The first time I crossed the Puente Libre linking El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to begin working on what was to become The Fight to Save Juárez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War was March of 2009. I remember feeling a wave of anxiety as I crested the bridge and the Mexican border city came into full view: Juárez had already earned its reputation as the epicenter of Mexico’s drug war and assassinations were averaging 130-140 a month. Within days of my arrival, the Juárez Municipal Police, a force as infamous for its brutality as for its links to the Juárez Cartel, would be disbanded, after a series of failed attempts to purge its ranks of narco cops, and columns of Mexican army units would arrive from the Mexican interior to patrol the city’s streets.

Over the next 18 months I set out to try to understand what was taking place in Juárez and why. I made a dozen trips to the ravaged city, which was soon dubbed the most violent in the Western Hemisphere if not the world, as assassinations soared to an average of 260 a month in a city the size of San Diego, California. More than 11,000 people have been killed in Juárez since the 2007 start of the drug war (as a point of comparison, as of the end of 2012 the combined American fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan stood at around 8,000).

I am a native of Mexico City, which gave me an obvious advantage when it came to researching Mexico’s drug war and its violence. In Juárez, I arrived with a single name – a local photographer whom a U.S. journalist friend had described as “street-wise” (he was right). Most of the Juárez journalists travel with police scanners that they monitor incessantly. This made it possible to arrive at crime scenes quickly, sometimes even before the forensics units. I saw my share of drug war victims, but, more importantly, I also got to interview friends and neighbors of the victims. I spent time with the Juárez journalists as they covered everything from drainage problems at public parks to bicycle races to prayer vigils for peace–it gave me a chance to get to know the city from the inside. I also interviewed a wide array of people: school principals on the impact of violence on their children, Catholic priests on life in Juárez’s poorest, hard-scrabble neighborhoods, former gang-bangers on the city’s gang life, and social workers on the challenges facing the city’s youth.  Throughout these efforts my approach was to be part anthropologist, part investigative journalist, and part psychologist (my professional background). 

The four main characters in the book are José Reyes Ferriz, the mayor of Juárez between 2007-2010 (an embattled protagonist with crosshairs on his back), Raymundo Ruiz, the street-wise local journalist who grew up in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, “Elena,” a mid-level Juárez Cartel operative’s longtime paramour who lived the narco-life from the inside, and Gustavo de la Rosa, a beleaguered human rights activist.

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Of these four characters, it proved to be most difficult to develop a relationship with Reyes Ferriz and “Elena.” As the point person in the Mexican federal government’s Juárez intervention, the mayor was the object of constant death threats from the cartels and he bore the brunt of Mexico’s brutal political cross-currents as they related to the drug war. Reyes Ferriz had grown leery of journalists; it took a long time to get him to allow me into his world. “Elena” was difficult for different reasons: It would be dangerous for her were it known that she was talking about life within the JuAinslie Coverárez Cartel, yet she had a strong desire to tell her story; her lover had been assassinated in 2009 and after an eight-year relationship she had been left destitute and with a child. She missed him and the life they’d lived in the streets of Juárez. To some it might appear that Elena is the least important of these characters. Certainly, the others had a much more salient profile in the events that came to so profoundly transform life in Juárez. However, of all the characters in the book, Elena’s story is actually the most emblematic of how the drug war has ground this once-proud city down, eroding its vitality, eroding its soul.

Ricardo C. Ainslie is an award-winning psychologist-psychoanalyst who uses books, documentary films, and photographic exhibits to capture and depict subjects of social and cultural interest. His books include Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder In Jasper, Texas; The Psychology of Twinship; and No Dancin’ in Anson: An American Story of Race and Social Change. His films include The Mystery of Consciousness; Ya Basta! Kidnapped in Mexico; Looking North: Mexican Images of Immigration; and Crossover: A Story of Desegregation. Ainslie teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.