Ground Zero in Mexico

A native of Mexico City, Ricardo Ainslie is an Austin-based author, filmmaker and psychology professor at the University of Texas. To write his latest book, The Fight to Save Juarez, he spent three years reporting first hand on the drug war in Mexico and its impact on the city of Juarez, which he describes as Ground Zero. He interviewed journalists, human rights activists, politicians, family members of victims of violence, and ordinary citizens. The result is a searing, often grim look at Mexico’s war against drug traffickers, which rages just on the other side of the border from El Paso, touted as one of the safest cities in the U.S. In October, at the Texas Book Festival, he participated on a panel with Alfredo Corchado, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News whose book, Midnight in Mexico, covers some of the same ground. Below is the prolog of The Fight to Save Juarez.


The first time I saw José Reyes Ferriz was on March 16, 2009. The Mexican Army had just arrived in force and Reyes Ferriz, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, was swearing in a new police chief, his third chief in less than a year. Security surrounding the event was tight and the tension in the expansive room at police headquarters palpable. The city was on the verge of anarchy. Dozens of Juárez police had been assassinated over the course of the preceding year and the force’s collusion with the drug cartels was so intractable that Reyes Ferriz had found himself compelled to disband the force entirely. As I stood behind a phalanx of television cameras, photographers, and journalists, the thought occurred to me that I was watching the most beleaguered man in all of Mexico.

It would be some months later before I had the opportunity to interview Reyes Ferriz. The interview took place in his office at the Presidencia Municipal, the Juárez city hall. That day the offices of the mayor’s communications director, Sergio Belmonte, were chock-full of journalists from all over the world waiting in queue to speak to the mayor. When it was my turn, I was escorted past armed guards and into an ample office on the second floor. The interview covered the typical topics: his understanding of the origins of the drug war in Juárez, the impact of the Mexican military patrolling the streets of the city, his aims for rebuilding the fractured police force. I had the impression that this was well-traveled terrain for the mayor, but for me it was a useful overview for understanding how the city’s leadership was engaging the present crisis.

On prior visits I’d had the opportunity to observe the mayor being interviewed by others in impromptu encounters at public events. That day in March 2009, when the mayor had sworn in the new police chief, stood out. The director of a German documentary film crew had slammed Reyes Ferriz hard about the fact that the Juárez municipal police was rife with corruption and challenged the legality of using the military to intervene in the city. The interviewer was accusatory, hostile, and confrontational. While that wasn’t my style by temperament, or perhaps by profession (as a psychologist-psychoanalyst my reflexive instinct is to find an empathic engagement with my subject, whether or not I agree with their actions or world view), I also had the feeling that it wasn’t good journalism; the assumptions at work were too evident and facile. There was something else, as well. My gut instinct about Reyes Ferriz, as I observed him at these public events, was that this man was not the evil, corrupt politician that I, too, had expected. Quite to my surprise, I found that I liked the man.

By the time of that first interview in the summer of 2009, Reyes Ferriz had already been the object of numerous death threats. As events unfolded in the city, the cartels periodically threatened to kill the mayor and to behead him and his family. The heavily armed bodyguards that accompanied Reyes Ferriz’s every move were ample evidence that the threats were taken seriously: Juárez was a city where officials were being executed routinely.

An exchange occurred during my interview with the mayor that opened the door to an opportunity to understand what was taking place in Juárez through his eyes. It came toward the end of the conversation, when I asked him about the death threats against him. He was circumspect about them, but I pressed the point, saying, “I imagine that there must be moments when you must feel terribly afraid.” The mayor played it off as just a part of his job, although he acknowledged that he’d moved his family across the river to El Paso for security reasons. My impression was that there was something in that interaction, in that gesture toward his humanity, that seemed to have caught him by surprise. Whatever it was, it went unspoken, but I was granted a second interview upon my next visit to Juárez. Subsequently, I took advantage of every opportunity to interview the mayor or to observe functions at which he was presiding--press conferences, public ceremonies, speeches, and the like. It was in this way that José Reyes Ferriz gradually emerged as the central character of this book.


There are many who see in Mexico’s present drug war the shadows of age-old culprits: government corruption and official collusion with the cartels. Stereotypes die hard. That’s especially true when they draw from an infinite array of experiences and observations that reiterate and reaffirm the same truth. Given those facts, it is difficult to arrive at a conclusion other than what one has always known. So it is with the view that Mexico is a corrupt nation run by corrupt people whose primary interest is to engorge their bank accounts and to position themselves, their families, and their friends so as to profit from opportunities that if not seized will simply be seized by others. The examples that populate this notion are endless and go back to the birth of modern Mexico, if not before. Mexican presidents, cabinet ministers, legislators, governors, and mayors have fed at the public trough so voraciously and with such abandon that the very notion of public figures who would be honestly motivated to serve verges on the incomprehensible. In Mexico, there are few templates to draw from for this idea. The avarice has been indulged with such arrogance (the kind that comes from unfettered power), that the public’s scorn saturates virtually every part of the political process and anyone associated with it. The same is true for many of the country’s institutions, but none more so than law enforcement and the judiciary.

