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Call of the Narcocorrido

ISSUE:  Fall 2009
Police tape, marked DANGEROUS, cordons off a murder scene in Juárez, Mexico.

5 P.M., June 29

In the PM newsroom, across from faded purple and brown-striped cubicles where reporters sit amid tacked-up centerfolds and layouts for the day’s cover story of a gun-shot man discarded in a ditch, two men, a photographer and assistant editor, listen to the strains of a narcocorrido drifting from a police scanner. The vague shrill discord of accordions and a brass band echoes in the glass office until a burst of distortion shatters the ill-begotten melody and imposes a staticky silence. They know in the expanding quiet that someone will die tonight.

When and where the execution will happen they cannot say yet. Perhaps in five minutes on a dirt lane beneath power lines heavy with dangling sneakers; perhaps in an hour in a van swerved to a stop, the spewed rocks and dust still unsettled even after the gunfire has ceased and neighbors come to peer with accustomed caution through barred windows; perhaps after nightfall on the stony ground of a hill beneath sheets of laundry that when billowed by winds will rise like theatrical curtains to display the vast expanse of Juárez—its gated homes where dogs bark and loll in the heat, its tree-lined streets where kids play pick-up soccer games, and the dirt lanes stretching toward barbed wire fences that block entrance to the state of Texas just beyond the muddy band of the Rio Bravo.

They do know that the two-year-long drug war raging in this desert city of 1.5 million kills an average of nine people a day. That’s double the record-setting pace of last year, when 1,607 people were murdered in Juárez. In March of this year, the Mexican government sent in the army to help quell the violence. For two months, the number of violent deaths dropped dramatically. But in June it spiked back up.

“Before there were gunfights in the street with automatic weapons,” said Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz. “Now they kill with 9 millimeter handguns. Before, they drove around the city with AK-47s. They can’t now. But they are still fighting. They fight all the way down to small-time distributors killing one another.”

Were this not brazen enough, the competing drug cartels, La Linea (the local crime syndicate) and Chapo (an outside group vying for dominance), both monitor the same radio frequencies as the cops and broadcast the narcocorrido, a twisted version of classical Mexican folk music, as a warning to police, ambulance crews, and reporters alike: Stay away from where killings often happen or you might see something you wished you hadn’t.

“Every day I have nightmares,” says thirty-four-year-old assistant editor Eduardo Huizar.

The scanner stutters into a firecracker staccato of electrical commotion, then the voice of a federale complaining to another officer: “No, not again.”

The corrido pierces the static in response, then disappears with an abruptness suggesting impatience. The photographer, fifty-seven-year-old Ernesto Rodriguez, glances at Eduardo.

“They are playing with us,” he says.

The game has been a brutal one for Juárez journalists. Mexico is the deadliest assignment in the Americas and among the deadliest in the world. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, twenty-four reporters have been murdered in Mexico since 2000; seven more have disappeared since 2005. Many of the victims had recently reported on police ties to cartels. Others are suspected of working with the cartels, accepting drug money—but it’s hard to be sure because the killings are barely investigated. Despite the fact that a special federal prosecutor for crimes against journalists was appointed two years ago, none of the murders of journalists—not one—has been solved.

Some attacks target entire newsrooms—in at least two cases, grenades have been thrown at newspaper offices—but most single out specific journalists. Eight Juárez reporters received threatening mobile phone messages claiming to come from a drug cartel in January 2008 alone. El Diario crime reporter Armando Rodriguez Carrion was one. When he reported the threat to the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office, he was told he should leave town as there was no way of guaranteeing his safety. Rodriguez finally went back to work after a two-month exile and was gunned down on November 13, 2008, as he was taking his children to school. There were more telephone threats against journalists during his funeral the next day. The number of journalists leaving the region—or even the country—has soared.

Still, a handful of radio and television stations and four daily newspapers cover the violence. PM, one of those dailies, was founded in 2005 specifically to cover the growing violence in all its gruesome detail. The name is a promise from the editors to have copies on the street no later than noon (every day but Sunday) with graphic photos of the killings from the night before.

