As The Border Bled, Juárez Watched The Game It Waited Nine Years For

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JUAREZ, MEXICO — On a scorching hot Sunday afternoon, as you walk through the parking lot of Estadio Olimpico Benito Juárez, you can feel the excitement. Nine long years have passed since the last time Juárez had a team in Mexico’s top soccer league. And now, Los Bravos of FC Juárez, are about to play their first home game.

People dance and smile, drink and eat. Kids and adults kick soccer balls between them. A banda norteño plays a cover of Fuerza Regida’s “Sigo Chambeando”—a song in which the protagonist, after the tragic death of his daughter, begins moving drugs instead of working construction.

Walk among all of this, and it doesn’t seem to matter that Los Bravos have yet to win a game. Or that in their last match, Santos Laguna outplayed them so thoroughly that the 3-0 scoreline didn’t accurately capture the vast distance between the two teams. Coming into this first home game, Juárez had yet to score a goal, and sat dead last in Liga MX’s standings.

As game time approaches, the thumping music moves inside the stadium, where the concrete seats are so hot their touch bursts the novelty balloons that were handed out to fans. Some of those fans come from El Paso. You can see a steady stream of Bravo jerseys walking to the stadium over one of the international bridges that connect Juárez to El Paso. And despite what’s happened here over the past nine years, despite what happened here the day before, there’s hope and excitement in the air.

Juárez hasn’t felt this festive since February 2016, when Pope Francis visited a city rushing to transform itself. Workers scrambled to paint and clean the streets. The city government halted the sale of alcohol. Hardened prisoners rehearsed songs they’d sing for the Pope. In an open field next to the stadium, the Pope held mass. In front of hundreds of thousands, he called forced migration a “human tragedy.”

Walk around Juárez and you can still see signs commemorating that day. They’ve been there for years; on ruteras—city buses—on cars as bumper stickers, or posters on a storefront. They’re reminders of the day when people sang, prayed, cheered, and cried. A few carried crosses with the names of those lost to the violence.

“I think all people feel it is a blessing,” one person said of the Pope’s visit. “All of us think that the city is getting a new start because of his visit. Our family was affected by the violence. They killed four members of our family.”

That open field where the Pope spoke and people carried signs is now a parking lot for the soccer stadium. It’s the same place where, the night before Los Bravos’ first home game, Juárenses gathered to hold a candlelight vigil and mourn the 22 people who had just been murdered in their sister city, El Paso, Texas.

Tension has always defined the United States–Mexico border. The most apt description of that tension comes from Chicana author, poet, and activist Gloria Anzaldúa. An herida abierta, she called it. An open wound where the two countries rub against each other. They irritate one another, and that grating brings blood. “And before a scab forms,” Anzaldúa explains, “It hemorrhages again.”

There’s always something to make sure the grating never ceases: The proposal of a wall to further divide this place that shares a culture; a sudden shift in policy that demonizes a legal act and adds chaos to a place teetering on a delicate balance; a racist coming to power who legitimizes those with the same racist thoughts. Sometimes, and increasingly, those thoughts turn into violent acts.

El Paso is one of the safest large cities in the United States. Not coincidentally, you can see every branch of law enforcement here. There’s an Army base, first established as a way of controlling the border, and now you can’t drive out of the city without passing through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Across the border is Juárez, which is, as most know, one of the world’s most dangerous cities. But not long ago, things felt different here.

At its most violent, Juárez averaged about eight murders per day. A few years after reaching that peak of bloodshed, though, it started to feel like things were changing. In 2015, city officials even started pitching Juárez as a tourist destination. “Juárez is Waiting for You,” the slogan said.

“The purpose of this campaign is to vindicate the city’s image abroad and demonstrate the levels of security and peace that we have reached,” then-mayor Enrique Serrano said. At the core of this campaign was rebranding the city. Part of the plan was bringing tourists back.

During the darkest years of the violence Avenida Benito Juárez—or La Juárez as we call it—became a ghost town. That avenue is the artery connecting downtown Juárez to downtown El Paso; the two cities that were once one, and the place where I’m from.

On the south side of the divide, on La Juárez, bars, cabarets, casinos, and other types of tourist attractions once lined the street. In the 1930s, while the United States had a thirst for liquor, Juárez was the place to get a drink. The city became a Las Vegas deep in the Chihuahuan Desert, attracting the famous and infamous.

