Friday, July 20, 2012


Like many, I've got a perverse fascination with what daily life in Mexico must be like right now, particularly in cities like Ciudad Juarez, the very deservedly acclaimed "murder capital of the world". There are spiderwebs of drug cartels fighting each other - this book focuses its lens on "La Linea" vs. the Sinaloa Cartel, the primary two players in Juarez's murderous drug war - and as you may have heard, the police, the politicians the business elite are very often tied to the cartels, either for their own enrichment or personal protection. Innocents are routinely kidnapped and murdered, and it is exceptionally common for the murdered to be strung up from bridges or decapitated and left in public squares as "warnings". Juarez is the worst of the worst - a city of millions of people teeming right on the other side of El Paso, Texas, with bridges connecting the two countries that many people seemingly cross with impunity at any and all hours.

Against this backdrop, in a city in which "civic pride" is quite low (as you might imagine), journalist Robert Andrew Powell moved into Ciudad Juarez to document the pulse of this place, and to embed himself with one of the only institutions left to matter in this city - their soccer team,  Los Indios de la Ciudad Juarez. The Indios found themselves vaulted into the primera, Mexico's top fĂștbol league, after improbably winning the minor league title and being elevated into the big leagues. (In Mexico, as in the UK, the worst teams in the top league are relegated to the minor league while the best from the latter are called up. It's a huge source of revenue, sort of like winning the lottery, if your team can make it into the primera from the lower rungs). Powell latches onto the team, and their crazy alcoholic fans ironically self-dubbed as "El Kartel", in their first - and as it turns out, only - year in the big leagues.

Of course, Indios become a metaphor for all that is good and right about Ciudad Juarez, despite the team being absolutely horrible - losing or playing to a draw 27 games in a row during the course of the book. Powell is beyond the cliche, however, and pilots a tight storyline between his experiences with the team, his explorations of the city, the people he meets, and the wider story of Juarez's horrific violence. It occurs all day, all night, every day and every night. Powell hears murders happening outside his front door; stumbles upon the aftermath of mass killing multiple times; learns that a restaurant he'd just eaten it becomes the target of a gangland killing an hour later; and so on. That said, he finds beauty and truth and strength in the many people he becomes friends with, both on and off of the team and their band of never-say-die admirers, and before long becomes inured to the violence that surrounds him, as one living within it must.

A big eye-opener in this book is the chapter about the murders of women in Juarez, which I'm guessing might be the one thing you know about the city (aside from its violence, its placement next to El Paso and its maquiladoras, it's all I knew). Juarez has been the setting for a spectacular amount of female murders, or femicide, and there have been numerous theories floated and followed about serial killers; deliberate targeting by cartels; a government/police conspiracy to murder women and so on. Powell very convincingly debunks the many possible links to all this femicide before arriving at the most obvious conclusion for why so many women are killed here: because so many people are killed here. As it turns out, the per-capita murder rate for women in lower than in most US cities of comparable size; lower than that of Mexico City, and so on. In a violent city, in which murder is so easy to commit without consequences, it's also easy to kill a girlfriend, wife or sister who happens to be in the way or who a bad guy would like to see disappear. It's heartbreaking, and it's surprising to see this story end up there. 

"THIS LOVE IS NOT FOR COWARDS - SALVATION AND SOCCER IN CIUDAD JUAREZ" is a terrific bit of first-person journalism, and whets my appetite to learn more about this amazingly messed-up yet inspiring and fascinating country to my south. It shows you what happens when civic life breaks down, and how real people attempt to rebuild it using the institutions - like sports teams - that we innately rally around as human beings.