season – in the USL Championship, one step below the MLS.

“El Paso shares a lot of cultural aspects with Juarez and there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes to bring the two cities even closer together and grow the whole region,” he says.

“El Paso is a beautiful place to live, and in Juarez every time I’ve been there I’ve felt safe. Life is very fluid between the two – some people from El Paso will go in to Juarez to do their grocery shopping, many people from Juarez will come over for their work. It’s just part of everyday life.”

Perhaps there is reason to be optimistic.

Mexico’s new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was sworn in in December, chose to begin his election campaign in Ciudad Juarez and returned in January to outline his government’s plans to boost the local economy.

But Juarez’s strategic location to drug traffickers, plus the demand for their product in the US, leaves it vulnerable to pressures that are hard to control. Pressures that have been hurting the city and its people for many years.

According to Mexico’s Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCPSCJ) there was a 5,681% increase in the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez between 1985 and 2010. The population grew by 60% in that time as people from all over Mexico came to take up jobs in factories producing goods for the US market.

Many young women who moved there for work ending up being killed. Many of the bodies showed signs of sexual abuse and mutilation. Susana Chavez – a female activist who led protests against the unsolved killings – was found strangled and with one hand cut off in Juarez in 2011.

During the worst years of violence, the vast majority of Juarez’s murders went unsolved – as many as 94% in 2010, when 3,042 were registered by the CCPSCJ.

That represented 229.06 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest such figure ever recorded, as Juarez headed the CCPSCJ’s list of the world’s 50 deadliest cities for a third consecutive year.

In 2015 it dropped out of the top 50, after five years of declining murder rates. A balance and order between the warring gangs seemed to have been reached.

But in 2016 it re-entered the list at 37th, with 43.63 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2017, that figure rose to 56.16, leaving it ranked 20th. The US city of St Louis, Missouri, was 13th.

During 2018 there were 96 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in Juarez, according to the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office. The highest figure since 2011.

People in Juarez are talking of a new turf war between more local gangs, as opposed to the previous major conflict that is believed to have involved a cartel from Sinaloa.

On a Sunday evening in mid-January, the four top stories at Juarez’s Diario newspaper were:

  • Two dead bodies found in city’s south west
  • Gunshots reported outside Evolution bar
  • Investigation into woman kidnapped in supermarket
  • Sicarios [hitmen] kill three in motel shooting

“There is another fight for power but this time it seems more internal,” Aguero says.

“For the past three months police have been fighting against a group who even attacked the federal police headquarters in Juarez. They shot it up and the police didn’t even want to come out.

“I am scared, like everyone, but I also feel like this fight is between them, the people who created this. I just take my precautions. If I see something suspicious I prefer to move away.

“Last month a member of our supporters group was killed while he was getting a haircut and they went to shoot up the barbershop.

“He was not involved, or targeted, he was just getting his hair cut.

“In the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Many of FC Juarez’s fans are members of the club’s supporters’ group El Kartel
Ciudad Juarez is just over the border from US city El Paso
The murder of hundreds of women in Juarez since the 1990s has brought international attention to the city
The crime rate is very low in El Paso, where a metal wall has marked the border with Mexico since 2008. Donald Trump’s supporters say this shows why plans to build one spanning the entire 3,145km dividing line with Mexico should be funded
Many of those who live in El Paso say the city’s safety pre-dates the wall’s construction and point to the influence instead of trans-national community work and co-operation
Drivers cross El Paso del Norte bridge between Mexico and the US in Ciudad Juarez
Indios fans watch a home match in March 2010
Forensic workers bury one of 40 unidentified bodies at the San Rafael cemetery in Ciudad Juarez in July 2018

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