Jack Johnson fought here once as an old man. It was here that he took a punch to the gut and quit. Al Capone also came to Juárez once. He wore a silk, pinstriped suit and left a $50 tip back when cars cost $900. Frank Sinatra sang in one of the old downtown buildings. He divorced here, too, as did Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Conversely, John Coltrane came here to marry. Jim Morrison and John Wayne drank in Club Kentucky, a bar that’s almost a century old. And Steve McQueen, dying of cancer, came here to find life. He died during a three-hour operation. Some say the once-strapping leading man had withered away to less than 100 pounds when his search for life ended.

At the height of the violence, La Juárez became a place you avoided once the sun set. A place where even during the day, you walked with your eyes straight ahead and stayed aware of everything around you. In that respect, it wasn’t much different from the rest of Juárez. Once darkness came, in a city where well over a million people lived, the streets felt empty.

During the most violent of years, you’d hear rumors of El Chapo arriving at restaurants. His guards would take everyone’s phones as he’d tell diners not to worry about their tabs. He’d tell them to eat and drink whatever they wanted. Relax, he’d suggest, because no one was leaving before him. These rumors persisted even when El Chapo awaited extradition to the United States while inside a Juárez prison.

But things got better. And as they did, so too did La Juárez. The city improved its infrastructure. It upgraded the street lights, widened sidewalks and roads. It covered the outsides of once mismatched, multi-colored buildings with a shared façade. Museums opened. Colorful murals brought a tinge of life to the drab desert landscape. Violence seemed to have passed.

One theory said the violence slowed because one cartel had established its hold on the city and with that came, if not peace, stability. A common joke said there was no one left to kill. By 2015, there were only 311 murders in the city. Several cities in the United States had more than that. Things felt different, like this wasn’t the same place where 10,000 people had once been murdered over the course of four years. And those were just the confirmed dead. Many others disappeared. Gone, like so many things the desert swallows.

Saturday morning, there was a massacre in El Paso. A white nationalist terrorist entered a store and killed 22 people for no reason other than they existed. One woman, Jordan Anchondo, died protecting her child. Another woman, Elsa Mendoza Márquez, a teacher from Juárez, went into the store while her husband and son waited in the car. The victims were shopping. For back-to-school clothes and supplies, for milk, bread, eggs, and whatever other mundane necessities they needed. None of it mattered to their killer, who was threatened by their mere existence.

Four minutes before noon, a text warned of danger. “Active shooter in Cielo Vista area,” it read. “All El Paso City/County residents are asked to shelter.” Everyone from here knows that place. Most have shopped there. They’ve fought for parking during hot summer days when it feels like you won’t make it across the asphalt lot without roasting alive.

Within a few hours, the highways were empty, as were restaurants and stores. Parking lots usually filled with life looked desolate. Like a ghost town. The absence of life made me dread the list of names that would eventually get released. I worried that I’d recognize at least one.

They say the killer drove upwards of 10 hours to reach his victims, and I assume he took the same path I’ve taken many times—from Dallas to Fort Worth to Abilene to Odessa and then on to El Paso. From I-20 to I-10, from water, grass, and trees into the desert. I know this route because north Texas, where the killer came from, is my other home.

I’ve made that drive so many times I’ve lost count. I know where to stop for gas and which bathrooms are clean. As you drive into that open west Texas land, hours pass between glimpses of even moderate sized cities. During that long, lonely drive it’s impossible not to contemplate your own life, your beliefs, your future. Ten hours alone, and that still wasn’t enough time for him to reconsider killing us.

The first time I took that drive back home, I returned a different person. After almost getting lost along the way, I figured out a few things with the help of some people. And every time I came home after that—taking that same drive—a little part of me had changed for the better. I eventually came back a father to a little girl who has my eyes.

On the day she was born, I began talking to her in Spanish. I told her things no one else knows. My deepest regrets. I told her I felt like a coward for saying these things to someone who can’t understand. I told her I loved her and that I would always protect her. I said all of it in Spanish.

She’s two years old now. She talks mostly in English, but I keep talking to her in Spanish. I sing to her in Spanish. I feel a sense of accomplishment when she sings along. I worry that without that language, she’ll lose something more than the ability to communicate with the side of the family that lives a long drive away from home. Recipes handed down, the stories that get told, the phrases with double meanings, the song lyrics so beautiful they make me glassy eyed—she’ll lose that.

