CIUDAD JUÁREZ — Esteban was riding shotgun in his family's rusted teal minivan when his dad, Lorenzo, suddenly stopped the car. It was odd — a vehicle facing the opposite direction blocked their way on the narrow street. They were just four blocks from home. The then-6-year-old boy with soft eyes and a freckled nose noticed the glass-strewn pavement first. Next, he saw the vehicle was riddled with bullet holes "this big," he says, peering through a silver-dollar-size circle made with his thumb and forefinger. Last, he saw the two bloodied, dead bodies in the front seats.
"We had passed that same spot just 15 minutes before, and all was clear," Lorenzo recalls of that evening in 2008. Esteban's younger siblings, Rodrigo and Ana Clara, ages 4 and 2 at the time, slumbered in the back seat. Lorenzo still wonders how the baby slept through the neighbors' screams. The smell of gunpowder lingered in the air as Esteban, an eloquent, extroverted child, began to cry. His questions started right away and continued for days. "Do you think they had kids?" "Even if they did something wrong, they still didn't deserve to die, right, Daddy?"
They are tough questions for a first-grader. Yet in Juárez, murder capital of the world, they have become commonplace. Over the past two and a half years, more than 5,000 people (an average of more than five a day) have been killed in an intensifying drug war that has reached deep into children's lives — kids gather at crime scenes, stumble onto recently slain bodies, are forced to witness relatives' assassinations, or are killed themselves.
Ten thousand of Juárez's 500,000 children under the age of 14 have been orphaned, according to El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Juárez-based university and research institution. Of those murdered, 43 were between the ages of 12 and 15. More than 200 were between 16 and 18. It is impossible to know the number of youngsters, like Esteban, who have witnessed a killing or stood close to a corpse that's still warm.
The impact is lasting and widespread. Children across the border city of 1.5 million suffer from insomnia and nightmares; many have become withdrawn or have been sealed indoors by frightened parents. Even those spared the disturbing firsthand visuals don't get off unscathed. The violence is all over television, in conversations around the dinner table, and — for at least one child interviewed by New Times — in the abandoned buildings inhabited by the ghosts of the murdered.
The brutality has only escalated since security forces arrived in 2008 to try to pacify ground zero in the Mexican drug war. Increasing numbers of children have been sucked into the world of crime: Gangs now recruit kids as young as 11, and assassin training begins at 12. In Juárez, 8-year-olds use cocaine.
But after two years of making extortion payments, venturing out only when necessary, and constantly listening for gunshots, juarenses are taking back the city. They are slowly occupying streets and parks once ceded to the drug war and demanding solutions such as early childhood services, hoping that intervention can break the cycle of violence. If the efforts persist and grow, they just might help Juárez escape its fate as a murderous no man's land.
If they fail, juarenses will likely continue to cross the bridge to neighboring El Paso, Texas, just a bullet's flight away. So far, the violence and sinking economy of the past two years have led 100,000 to escape north, further aggravating an immigration conflict that has turned the U.S.-Mexico border into a battleground and making any resolution as elusive as putting an end to the drug war.
That fateful day during Esteban's first-grade year coincides with the beginning of Juárez's transformation into the world's most violent city. In early 2008, a turf battle was raging between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. What had always been a brutal rivalry was exploding across the city. Early that year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón had sent nearly 2,500 soldiers and federal police, known as Federales, to restore order.
"We were kind of glad to see the military arrive," says Josefina Martínez, an editor at Juárez newspaper El Diario and mother of two. "The city had become a drug sanctuary, and we really did think that maybe the military would change that." But now she laughs at the memory.
Despite the arrival of the first round of soldiers and Federales, the murder rate rose above 1,500 that year. Another fleet of more than 5,000 security officers arrived the following year and was given control over civilian institutions, including municipal police and the prison system. Still, the 2009 murder count reached 2,290.
But the growing numbers painted only part of the picture. The violence changed. Killings were no longer contained to the targets. Murders began happening everywhere: in and around churches, homes, parks, playgrounds, day-care centers, schools, community centers, restaurants, and rich and poor neighborhoods. Every square inch of the city became a potential crime scene — and every resident a potential witness or victim. Juarenses struggle to explain why things changed. It seems the military presence drove the cartels to flaunt publicly the same violence the government forces were sent to quell.
"Before the military arrived, there was always a certain logic to organized crime and the murders," says Esteban's mother, Lourdes Almada, who heads Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en Ciudad Juárez, a coalition of Juárez child advocacy and community organizations. "Assassinations were more or less payment of debts, and those who carried them out took care to ensure that there weren't any confusions.
"Suddenly, you had kids witnessing executions or being shot themselves as they tried to flee with their father," Almada recalls. "Reality blew up in our face."
Martínez, the newspaper editor, motions to a wall across from the entrance to her son's primary school. "Right over there, cartel tags started appearing," she says. Before 2008, territorial markings were never so close to a school. Then the extortion began. In December 2008, teachers throughout the city's 900 schools were sent a clear message through the coded markings: Hand over your year-end bonuses (normally equivalent to a month's salary of $450 to $1,000), or students will suffer the consequences.