From Mexico to Soho: Artists Seek to End Violence in Juarez

By Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Sergio Urias, seated in a wheel chair, dressed in a herringbone jacket, bow-tie, and black rimmed glasses, rolls himself across the polished wood floor of a gallery in Soho. He is a long way from his hometown of Juarez, a Mexican border city that has fallen into a violent, downward spiral as drug cartels and gangs fight over the smuggling routes to the U.S. As dusk falls on New York City, Urias and others from Juarez and its U.S. sister city across the Rio Grande, El Paso, prepare for an art auction to benefit youth programs. Unemployed youth account for about 10 percent of Juarez’s total population. “The goal is to invest in people, invest in youth. There are many single mothers who work dusk ‘til dawn, and kids are left to roam around the city,” Sergio says.

Juarez is best known for its recent history of gruesome street crime. Some 3,000 people were murdered there last year. So far this year, more than 1,500 people have been killed. A police officer might be killed one day, and 10 teenagers the next. I visited Juarez for a week and while I was there six young men were gunned down while playing soccer. Later, a woman‘s body was found in the street, her head wrapped in packing tape. On average, six people are killed every day. It can be hard to keep count.

Faced with the failure of Mexican and U.S. authorities to prevent crime, Urias and his friends founded a charity, Project Paz, to try to help. Nothing has seemed able to quell the violence, so Urias turned to an unlikely source to help raise awareness of Juarez—the New York art community.

Outside the gallery, the sidewalk is covered with white candles. Project Paz’s auction hasn’t started yet, and the gallery is mostly empty. One of the project’s curator’s, Anne Huntington, shows me a photograph by Monica Lozano.“This girl is from Juarez, we grew up together” Urias says. The photograph is mounted in a black frame on the chalky white brick wall and shows a man smoking a cigarette. He wears a GAP t-shirt, blazer, and a white mask. “It’s similar to a Day of the Dead mask,” a prop from the popular Mexican holiday, Huntington explains.

Sitting on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, Juarez blends American and Mexican cultures. The city’s location on the border has also fostered the development of a strong manufacturing sector. In recent decades, Juarez’s population exploded as people from poor, rural states in Mexico’s south migrated in search of factory jobs. In the 1980s and 1990s, migrant workers built cardboard shacks on the fringes of the city. The Rio Grande River separated third-world poverty from first-world wealth. Now, modern factories, shopping centers, and highways are opening, but this progress is being overshadowed by the recent wave of gruesome street crime. The police and the Mexican army have tried to stop the flow of illegal drugs across the border. But, fueled by demand from the U.S., the drug trade continues. So does the violence.

Fearing for their safety, many people have left Juarez. In Soho, Urias and the other émigrés are doing what they can to help. The bass-heavy music picked up and men in suits and elegantly dressed women in high heels start to arrive. Even Mexico’s first lady, Margarita Zavala, flew in from Mexico City to attend. The idea, according to Huntington, is to promote shared responsibility. 

We stop in front of a seven-foot model of a woman’s hand-mirror and look at our reflections. Huntington wipes a faint lipstick mark from her cheek. “We thought it was fitting to look at ourselves in the mirror, and say ‘what is actually happening here?’” she explains. 

At the far end of the gallery Urias shows me several cardboard boxes with the words “Make Tacos Not War” written on them.

Bartenders wear “I <3 Paz” (peace) shirts and prep tequila juleps, mojitos, and other drinks. Urias explains that today’s Juarez is not the city he grew up in: “It was such a vibrant city, there is now basically no night life.” Behind us a few middle-aged men chat and eat lime ice-pops. “The appetizers are from Hecho in Dumbo,” Sergio says, “the Mexicans say it’s the best food in the city.” “Interesante!” a woman says, walking by, looking at the “Make Tacos” signs.

Urias, who left Juarez in 1998 to attend law school in Mexico City and then at Harvard, notes that for the big companies, “business hasn’t gone down—it’s the mom and pop shops that suffer the most.” In recent years several thousand small businesses have closed, due to threats of extortion and violence. In the absence of other opportunities, many young people turn to crime and the drug cartel affiliates who run the smuggling routes that cross the border.

“The violence affects everyone,” says Carlos Armando Garcia, another organizer. Garcia has lived in New York in the nine years since he graduated from MIT. He returns to Juarez four times a year. Juarez is more violent now. In the five years since Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, declared war on the cartels, more than nine thousand people have been killed in Juarez. For the most part, both the victims and killers are in their teens or twenties. Some sociologists are calling the trend “jovencidio,” child killing.

“Guys get guns, they don’t care, they kill people,” Garcia says.

With dance-music thumping, young women gather in front of the giant mirror, fixing their hair, smiling, and taking photos of each other’s reflections. A girl walks by holding a plate of quarter-sized duck tacos.

Sara Beltran, an artist from Juarez whose family has moved to El Paso, says, “All the sicarios, the ones killing people… they’re young.” Beltran moved to New York 12 years ago to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. We stand near a display of dresses made from fabric from the Oaxacan Museum of Textiles, and she shows me bracelets she had designed for the event.

Beltran softly explains that her grandmother was recently murdered in Juarez, “They broke into her house… it was a 17 year old that killed her.” 

“The violence affects everyone,” Beltran continues.

“We all have war stories,” Urias says. That’s the reason they founded Project Paz.

People in the gallery stop talking and listen as Mexico’s first lady gives a brief speech. She thanks the event’s organizers and says, “I’m sure your parents are all very proud.” 

Huntington steps up to start the auction. She points to a photo depicting a chair owned by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. “He wrote his last book in Juarez!” Anne yells. “Two thousand eight hundred… three thousand five hundred… four thousand!” She calls out, pointing to the men in suits raising their hands. “Here we go! Let’s keep this going!” 

The crowd grows louder. People near the auction hiss, “Shhhhhhh!!!”

Huntington moves to the mirror. “It retails for $9,000. It’s green like Mexico, green like growth,” she calls out, her microphone faltering and then cutting out.

Conversations resume and the noise level increases. Two young women in their twenties laugh and take pictures of each other in the mirror. Standing in front of a screen that says, “Project Paz,” Anne tries to rally those by the auction table. Her microphone stops working.

“DO I HAVE TWO THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND?” Anne yells, her voice nearly lost in the din.

Mexican politicians have struggled for years to make the U.S. acknowledge its role in the drug trade. Street crime in Juarez is largely driven by the U.S. demand for illegal drugs. Until people and policymakers in the U.S. start paying attention to the situation in Juarez, local leaders on both sides of the border will have to find alternative ways to make their voices heard. Project Paz is one such effort.

 “We want to help the children,” Carlos tells me.

“It’s 15 year olds—that’s who’s doing the killing.”




Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a New York City based writer.  He has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and China and written articles for The Atlantic, The Nation, Forbes, and a number of other publications.  He is currently researching Mexico while pursuing a Master’s degree at Columbia University.

[Photo courtesy of Steev Hise]

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