Their front pages garishly display bloody bodies with smaller inset photos of smiling, nearly naked women with big breasts. Inside, more photos of bodies fill the pages—dead men, smiling nearly naked women, including a centerfold. With a circulation of 65,000, it has become the most popular daily newspaper in the city.

But even a tabloid that feeds off the mayhem takes precautions.

Like most Juárez journalists, PM reporters and photographers no longer use bylines in crime stories. Some writers at other papers tone down their language, using, for example, “armed men” rather than “gunmen.” Some will not identify a cartel responsible for a murder unless a government official goes on record. Some media simply report the barest of facts limiting their reports to press releases put out by authorities, with no analysis or investigation. In most places, journalists don’t even report on killings they witness.

But the journalists at PM have vowed not to turn away. So on this humid June evening two months after the Mexican Army entered the city, Eduardo pages through photographs of the dead, the faces he sees in his dreams, while Ernesto ventures out, every day between 4 P.M. and midnight to shoot the photographs that make those nightmares real.

6:15 P.M.

Ernesto into his cell phone: “Anything going on in the street?”

Reporter on the other end: “Tranquil.”

Ernesto: “Still?”

Reporter: “Still.”

6:30 P.M.

Ernesto waits for the night’s anticipated execution by settling behind his desk and reviewing his photographs from the evening before. No dreams like Eduardo. He does his best not to think about what he sees. He downloads his photos:

  • A kid on his back. Tattoos. A leg turned sideways on the pavement. White tank top, socks, shoes.
  • Family of a dead man, sitting staring at the body covered by a sheet.
  • Shattered glass, two dead men in the front seats of a car slumped together cheek to cheek.
  • Blood-spattered yellow wall. Against it a woman, blue dress, black boots. Legs tanned from the sun. Paddy’s Pub and Brewery decal on a shot-up blood-splattered hat.

Sometimes the images stay with him. Like those two dead kids last year. Both shot in the head. White shirts, blood on their necks. Eyes swollen shut. Gold chains. A lot comes to mind. He is a parent and has grandchildren.

Remember the woman, her head crushed by a bus? She was taking her son to school. Ernesto’s wife took their kids to school. He shakes his head. Don’t think.

7:15 P.M.

The police call a press conference to tout an arrest. Ernesto understands the PR value of a “perp walk”: showing off the work of a police force known mostly for corruption. This year alone, eleven Juárez officers were arrested for carrying drugs in their patrol cars. A shooting between members of the Mexican Army and Juárez cops exploded in the streets when officers refused to take part in a sweep for illegal arms and drugs.

Not even the mayor trusts the city police, so the army and federal police are here essentially to supplant local officers until a new force can be recruited and trained. About 7,500 soldiers patrol the streets, putting up roadblocks to search cars, raiding houses for weapons and drugs, and arresting alleged cartel members. A military officer now serves as police chief; others run sections of the police department and the city jail.

At the police station, the perp—a handcuffed twenty-year-old man accused of murder—stands in a corner, two masked officers on either side. Fluorescent lighting pours over him, illuminating his oiled and spiked hair. The officers parade him across the shined tile floor as cameras click and flash.

Ernesto walks outside with the other photographers and waits for the next perp. Cool air floats down from distant mountains, gathers heat in the valley, and settles heavily around the police station. The waiting seems to last forever. Young women in short skirts walk past, and an officer asks no one in particular if they like women who dance on tables. Ernesto smirks and helps a TV cameraman look for a screw that fell out of his tripod, while other photographers discuss winners of the Robert Capa Award. Time feels stalled by the humidity weighing on the lethargic city. Why is there nothing yet? What’s happening? What does this quiet mean?

Another slow curl of dead air blows through the parking lot, followed by spitting static on Ernesto’s police scanner, and then a voice that says simply, “Z 59”—code for a homicide by organized crime.

Ernesto runs to his car, camera bag flopping against his hip, the other photographers fanning out behind him in the parking lot. The night makes sense now.

7:30 P.M.