Those are the things that make me who I am, a person from two places, with two cultures living inside him. They are what make me exactly like the people who were targeted in El Paso, those who fled and fell to gunfire because of who they are.

In Juárez, professional fútbol in Mexico’s highest league has only survived for a few years at a time. In the late 1980s and into the early ‘90s, there was Las Cobras. Towards the end, the team was so awful Juárenses called them Las Sobras—The Leftovers.

More recently, Los Indios rose to Mexico’s top division. They reached the playoffs when violence was at its worst. The owner, with some merit, said the team provided a social good. They were a “civic vitamin, the one thing that works in Juárez,” as Robert Andrew Powell wrote in his book about the city and team, This Love is not For Cowards.

The team’s improbable run breathed life into a city that was dying, but the city’s violence was eventually too much for Los Indios to overcome. Players refused to play here, and at one point the team went 29 games without a win. They became the worst team to play in Mexico’s top league. Eventually relegated, they played in an empty stadium where only the most loyal fans watched.

Among those who kept attending were members of the team’s barra—a word that doesn’t have an English equivalent capturing all that it means, but “fan group” comes the closest. Because of Juárez’s geographic isolation, that barranot only watched the team play at home, but routinely traveled no less than 10 hours to see their Indios play away games. At these games, they carried signs. Among them, a large one reading, “Juárez Nunca Juega Solo.” Juárez never plays alone.

Noting their image among the rest of Mexico and the world, they called themselves El Kartel. “It was kind of a reference to crime and cartels, but with a “K”—something different,” Angel Juarez explains. “Making fun of the name itself… making fun of the situation… we’re not the bad guys. We’re not those people killing.”

Angel was one of El Kartel’s early members. He took those long rides on rented buses that often sputtered early into a trip. He was among a group of friends that grew up together. They turned the various fan groups across Juárez and El Paso into something more. Angel was there when they first took up a collection so the group could buy their first bass drum to play at games. He remains one of three or four people who know the precise recipe for smoke bombs. The same recipe that, he thinks, a university professor gave them. Angel’s always been there, and after traveling throughout the country with El Kartel, he can tell you how the rest of Mexico perceives Juárez.

“They only see when you get to a stadium,” Angel says of the opposing fans. “But they don’t see that you’re a doctor. They don’t see that you’re a dentist. They don’t see that this guy works in el otro lado.” Here, el otro lado means El Paso, the other side of the border. Every day, people cross it to work or go to school.

“They see rapists,” Angel continues. “They see drug dealers.”

At some road games, the police stopped El Kartel’s bus. They barred them from staying within city limits. They told them to stay out until it was time for the game. El Kartel was only there a few hours, but long enough to know they were unwelcome.

People see you differently when you’re from Juárez. It wasn’t always that way, but it is now. And if you’re a member of El Kartel, you feel it as soon as you enter an opposing team’s stadium. Police in riot gear escort them as they tell you to stand close to each other. Don’t yell or incite the opposing team’s fans, they say. Wearing their colors, members of El Kartel stand out. Tens of thousands outnumber the few dozen that travel. And as police use their shields and nightsticks to push others out of the way, the hostility only increases. They feel nervous. Beer splashes on their heads and glass bottles break close to where they stand. Men and women of various ages, all members of El Kartel, begin talking. They sometimes yell because it’s the only way others, standing a few feet away, can hear.

“’Ey wey, aqui ya valio verga,’—we’re fucked,’” Angel yells. “Whatever happens, it’s all for one. No mas a defenderse wey.” Just defend yourself. Fighting has always been a part of this. And the illogical passions of sports only make things worse.

And because you are from Juárez, others will call you a rapist, a drug dealer, an addict, and a murderer. They will say you’re an embarrassment to the rest of Mexico. They will yell that you should have stayed in Juárez, in your edge of the world.

The statistics say the murder rate increased, again, soon after Juárez began pitching itself to tourists. The same year they commissioned an artist to paint a mural on a nine-story building on La Juárez to help show how much everything had changed. The mural is of Juan Gabriel, the legendary singer and Juárez’s favorite son. He began his career singing in cantinas along La Juárez. From an orphanage to feeling fame’s bright lights, he traveled far but never forgot his home. “Congratulations to the people who are proud of being who they are,” the mural reads, in Spanish.

