“Abecedario de Juarez” documents wounds inflicted on Mexican population by criminals and lawmen during Felipe Calderon’s 2006-2012 war on drugs
EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Words like entambado (body in a drum) and encobijado (corpse in a blanket) have become everyday fare in newspaper headlines in Juarez and other Mexican border cities.
They’re part of drug culture lingo painfully familiar to border residents and the subject of a new book by an American artist and a recently deceased Mexican journalist.
Abecedario de Juarez (Juarez Alphabet): An Illustrated Lexicon is part glossary of terms, part narrative with interviews of survivors and relatives of those who died during Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs 2006-2012.
“There were so many horrible things happening in the city people didn’t have words to describe it. None of it is easy reading (but) it contains stories that need to be told,” said co-author Alice Leora Briggs, a West Texas native and Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow.
Briggs and Mexican photojournalist Julian Cardona took a deep dive into Juarez’s drug war just when murders shot up into the thousands and many residents bolted for the United States to avoid extortion, kidnapping or death.
The violence that always seemed to tarnish an otherwise friendly and hard-working city spiked when Calderon declared war on the drug cartels and – according to multiple human rights defenders – his security forces turned not only against criminals, but the residents as well.
Briggs recalls the environment of fear that ruled the streets a decade ago.
“I was living 30 minutes from the Paso del Norte international bridge, and I would frequently walk over,” the artist said. “Soldiers at the bottom of the bridge would shake down people in front of me, but they would always let me pass. I felt so terrible for the citizens of the city.”
She said she visited the neighborhood of Villas de Salvacar where drug traffickers massacred 16 teenagers and young adults at a birthday party.
“I was heartened that the parents were building a library in an abandoned house for the children they still had,” she said. “My impression overall was this is a city populated by wonderful human beings who endured some horrible years.”
Death of a city, from A to Z.
“S” stands for sicario (hired assassin) and soplón (snitch). It also stands for Sexenio de la Muerte (Six years of death). That’s a popular reference to Calderon’s six-year rule.
“This book is full of pain, but I want people to understand what happens with bad government,” Briggs said. “As in Ukraine, one human being (Vladimir Putin) can have such incredible consequences for an entire population – and it certainly happened in Juarez.”
The drug war claimed the lives of soldiers and narco-traffickers alike, but human rights defenders also fielded thousands of complaints of illegal arrests, warrantless searches in which cops or soldiers pocketed whatever they wanted, and interrogations that included torture and rape.
Cardona interviewed a 21-year-old man who went out partying with three friends in August of 2010 and ran into a Mexican army patrol as he came out of a nightclub on Juarez Avenue. The soldiers put him against a wall, patted him down, found nothing but still shoved him into a truck with other men they had picked up.
El taller/los mecanicos (The shop, the mechanics)
The soldiers took the men to barracks south of the city. Cardona’s subject was beaten, stripped, and shot in testicles and other parts of his body with a stun gun to make him confess illegal activities. The man worked in his uncle’s shop, so he had nothing to tell them.
The torture continued at “The shop” until the army squad known as “The mechanics” decided they had wasted enough time. The man told Cardona he was taken to a federal police building where the officers pulled out bricks of marijuana and balls of crystal meth, put them on a table in front of him and paraded him to the news media as a drug trafficker.
Cardona also narrates the story of a 57-year-old Juarez doctor picked up by kidnappers outside his office. The man told the criminals he didn’t have much money, but they replied that someone in his family must.
And the authors narrate the demise of an auto parts store chain whom a gang targeted for la cuota (a “tax” or extortion). After several stores were shot up and some burned to the ground, the owner pays up until he goes bankrupt. Some of the drive-by shootings allegedly take place as municipal police cars are parked in front, but the officers do nothing.
“A” is for arreglados, which means someone has been bought off. That applies to police officers who allow certain criminals to conduct illegal activities without fear of arrest or for politicians and public opinion leaders to keep their mouths shut. “R” is for rematar (to re-kill or finish the job).
Abecedario de Juarez documents the case of a nurse at a Juarez hospital who helps a surgeon attend to a shooting victim gushing blood from his wounds but still alive.
At this hospital, where a police squad car is parked at the front and security guards control access to the building, a hitman is able to go in, shoot over the surgeon’s shoulder and “re-kill” the victim. No one stopped him from coming in, no one pursued him.
Two artists, one common path
Briggs, whose artwork accentuates the glossary and narratives, said she and Cardona were inadvertently working on the same project until the late crime author Charles Bowden brought them together.
“He suggested we needed each other and collaborate on a single project. We were on different trajectories and those trajectories became intertwined into one volume. We considered different titles, but we decided to use the title of the artwork, a 32-art panel (called) Abecedario,” Briggs said.
She said she and Cardona developed a strong friendship and were often online 15 to 20 hours a week working on the project. His death in September of 2020 still hurts her.
Briggs’ next project is an artwork based on people like Cardona, who “fell” on La frontera (The border).
Abecedaro de Juarez is available from University of Texas Press and Amazon. It includes a foreword by University of Texas at El Paso Cultural Anthropology Professor Howard Campbell.