Eduardo begins work at 2 A.M. so at this hour he sleeps. But his mind races—like Ernesto speeding, pulse throbbing, to the latest execution. Even before Ernesto arrives, Eduardo sees the dead in his dreams. Their shocked faces now his face. He sees himself executed or dying of a drug overdose; he sees his killer cut off his head. Blood rings his dreams.

Soldiers often stand guard outside crime scenes to prevent attacks on investigating officers and journalists.

7:45 P.M.

Ernesto steers with his elbows, a cell phone in each hand pressed against his ears. One phone connects him to PM reporters, the other with journos from other media outlets—TV2, El Diario, Television Chihuahua, Television Juárez, Canal 44. He coordinates with them so they all arrive at the murder scene together. On this shift Ernesto has seniority. He knows the streets, the fastest routes.

“A killing, body in a car maybe,” Ernesto says into both phones. “Have to confirm.”

“You going?” a reporter on the other end asks.

“Yes, I’m going. Unless maybe they’re just drunk and passed out.”

“You think?”

“Kidding, man. Get there.”

At one time they competed to be first. But then the cartels began threatening journalists. How do you get here so fast? an anonymous caller would ask. Is the other cartel giving you information? Now journalists arrive together to prevent being singled out.

Ernesto speeds down commercial streets beneath signs promoting restaurants (tacos y gorditas) and churches (centro de restauración dios de fuego) through a low haze of dust and smog when he catches the red flashes of police lights bouncing off squat cinderblock homes. Soldiers mingle with the police, their presence a warning to the killers not to come back for an ambush.

Ernesto parks, grabs his camera bag, and walks down a narrow alley taped off by the police. A glut of photographers converges on either side of him.

“Do we know how many bodies?” Ernesto asks.

“Just one,” a photographer from El Diario tells him.

Ernesto reaches for his zoom lens. He peers through the viewfinder, nose flattened against the camera. There, in shadows cast by streetlights, lies the body of a man in a puddle of muddy water. Someone thought he deserved no better.

Ernesto begins shooting, his flash popping in the dark, washing the body in bursts of white light. He does not like what’s happening in Juárez, but he enjoys taking pictures. Every crime scene has a particular challenge. Will the police let him take pictures? Is the body visible? Has it already been covered with a sheet? These questions occupy him, keep him focused.

A police officer kneels next to the corpse and inspects the ground. Ernesto waits for him to move. He has asked for other assignments. For a while he covered politics and was very comfortable. But then he was reassigned to the crime beat. He was needed for the crude reality he captures with his camera, the brutal artistry of his work. The cop stands, and Ernesto snaps the frame.

8:30 P.M.

In his pocket, the police scanner sputters. Ernesto lowers his camera, listens. The second narcocorrido of the night plays, stops. A cockroach scuttles near Ernesto’s boots, antennae twitching, freezes.

“Z 59,” a dispatcher says seconds later.

The music, this time, not a warning—or foretelling of doom—but a statement of fact. Another death, the smooth bone of completion, waits only for the cameras.

Ernesto runs to his car, the music in his head drowning out the crunch of the insect crushed under his boot. A hymn to the deceased.

Midnight, June 30

Ernesto submits his pictures:

  • Francesco Hernandez Gonzalez, 35. Shot eight times. On the street. Pistol. T-shirt hiked halfway up his chest. Bloated belly. Jeans, tennis shoes. Orange cones near the body indicate the number of shell casings found. Girlfriend shot in the foot. Not fatal.
  • Twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-old victim. No name. Pistol. Shot five times. Twice in back of the head, once in the left temple, twice in the back. What’s left of his face a ruined prism melting in moonlight.
  • Parking lot of an Oxxo convenience store. Body of a man, twenty-five to thirty, inside a Ford Explorer, head hanging out the passenger window. As if asleep. Car still running. Eight shots. Crowd of young people. Laughter, drinking. Babies bawl. Rotating police lights bruise trees purple. An old man walks past, his cane tap, tap, tapping as he goes without pausing.

12:30 A.M.

