Ciudad Juarez: Blogging the drug war

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

Published April 15, 2010 7:05AM (EDT)

Family 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)
Family 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.

By Miranda Simon

MORE FROM Miranda Simon

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Drugs Latin America Love And Sex Mexico