Ciudad Juarez: Blogging the drug war

Judith Torrea chronicles a city she loves -- even though people are murdered by the thousands there

Topics: Mexico, Broadsheet, Drugs, Latin America, Love and Sex,

Ciudad Juarez: Blogging the drug warFamily members of community leader Calisto Perez Mena react as they arrive near the place where he was killed in San Isidro, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

When Spanish freelance journalist Judith Torrea arrived in Ciudad Juárez last year, everybody who could was leaving — to save their necks.

Since the Mexican government started the military crackdown on drug traffickers in 2006, roughly 4,200 people have been killed in Juárez, a city of 1.3 million, according to the Associated Press. “On average, there are between 10 to 15 murders a day,” Torrea says.

Torrea’s blog, Ciudad Juárez, en la sombra del narcotráfico (Ciudad Juárez, in the Shadow of Drug Trafficking), which she started in October, took fifth place in the popular voting in the Reporters Without Borders category of the international BOBs — Best of Blogs. The jury was scheduled to decide the winners today.

She first came to Ciudad Juárez in 1998, during an epidemic of murders of girls and young women who worked in assembly plants. Over the course of more than a decade, 400 factory girls were killed mysteriously, a number that would eventually be engulfed by the death toll of the drug war. Yet Torrea fell in love with the city — the kind of love you might feel for a child who continuously stumbles over his own feet.

Judith Torrea is tall and attractive. With her long dark hair hanging loose over her shoulders, she tends to make all the men around her look wimpy — even the soldiers. She spoke to Salon through e-mail from her home in Ciudad Juárez.

You were working in New York when you decided to move to Ciudad Juárez. What made you decide to report in such a dangerous place?

I couldn’t keep watching from a distance, while the truth was not being told about what was happening in Ciudad Juárez. The local media does not investigate as a measure of protection. They don’t appear at the scene of the crime. The ones that go are the photographers and the cameramen, and they just report the facts with no analysis. I suppose it’s not easy to investigate so many deaths. On average, there are between 10 to 15 murders a day. On top of this, some editors and journalists receive guidelines on what to report — and what not to report — from the Juárez Cartel.

What did you find when you got there, and how did it differ from when you were there 12 years ago?

I found that many of my contacts had either fled or were already in coffins. It’s difficult to not inadvertently stumble into something horrific when you go out on the street. At 9 p.m., the streets are empty, and only a few restaurants or cafes are still open. The danger that plagued only poor and beautiful women has been extended to all.

This is a city in war: of burnt buildings, houses on sale, extortion, kidnappings. It’s a militarized city, but the soldiers, the federal and municipal police don’t arrive at the scene of the crime. And if they do, they are usually more than an hour late. You ask yourself a lot of questions.

Are you afraid?

I’m naturally not a fearful person. If I were, I wouldn’t be living in Ciudad Juárez. Maybe it’s because I’m super tall, and see things from a different perspective! I recognize danger and take my precautions, but I know that if you do get killed, the assassin will get away with it. I think danger increases if you’re a journalist — a freelancer like me — and you aren’t complicit with drug dealers or the authorities.

Why did you decide to blog?

My blog came out of my need to tell the stories I couldn’t publish in a conventional media. It gives me a lot of liberty. I’ve discovered the power of a blog. I started blogging in October and have already been contacted by editors who want to publish stories from it.

What is keeping you in Juárez?

I feel love and a lot of pain for Ciudad Juárez. The city doesn’t have an objective beauty, as other Mexican cities do. It’s in the desert, so in the winter you freeze and in the summer you just want to run away. It’s a city of women and dreams. Of single mothers who have come to work in the manufacturing plants, and who have found their economic liberty and their independence as women. This reality is what has me trapped here — not a fantastic man, if that’s what you’re thinking!

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>