In Mexico, where it was once said that not even a leaf fell from a tree without the president’s permission, the power of political office has eroded significantly over the last nineteen years. The first clear sign of this was a horrific act of violence. On March 23, 1994, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI by its Spanish initials), was wading through a crowd of well-wishers on a campaign stop in a poor Tijuana neighborhood when a man walked up to him and shot him at point-blank range. Colosio’s assassination shook the nation. It was partly the brutal act itself in a country where no president or presidential candidate had suffered such a fate in modern times, but it was also the fact that Colosio was enormously popular because he was campaigning on a promise: he would end the PRI’s “anointing” process of selecting presidential candidates, the process that made the notion of democracy in Mexico a sham, a mere posture, a dissimulation that no Mexican failed to see through. Colosio was committed to transforming Mexico into a real democracy, and many believe that it was that ambition that forced the hand of the PRI’s old guard, who felt their power eroding. In short, it is a commonly held view in Mexico that Colosio’s democratic ambitions led to his execution.

Ernesto Zedillo, Colosio’s successor in the campaign, became Mexico’s next president, and he helped usher in the reforms that Colosio had championed. In the next Mexican presidential election, in 2000, Vicente Fox of the Partido Acción Nacional (or PAN by its Spanish initials) became the first president since the 1910 Mexican Revolution to come from an opposition party. The PRI’s uncontested rule, with which it had governed Mexico for seventy years, was over. Felipe Calderón, the author of the current war against the drug cartels, assumed the Mexican presidency following Vicente Fox in December of 2006. He is also from the center-right PAN party.

The PRI continues to exert a powerful influence in contemporary Mexico. The majority of the thirty-two state governors are from the PRI, for example. But in the spring of 2012, the PAN had eight governors while the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática by its Spanish initials), the other (center-left) main opposition party, had three governorships as well as the all-important Federal District, where Mexico City lies. The three parties have mayors in municipalities all over the country. Every election since 1994 has brought real shifts in the distribution of power among the political parties. Though brittle, fragile, and still rife with problems (including corruption), Mexico is emerging as a fledgling democratic state.


In 2009 I interviewed Fernando Castillo Tapia, the director of communications for the federal attorney general’s office (Procuraduría General de la República, or PGR by its Spanish acronym). The meeting took place in Mexico City in a modern building near the Historic Center. Mr. Castillo was polite if circumspect, and he took umbrage at my referencing “Mexico’s war against the drug cartels,” making it a point to correct me. “This is not a war,” he clarified. “It is a law-enforcement action.”

The distinction was not convincing. For one thing, the main force being deployed around the country was the Mexican Army. In addition, at the very start of his six-year administration, while visiting a military base in his native state of Michoacán in December of 2006, Felipe Calderón, the Mexican president, had actually used the word “war” in declaring his intentions to go after the drug cartels. By 2008, throughout the country one had the feeling that Mexico was, indeed, at war. For example, while driving from Puebla to Mexico City in 2008, I was struck by the steady stream of public-service announcements coming over the radio waves, such as, “Your federal government reminds you that it is a federal crime to buy property in the name of another person or to carry large sums of cash for others.” Or, “Your federal government reminds you that it is a federal crime to be in possession of weapons that are for the exclusive use of the military [a reference to assault weapons].” Or the listing of drug war–related arrests: “In the last month your federal government arrested the following lieutenants from the Sinaloa, Gulf, and Juárez cartels.” For years now, print and electronic media have been awash with daily accounts of army and federal police operations taking place all over the country as well as the ever-present shock waves of bloody cartel actions that include hangings, beheadings, torture-executions, and mass killings.

This is a war by anyone’s standards. By the spring of 2012 the PGR estimated that between December 2006 (the beginning of the Calderón administration) and the end of 2011, 47,515 Mexicans had been killed in the course of the drug war, a figure close to the casualties the United States suffered over the course of ten years of war in Vietnam. However, pundits and government critics assert that the actual number easily exceeds fifty thousand and may be closer to sixty thousand, given that government figures do not include people who have been “lifted” and thus have simply disappeared. Every month or so mass graves are discovered in the states bearing the brunt of the narco-war.

Almost none of the executions in Mexico have been adequately investigated or documented, making the specific circumstances surrounding the deaths all but impossible to tease out in many instances. Most of the victims have been executed as part of the schisms between cartels and attempts to take over rival territory in order to control smuggling routes. The bulk of the dead are young men between sixteen and twenty-five years of age, many of them members of the street-level gangs that the cartels increasingly employ to manage their retail drug markets. A smaller number of victims are civilians who have been killed because they have not paid extortions or because they have been caught in cross fires. Some of the victims have been killed in the course of firefights with the authorities, and at least a thousand Mexican Army and federal police members have been killed in the course of the war. But the tally of the dead also includes an unknown number of individuals who died while in police or military custody. Official accounts minimize these deaths because Mexican officials are sensitive to accusations of human rights violations, while opposition groups are eager to inflate the figures. We may never know their actual number.