2015 was also the year a new soccer team, FC Juárez, formed to replace the Indios, who folded and disappeared. To represent the spirit of the area, the team was named Los Bravos. Their crest includes a wild horse reminiscent of a statue that is one of the first things you see when you enter Juárez from one of the international bridges. It’s of three galloping horses. Monumento a los Indomables—the Monument to the Indomitable—it’s called.

Los Bravos were part of the city’s rebirth. “Juárez is celebrating,” former mayor Enrique Serrano said. “The passion for soccer returns and that revives Juárez.”

But a year after that supposed revival, the murder rate swelled. First, it increased by a couple hundred in one year. The following year, a couple hundred more. Last year, Juárez had around 1,250 murders, enough to get called the 20th most dangerous city in the world. And so, a few years after city officials proudly touted how much had changed, that Juárez no longer ranked among the world’s most dangerous cities, they were right back on that dreaded list.

Unlike years past—back when there was an implication that, outside of deadly bad luck, those who died were part of the problem—this time felt different. The United States Consulate in Juárez warned citizens against traveling downtown, the same place that used to symbolize just how much had changed. Murders were occurring there in broad daylight. The consulate also prohibited United States government employees from visiting downtown without permission. And if that permission came, travel had to include driving in armored vehicles.

Soon, news of murders again filled the front page of El Diario de Juárez, the local newspaper. The only reprieve came from soccer coverage. The day before Mexico defeated Germany in their first match of the 2018 World Cup, there were 14 homicides. On the day after Mexico’s historic victory, their win received more front-page attention than what the newspaper called, “the most violent day of the year.”

Experts say the increased violence in downtown Juárez comes from former cartel allies turning against each other. They want to control the area leading into the United States, whose citizens have an insatiable appetite for Mexico’s drugs. That area includes the bridge connecting Juárez to El Paso, and by extension, Mexico to the United States.

That’s the bridge where, more than a century ago, authorities from the United States deloused Mexicans. They used Zyklon B. In 1938, a scientific journal in Germany praised the United States’ method for dealing with their supposed infestation.

That’s the bridge where, right before you cross north to the United States, you see a large black cross nailed to a pink board. “Ni una mas,” a pink sign says in black letters. Not one more. It’s a reference to the women who have disappeared in Juárez over the past years. A fair number of them worked in maquilas, those foreign-owned industrial plants that rely on cheap labor. The hope was that they’d not only help industrialize northern Mexico but also brings jobs. Maquiladoras were supposed to bring forth progress.

That’s the bridge where, during the late summer of 2016, a hearse carried Juan Gabriel’s lifeless body back home. He passed on the day he was to perform in El Paso. Tens of thousands gathered to cry, dance, and sing. His song, “Amor Eterno”—eternal love—suddenly felt different. It punched you in the throat. People left flowers at Juan Gabriel’s house. They contributed to a collection so mariachis could serenade Juárez’s most beloved son. “Juan Gabriel promised that he was going to stay in Juárez,” one man said. “And he did, although I never thought in this way.”

That’s the bridge where, a few months ago, Border Patrol held migrant families in what a local professor described as a “human dog pound.”

It’s one of the bridges fans cross to see Los Bravos play at home. It’s the same bridge that, after the El Paso massacre, Juárenses, going to the United States feared crossing.

You can’t understand this place without understanding its past. This is where a man planned to assassinate both presidents of Mexico and the United States when the heads of state met in an attempt to settle a territorial dispute. This is the place that inspired Mariano Azuela to write one of the great novels of the Mexican Revolution, which ousted that same Mexican president, Porfirio Diaz, and became a seismic event in which both El Paso and Juárez played a pivotal role. Los de Abajo, or The Underdogs, tells the story of a revolution—once full of promise—that ultimately failed to resurrect Mexico.

You don’t quite realize what this place is until you have distance between yourself and it. Once gone, you understand that living in the shadow of a border wall isn’t normal. You also see how often this place is misunderstood by people who’ve hardly stepped foot here. Those who don’t understand that “fútbol” and “soccer” can be used within the same conversation on either side of the border. Those who loudly worry over what that means. Those who live in fear of what is on the other side of the wall.

Humanity is the first thing that’s lost. Read the statistics, headlines, and name—Juárez—and you have an immediate reaction. You may think there’s nothing but despair here. And while there’s certainly that, there’s also life. People raise loving families that laugh and love. They cheer here. They have hope for this place that is home.