Ernesto drives home, eats with his wife. She always waits for him. Concerned. She watches TV news and sees the murders. Knows the dangers of his job. She’s always alone. Nervous, afraid. How’s everything? she asks him. He reassures her. Okay. Three dead tonight. Slumped in a chair before the TV, he lets loose the adrenaline rush of the evening. A gradual draining of energy that leaves him deflated and adrift until he sleeps.

1:30 A.M.

Eduardo leaves for the half-hour drive to work. His wife has asked him to get a different job, but there would be no other. Juárez once had a strong economy. But no one comes here now. They are afraid of being killed or extorted by the cartels.

Eduardo has had no trouble with the cartels. Still he worries. They killed Armando after all. Who’s next? If they killed him, they will kill anybody.

When he drives at night Eduardo fears he might see something and the killers will chase him and shoot him. When he comes to a red light, he slows, coasts through the intersection without stopping. He looks left and right with the paranoia of a bird, not allowing his eyes to linger on any one thing too long. Police sometimes pull him over, but always let him go. They understand.

Some PM staffers move repeatedly to avoid being identified. What is the point? Eduardo wonders. The cartels know everything. They can get information. They know who we are, where we are. Especially Eduardo’s supervisor, PM editor Alejandro Tellez. He receives threats from the cartels when they don’t like a story or a picture.

One time, a caller complained that PM photographers never took photos of Chapo graffiti. “Write some,” Alejandro said. The next day a caller told him where the cartel had sprayed graffiti. “As long as I see it published,” the caller told him, “you’re no longer at risk.” Alejandro sent two photographers. When they arrived, he received another call. “Are your photographers in a white car? One tall, one short? We’re looking at them. No police will come. Take all the pictures you need.” Since then, Alejandro wears a bulletproof vest.

Eduardo marvels that Alejandro would continue to work at all. It is like a guerilla war. The invading cartel has put in a lot of money to dominate the Juárez drug trade. The local cartel has a lot to lose. Neither one will give up.

Eduardo warns his kids, Don’t tell anyone I work for a newspaper. Don’t bring friends to the house unless I know their parents. Don’t tell anyone when we go out. They usually don’t have visitors. They usually stay home.

His brother used to teach English to elementary school students. The local cartel demanded money. Otherwise it would start killing kids. The school closed. It turned out not to be the cartel but a group posing as the cartel. The real cartel cut off the heads of the extortionists for using their name. Bad people killed by bad people. It’s still killing, Eduardo says, and now his brother sells burritos on the street.

2 A.M.

Eduardo studies the evening’s photographs so he can write headlines. He has used all the verbs he knows for killed. Eduardo hates to admit it, but after a while it just becomes another body. It gets more difficult when the cartels call. They know when the paper goes to press. Sometimes they wait until the last minute. Then they phone in with a body, forcing Eduardo to redo the design. He cannot say for certain it is the cartels, but who else would call? They are very professional with precise information. They want to be the cover story. Are we part of the problem? Eduardo asks himself.

Alejandro says, No. We show the reality. This happens on a daily basis in Juárez. We can’t pretend it doesn’t. We give the truth. We don’t elaborate.

Still Eduardo wonders, Are we advertising for the cartels? These questions haunt him. He looks once more at Ernesto’s photographs, clears his mind of distractions. He can’t help what he dreams. But awake, he has a paper to get out.

The Juárez cemetery is filled with victims of the drug war.

PM, Tuesday edition, June 30




Noon, June 30, San Rafael Cemetery

Wind sends dust devils across rocky ground, swirling scraps of grass, pink images of the Virgin Mary sold by vendors. Backhoes rumble. Holes are dug. They fill with the discarded water bottles of the diggers (transistors tuned to El Paso rock stations) and soon the nameless dead. Fosa común, the common hole. Two bodies in a trench, numbered 13618348 and 41349, both killed June 16.

Then the named dead in a section set aside for cartel victims:

Manuel de Jesus Perez Urbina
02 June 09

Enrique Morales Samudio
14 June 09

Maria Elva Rivera
02 June 09

Faustino J Perez Martinez
05 June 09

Sergio Antiglares
14 June 09

Two hundred sixteen killed in June. Crosses erect as sentries dot burial mounds eroded by the wind. Empty bottles of Tecate lay piled beneath sun-faded photos, one after the other smiling. The handiwork of assassins spreads cross after white cross deep into the horizon. Heat-distortion, a low haze. No pity.

