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Juarez: Back on the map

In the Café Central the waiter, hearing my English accent, asks archly, “Are you from out of town?” “A long way out of town.” He laughs and admits: “Everywhere is, from here.”

Juarez: Back on the map

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“Here” is El Paso, Texas.

To borrow a phrase I keep hearing in Texas, El Paso is not the end of the world – but you sure can see it from there. The name of the end of the world is Ciudad Juarez and it’s located a bullet’s arc away, on the southern side of the Bridge of the Americas, in Mexico.

Juarez is the bogeyman of world cities. Its streets are known to be a battle zone between competing drugs cartels. Its very name conjures images of severed heads on sidewalks. “Would I like to visit?” asks Kaycee Dougherty, an arts administrator in El Paso. She has a friend who’ll take me. I shrug. Sure.

Kaycee’s friend is Ricardo Hernandez, who works in real estate and supports the arts on both sides of the border. “Juarez is coming back,” he says as he drives me across the bridge that conjoins the twin cities. “When the violence was at its peak, 2010, the streets were empty. Now they’re back. You’ll see.”

Visiting Juarez is an object lesson in overcoming assumptions. Four years ago it was a narco-hell of daily shootings and reprisal beheadings but violence has abated and security improved to the point that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office no longer advises against all but essential travel there.

The people are indeed back on the streets – there is a bustle entirely lacking in El Paso, where no one walks. Children in school uniforms walk past shops selling wedding dresses. Vaqueros in cowboy hats loaf about with squeezeboxes and guitars. And everywhere there are signs of construction, rejuvenation.

At the cone-shaped Museum of Art the director, Rosa Elva Vazquez Ruiz, tells me that the museum was a refuge and consolation for many people at the height of the street violence. “To come here was the best thing they could do in the week,” she says. “We say art saved us.”

Street art and murals abound in the downtown area, a vibrant sprawl centred around the main square and the 17th century Mission of Guadalupe, while out by the border strip a new plaza and events park is dominated by Juarez’s very own Angel of the North – a 200ft high X made of red steel by the sculptor Sebastian, said to symbolise both history and the future.

Over lunch – shrimp tacos and octopus ceviche – at Los Arcos restaurant we debate why Ricardo’s namesake and compatriot, Javier Hernandez, does not get more games for Man Utd. Then Ricardo’s colleague, Alex Perec – who works for the charity Amor por Juarez – drives me back to El Paso. This involves a 40-minute wait on the Bridge of the Americas for immigration and vehicle checks while hawkers try to sell us windscreen wipers.

“There’s not a lot that separates us, only a big bridge and political differences,” says Alex as he drops me back on El Paso’s lifeless streets.