Juárez often gets used as a symbol, of what Mexico is and what the United States isn’t. But if you’re from here, Juárez is like a family member or friend, the one you love despite their problems. You love them because before those problems—some, but not all self-inflicted—you knew who they were.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I, by fluke occurrence, got out. I feel guilty that I left, and in doing so might have abandoned something existential about who I am. Something I can never recover.

Other times I worry that I’m just a tourist now. I go back to search for and find those with whom I lived. I worry because I’ve seen how it ends for most on that path. It’s almost impossible to live here without an intimate understanding that not every story ends well. And yet, other times I talk to them and hear of their small but meaningful changes. They ask for pictures of my daughter. I watch them eat a full meal while they joke. They don’t ask for money.

This is it, I think. Nothing ever comes easy in the desert. But, finally, this is them getting better.

Estadio Olimpico Benito Juárez—home of Los Bravos and Los Indios before them—is just off the banks of the concrete riverbed that is the Rio Grande. That river betrays the Mexican name, Rio Bravo, implying raging waters that fill the physical border. But with rising temperatures the melting snow from Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado—a large part of the river’s source—evaporates before it even gets here.

As Juárez plays Toluca in the third game of the season, members of El Kartelcheer and wave their flags like they did for Los Indios and before that, Las Cobras. Sitting in the southern part of the stadium behind the goal, they’re together like they always have been, even when Juárez’s past teams disappeared and left them to create their own events to attend.

The realistic expectations for this season are to maintain. “Next year,” Angel says, “everything is going to start flowing how it’s supposed to.” It’s that same hope that gives birth to talk of a new stadium. Something that will further attract tourism and transform this region.

Mexican culture has always been fatalistic. “Cuando te toca, te toca,” you often hear. It’s a self-affirmation that no matter what you do, whatever’s meant to come awaits. And thus, at this moment and in this place, it’s possible to forget there were 22 murders in Juárez the previous weekend. Or that a few days before that, in El Paso, a rumor on social media caught fire. It said a serial killer was to blame for the recent death and disappearances of several women on the north side of the border. The police department released a statementsaying no such serial killer exists.

Here and now, you can forget, or ignore, that one publication now ranks Juárez, the perpetual underdog who fights mightily to live, as the world’s fifth most dangerous city. But here and now I also realize some wounds are too fresh to even attempt to forget, let alone ignore. It’s why today, on a hot Sunday afternoon, the food tastes a bit bland and the beer feels a few degrees warmer. It’s why the sun feels that much hotter.

Death surrounds, again. But as always, the borderlands’ duality means there’s another side to that senseless death. It means there are long lines around buildings in El Paso, filled with people ready to give their blood. It means there are instances of people risking their lives to protect others. It means people in Juárez are fighting back tears, or letting them flow, alongside El Paso.

As the summer ends and the season remains young, families and friends laugh and dance together while in matching Bravos shirts and hats. On both sides of the border, fathers and mothers hold the hands of their small children. People laugh and smile, even if those expressions aren’t as innocent for some as they once were. Strangers bond over their love for a team representing their city and home. They unite over what it means to be from here, a place where you can have two homes.

With Los Bravos’ team flag resting at half-mast, there’s a moment of silence before the game begins. “Talavera!” one fan screams at Toluca’s goalkeeper, Alfredo Talavera, the second after that moment of silence ends. “Talavera! Chingas a tu madre!” That same fan who told the goalkeeper to go fuck his mother also held up a shirt that said, “Pray for El Paso.”

On a day like this one, it’s easy to imagine things that feel impossible. I imagine that Juárez and El Paso will be at peace soon. That Los Bravos will be champions of Liga MX. I imagine how this place would be different without the long history of racist violence brought on by those who aren’t from here. From delousings to concentration camps, from Operation Wetback to Operation Fast and Furious. Without all of that, maybe I, and thousands upon thousands of others, wouldn’t have left. Maybe the chain of trauma and hate that’s looped its way across the border year after year, the same one that coiled itself around that store in El Paso on Saturday morning, wouldn’t have become so hard to break.

For now, though, all there is to do is go on hoping. I’ll hope for the day I can come back and not have to leave again, of they day when the border will bleed a little less than it always has. That’s always been the way of this place.

Juárez won 2-0. Compared to last week, Los Bravos looked reborn.