Eduardo’s nephew lies here, dead of an overdose. Also, a sister-in-law and his father-in-law.

You talk to a mechanic, a shopkeeper they tell you about a brother, a sister who has been shot.

Eduardo has had friends, neighbors killed.

In some way, you’re always dealing with death.

A surging, angry crowd reflects in the sunglasses of a masked police officer.

4:30 P.M.

No music this time.

Just a federale on the scanner announcing a homicide downtown. Almost immediately, Ernesto’s cell phones begin ringing. Rumors fly. Other photographers tell him the dead man is the popular local labor leader Géminis Ochoa.

Ernesto can’t believe it. Ochoa helped poor vendors get permission to set up stalls downtown. He denounced police corruption just days ago and now he has been shot. Was it the police? Or it could be a crime of opportunity? Maybe his enemies knew the murder would be blamed on the authorities. Someone other than Ernesto must figure that out. He grabs his camera.

An agitated crowd of three hundred people has already gathered downtown in the hot blaze of afternoon near the patinated statue of General Vicente Guerrero. The police unfurl rolls of yellow tape. Ernesto parks his car and runs to a cluster of taco stands across from where the body lies sprawled, face-first on the pavement at the bottom of the steps of a pawn shop, blood pooled beneath it. Police drag away a weeping woman who tries to reach the dead man. Smiling children jostle with their parents to glimpse the corpse. A man rushes toward the prostrate Ochoa from the other side cursing the police as murderers. The police pin him down.

“You left him to die,” the man screams. “You always leave them to die.”

“They only know how to kill people!” a woman shouts.

“Viva El Che! Viva Géminis!”

A crowd lingers around the pooled blood of assassinated labor leader Géminis Ochoa, even after his body has been taken away.

The laughing curiosity of gawkers switches to a sudden rage, as if the crowd had been waiting for just this moment. Tempers snapping like live wires find an outlet. Uncoiling in one motion, the crowd rushes the police, and Ernesto rolls with it staying on the edge so as not to get trampled, keeping his shutter clicking as more police and soldiers converge on the sudden rampage.

“Respect a man who loved so many people!” they shout. “You only know how to kill people!”

The dead man lies alone in his blood, a single woman kneeling beside him in that pool, head bowed, her hands reaching out to the body.

The outrage spends itself as quickly as it began. Perhaps from the heat. Perhaps from grief. Perhaps from the sense of futility incessant corruption breeds. People stop cursing and recede like an ebb tide, as if compelled backward by invisible hands. Muffled weeping the undercurrent of their defeat. The police tape off more areas, forcing the crowd to move farther away. A vendor hawks fajitas. Beside him, a man displays used shirts on a fence. An elderly woman on a bicycle asks why the road is blocked and mutters at the inconvenience. The coroner’s van arrives.

“Will there be peace?” a man asks no one in particular.

Ernesto lowers his camera.

“It will take a while,” he tells the man when no one else answers him.

“They’ll never find who did this.”

“I know,” Ernesto says.

As sunset nears, the Mexican military patrols the streets of Juárez.

6 P.M., July 1

Eduardo rides with the Mexican military to see Juárez through their eyes. While he waits for the comandante outside the police station, he overhears a woman tell an officer about a man who tried to extort money from her. He told her to either “invest” her money with him or he would cut off her hands. The police arrested the man, but now tell her they have no evidence to hold him and he will be released in fifteen minutes.

“I will lose my hands,” the woman says.

Eduardo watches her walk away, head up, arms at her sides. She could be his mother.

Two pickup trucks filled with green uniformed Mexican soldiers pull up to the curb. The comandante sits in the front passenger seat of the first vehicle and waves Eduardo over. He gets in the backseat as the comandante explains that tonight they will patrol downtown and nearby barrios where a lot of drug dealers work. They will stay close to Avenue 16 de Septiembre, a main drag.