The cartels have expanded their “business model” in recent years to include other criminal acts, especially extortion, kidnapping, theft of gasoline and petroleum products, and human trafficking, among other activities. Thus, while the majority of the tally of the dead reflects drug war casualties, it is sometimes difficult to separate those executions from criminal activity that is not specifically about the drug business. In addition, non–drug cartel criminal enterprises often emulate the cartels’ criminal activities (extorting neighborhood businesses, for example). All of this makes it difficult to nail down exactly what is taking place in Mexico and who is doing what.

The bloodshed in Mexico occurs primarily in nine states. Four of these are border states (Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Tamaulipas); two are on the coast and have important ports (Guerrero and Veracruz); and two states form part of the “golden triangle”--the ancestral home of the Mexican drug trade and the families that created it (Sinaloa and Durango, with Chihuahua forming the third leg). Finally, Michoacán has also been a site of considerable violence. Eighty percent of the killings have taken place in but 162 of Mexico’s 2,441 municipalities, according to the PGR’s statistics.


There are many truths to be told about what is taking place in Mexico. This book braids together the lives of a Mexican mayor caught in the vortex of his city’s unraveling; a midlevel cartel player’s paramour who lived the narco-life on the inside; a human rights activist caught between the abuses of the authorities and the stories of their victims; and a journalist caught between the ideals of his profession and the police, the cartels, and the gangs who don’t want stories told.

I spent three years exploring the tragedy that has befallen Mexico through the lens of its darkest place: Ciudad Juárez. I’ve seen many dead in Juárez, their bodies splayed out on the pavement midstreet or on sidewalks or caught as they desperately attempted to reach the sanctuary of their homes. I have been to cemeteries and to wakes where mourners are praying the rosary. I’ve interviewed the frightened neighbors of cartel victims (frightened that they might be next, frightened that someone might see them talking to me, frightened that the future no longer holds promise for them or for their children). I’ve spoken to the relatives of the executed at their kitchen tables and under their carports and I have driven around with them in hobbled cars, down trash-strewn, rut-filled streets that have never known pavement. I know the neighborhoods where the night belongs to the gangs. I have gone to these and other neighborhoods trying to understand, trying to comprehend the nightmare that has enveloped the life of every person in this city.

I have seen the many faces of Juárez. In researching this book I have gone to the site of mass narco-graves and I have gone to the police stations. I have interviewed Catholic priests whose lives are threatened because they care for the sick and impoverished in neighborhoods controlled by the cartels and their gangs. I know the efforts of leftist community organizers as well as people working for non-profit organizations, all trying to help young people from poor communities avoid becoming the rank and file of the cartel hit squads and the worker bees of the cartel business. I have interviewed Mexican journalists, many of whom have been personally threatened (and all of whom know colleagues who have been assassinated for covering the cartels’ work). I have interviewed elementary-school teachers who describe the ways in which the ever-present deaths have shaped the worlds of their charges. I have also witnessed terror in the eyes of high-school students in their school uniforms, toting book bags as they walk around crime-scene tape a few feet from the bullet-ridden body of a man who has just been executed at the entrance to their school. I have talked to rich people and to poor people, I have talked to right-wingers who favor death squads if the government can’t do its job, and I have talked to leftist neighborhood organizers who want the army and the federal police out of their city.

It is not only brute violence that signals to the people of Juárez that theirs is a city bordering on anarchy. Anarchy has many faces. In Juárez I have spoken to people who have been extorted by the gangs and I have seen their businesses burning in the night when they do not comply. I have spoken to assembly plant workers who are forced to pay neighborhood thugs a third of their weekly pay just to have safe access to and from their homes. I have interviewed professionals who lock their office doors with deadbolts during work hours and who monitor the entrances to their businesses with security cameras; they live under constant threat that they or their families will fall victim to kidnappings, extortions, or assassinations. In the course of my work I have come to know the fear that is lived in Juárez on a daily basis.

I have also seen the resilience of life: the teenagers playing their trumpets as they rehearse for a party and children playing in the parks and families having barbecues. I have driven the streets of the poorest neighborhoods as sunset falls on another scorching day in the desert and heard the music pouring out of the windows as people sit along graffiti-tagged walls in white plastic chairs escaping the heat trapped in their homes.

The city of Juárez is ground zero for the Mexican government’s strategy against the drug cartels. Almost a quarter of the federal forces that Felipe Calderón has deployed in this war have at some point been sent to Juárez, and almost 20 percent of the country’s drug-related executions have taken place in the city, a city that can be as unforgiving as the hardest places on earth. It is here that the Mexican government came to turn the tide, and the outcome of what happens in Juárez will have lasting repercussions for both Mexico and the United States.

Excerpt from The Fight to Save Juarez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War by Ricardo C. Ainslie (Copyright © 2013 by The University of Texas Press) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit