When I arrived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in 1987 as a first
tour Foreign Service Officer, the place at which I arrived was very different
than the war zone I visited this past December.
Ciudad Juarez was already a dusty, dirty and crowded desert town and
occasional crimes made the headlines: young women who would disappear only to
be found buried in the surrounding desert; tourists would be regularly robbed
at gunpoint; and, of course, the drug crime was in its comparatively nascent
stage (compared to today.) I got to ride
with the Federales on several big busts, including one we got to by helicopter,
which featured all the elements of a good Tarantino script: a desert airstrip, an abandoned farmhouse,
and a ton of cocaine bricks.
Still, Juarez was a sort-of livable place. We made good friends, we ate good food…we
drank lots of Corona and good tequila.
The lunchtime chile relleno
burritos served at “El Choque” (the only combined body shop/ burro stand I’ve
ever seen) were breathtaking. Leah and I
could even go out for an occasional drink in the seedy downtown district,
dodging the roving gaggles of happy drunken American teenagers out for a benign
evening of misadventure south of the border. And although the neighborhood we lived
in, San Marcos, was nicknamed “San Narcos” (based upon the many discreet drug
traffickers who resided therein), it was a safe neighborhood and the peach tree
exploded with fruit and it was where Alex spent the months of his life and,
well…things were alright.
My first days at the consulate were filled with organizing
my personal matters and getting settled into the townhouse provided to me. Jesus – nicknamed ”Chuey”, as most Jesuses
are in Mexico -- was a longtime local FSN ("Foreign Service
National") who had been with the consulate many years. He drove me around and generally helped us
get settled in. A few days after our
arrival, I needed to travel across the border to El Paso to complete some
paperwork. Chuey and I were running
errands on the Mexican side one day and I told him of my need to cross in to El
Paso. His response was that he could not
take me because he did not have a visa.
Needless to say, I was astonished: how is it possible for a
long time consulate employee to not have a visa to cross in and out of the United
States? I will never forget his reply:
”Señor José, I've been going back
and forth by climbing the fence at the border since I was six years old... why
on earth would I need a visa?"
Times have changed and changed a lot. I got him his visa, and he was very proud of
it (why, I'm not so sure.) His days of
fence-jumping behind him, Chuey became a lawful border crosser.
Sergio Adrian Fernandez was not so lucky this past Monday
night. The 15-year-old was just outside
of the Santa Fe Bridge connecting El Paso to Ciudad Juárez when he was shot
dead by a US border agent. According to
the Border Patrol, Sergio was with the group "of suspected illegal aliens
being smuggled into the US from Mexico."
In reality, it appears that Sergio was simply being a foolish teenager,
and, with a group of friends, was playing a far more dangerous version of the
border crosser "Cat and mouse" game played by Chuey for so many years. Witnesses told reporters that while other
teenagers had thrown rocks at the border agents, Sergio had not. According to Raul Flores, who was quoted by
the media, young Sergio stepped out from behind a pillar on the Mexican side of
the border with his hands in the air and the agent in teenager "had 4
seconds to look at each other" before the young man was shot, in the
shoulder and then in the head.
Once again, the tensions are ratcheted up between the United
States and Mexico and once again, another young man is dead.