“I know this area,” Eduardo says. “It’s very rough.”

“Let’s see what it’s like tonight,” the comandante says.

They drive west through downtown, meandering to unpaved side streets that lead into western Juárez, the oldest part of the city, the land increasingly rocky and uneven. The sky turns gray, then orange as the sun sets, making the dry scrub grass look ablaze. To the north, the Wells Fargo Bank of El Paso and the Camino Real Hotel turn golden.

“We are trained for war,” the comandante says. “We like helping the community but sometimes the people don’t help. They go under the tape, ruin the crime scene. They want to hug the dead.”

Over the radio, the dispatcher announces a suspected suicide attempt with a knife.

“A knife?” the comandante says. “Not a gun?”

“Cutting their wrist,” the driver says.

They drive further on dirt roads gouged and pitted from heavy rains. Lurching in his seat, the comandante receives a report of a stolen car abandoned nearby. He tells the driver the address, but few of the streets have names. The driver asks boys playing soccer for directions. They point downhill. But that road turns into a dead end. The driver asks a man selling tacos if he knows the address. He points the way they had come. The driver switches on the siren, but no cars pull over for him as he races back.

After forty minutes, they find the right street. Families stand outside their homes as the soldiers deploy on the street. A woman carries water in buckets, the child beside her in pants cinched tight by rope. Dogs bark, restrained by heavy chains. The comandante follows a path up a hill, slipping on the loose stones. When he reaches the top, he sees the remains of the stolen car. A white 1998 Nissan Altima. The seats have been ripped apart and the dashboard removed. The rear passenger doors stand open. The comandante looks inside.


After dark, the military speeds to crime scenes.

A soft wind blows. Trees stand in shadows beneath a darkening sky. The hum of generators mixes with the buzz saw sound of cicadas and makes the air sound alive. The comandante opens the trunk.

Nothing. No bodies.

“We see a lot of abandoned cars,” the comandante tells Eduardo. “They are used for robberies. A gang then dismantles the car. Or maybe someone stole it for parts.”

They walk back down the hill to the pickup. Another report comes over the radio. Two gun shots called in. Then the dispatcher changes that to a man who has been shot three times. After a few seconds, the dispatcher alters the report again to a mugging, no shots fired.


The comandante wonders about the quiet. Why has he not seen clusters of young men on street corners?

It can be like that. One sector calms while another explodes.

“I feel good serving here, but you see how complicated it is,” the comandante tells Eduardo. “Juárez is like a monster. It keeps mutating.”

5:30 P.M., July 9

The music plays.

Homicide #1
Meraz Binaga, 52, shot in stomach and left thigh. 5:55 P.M. El Gran Hero district. Gray skies. Graffiti-smeared wall.

“Luis, get down,” a woman tells her son perched on a fence. A dog pisses.

“Is it a man?” Luis asks.

“I don’t know,” his mother says.

On Ernesto’s car radio, Ringo Starr sings “Photograph.” (“Every time I see your face / it reminds me of the places we used to go .  .  .”) 92.3 FM, The Fox, El Paso.
Homicide #2
Victoria Justinian, 45, in a black Toyota Corolla. (Like my car, Ernesto says to himself.) 7 P.M. Nine shots fired.
Victoria’s left arm flops out from beneath a sheet on the gurney. Gravel clings to her fingers. In an apartment, the sound of a washing machine swishing, then water pouring. Rinse cycle. Funeral directors call the scene. Are they dead, how many shots? What is the name? The directors will call the family, offer services.
Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer.”
Ernesto stops at a gas station. Chats with the attendant. Across the street, a carnival. Children wave to him from a Ferris wheel. A rainbow constellation of colored lights.
Homicide #3
Beneath a light pole. Antonio Gonzalez Salazar, 40. Four shots. 8 P.M.
Pluarch Elias Cayes district. A baby sits in a stroller by a hollowed-out abandoned building, no roof. A house-lined road stretches downhill, empty. A colleague from El Diario asks Ernesto to let him take his picture.
The Eagles, “Hotel California.” (“And I was thinking to myself, / this could be heaven or this could be hell . . .”)
Homicides #4 and #5
Around the corner of a church, Aztec Iglesia. 9 P.M. Two dead. Guadalupe Lopez Ortega, 29, and Armando, 25, no last name. Ten to twelve shots fired.
A woman holds up her son for a better look. A man sells tacos within the crime scene. Businesses in the area include McDonald’s, Office Depot, and Abarrotes las India. Ernesto orders four tacos and two quesadillas.
Heart, “Barracuda.”
Homicide #6
10 P.M. Very far, not worth it.
Ernesto returns to the office, downloads his photos. “I ate too much,” he says to no one.
The Rolling Stones, “Beast of Burden.” (“My back is broad, but it’s a-hurting . . . ”)

5:30 A.M., July 6

Eduardo lays out the paper (his screensaver a woman in a bra and black panties):

Page 3: Two dead, domestic dispute. Fight between neighbors.

Page 4: A person killed on Saturday.

Page 5: A killing in Colonia Granjero district. One dead.

Page 6: A man shot to death in a barrio outside the city (cutline: At point-blank range and without mercy).

3 P.M., July 7

Ernesto dresses for work in a gray polo shirt and jeans. He remembers when student protests were the only problems in Juárez. Social leaders, agitators against the government. Maybe gangs but no guns. Chains at most. Never this type of assassination. You could walk the streets and no problem. Have no fear, calm.

The last two years have been intense. Dangerous. In May, he was threatened by a group that came from the south of Mexico and tried to extort him for one hundred dollars a month. He moved to El Paso for four weeks. They knew things about him. They knew the kind of clothes he wore. They had a unit prepared to assassinate him. They were exploiting the violence, using it as cover to extort him. When he left Juárez for El Paso, they stopped calling.

One time at a gas station two men approached him. They wore suits and had short hair. They noticed his PM identification credential. One of the men showed Ernesto the day’s PM. Did you take this picture, he asked Ernesto of the photograph of a dead man on the front page. That’s my job, Ernesto said. If I do this to paper, the man said twisting it, it will drip blood. Who tells you to get to crime scene so fast? Nobody, Ernesto said. We have a police scanner. Next time you get there first you’re dead, you die, the man told him.

6 P.M.

Eduardo lives in a newly opened gated community of small brown adobe-style houses. Many of the front yards still resemble construction sites with nails and broken squares of wood and plastic sheeting strewn about. Most of the young families here, like his own, have three to four children. In five years, Eduardo believes the neighborhood will change for the worse. The kids won’t be as young. They won’t find work. They’ll come under the sway of gangs. He must build a wall around his house while he still has time. It will be very bad, that’s for sure.

After dark, the military speeds to crime scenes.

5 P.M., July 8

Ernesto drives a rutted lane that runs beside the Rio Bravo. A small crowd gathers around a muddy bank where bones were found. Ernesto nudges his way through, and looks at the small shape in the ground.

“Alligator or chicken,” a policeman says.

“Very slender head, ribs, legs,” another officer says.

“Dogicide,” Ernesto jokes.

“Even a dog isn’t safe in Juárez,” a man says.

Ernesto walks back to his car. The scanner sputters to life. He listens to a narcocorrido play its mournful warning. He settles in his seat, begins checking in with the other reporters and lets out a long sigh.

If he retires in two years, he will receive a pension worth 80 percent of his salary. He doesn’t feel strong enough to wait and retire at sixty-five with his full pension.

Staying focused gets harder and harder for him. Age, stomach problems—it frustrates him. His feet hurt in the heat. He can’t climb walls to get the best shot like he did when he was younger. He should get an operation on his stomach, but he refuses. He doesn’t like the idea of being put under anesthetic. He has seen too many bodies, laid-out and lifeless.

When he retires, who knows? He might start a restaurant. Or maybe not. Something always happens in Juárez. Bar fights, shootouts in parking lots, cops sealing off streets. But what else can he do? For now, Ernesto will wait and listen for the music.


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