The Battle of Juarez
I've met the sons of darkness,
and the sons of light
In the border towns of despair
Bob Dylan, "Dignity"
I had the pleasure of sharing lunch ten years ago with the celebrated Southwestern painter Tom Lea. He was ninety years old and nearly blind, but his mind was astute as he shoveled in the peppermint ice cream and chatted about many things: the bullfighter Manolete; preparing paint varnishes; memories of the Mexican Revolution. Lea's father had been the mayor of El Paso, and he was always kicking "that old saddle-skinned son of a bitch" Pancho Villa back across the river. Villa, in turn, put a price on the sheriff's head, and little Tom Lea had to have a bodyguard accompany him to school. It was early in the 1900's and the revolution began to thunder in Northern Mexico. Tom Lea said El Paso folks would set chairs up on their rooftops and watch the war action across the river. The six o'clock news was just a quarter mile away; being written in blood through the binoculars.
80 years later, in 1997, I was close to being gunned down twice, near the bullring in Juarez. Wrong place; wrong time. Big time. These were the incipient skirmishes in what is now the full-on drug war in the streets of Juarez between the Tijuana and Juarez cartels. Statistics: 2000 people killed within the last year in Juarez (the Baghdad of Northern Mexico). An estimated 2000 illegal weapons flow from the United States into Mexico every day, and a ton of coca powder, heroin and marijuana travels in the other direction. Up the noses of the middle class; into the arms of the poor. Filtering through the lungs of wasted angels.
There are now ten thousand army troops and cops patrolling the streets of Juarez. Billy the Kid wouldn't stand a chance. The bridge into hell is just a twenty minute car ride from my hacienda. Ain't this the last frontier Hollywood cowboys longed for? Ain't this what Cormac McCarthy was trying to dream up? It might be time to put a chair up on the roof and watch the action, again, through field glasses. I used to walk those Juarez streets and drink at those bars; and good ones they are. There is nothing like the Kentucky bar on a Sunday afternoon when the margarita limes are being squeezed by Mando and Ana Gabriel is on the jukebox with her husky pipes bellowing out "Valentine de la Sierra.". And how many new narco-corrido songs will emerge from the current smoke? The narco ballads are the most contemporary of cowboy songs. And how many righteously shocked news commentators and NPR icons will lay their moral outrage at our feet? These news people bleed for us, but their blood is colored water and pomegranate juice.
The tourist market is empty now and the mariachis have gone underground. I wonder what happened to that old beggar from Kansas I met awhile back on a deserted Juarez street corner. The most down and out, grizzled and homeless sixty year-old being on the face of God's troubled earth. He wanted paper money; pesos or dollars. "Don’t give me no pennies," he said. "I'm from Kansas. I draw pictures on paper bags." I wish I'd asked him how in hell he got trapped in Juarez. Forever. His vaporous presence walking away down that alley… haunts me. Who was he? Why can't he cross back over? I want to hear HIS take on the drug wars. Only his take.
Is he dodging the gunfire now in that alley behind the Tragadero Restaurant, where Tom Lea's friend, Manolete, stares down from a 1946 photo on the yellow smoked walls? Are people blind in heaven? Or is Tom Lea, who landed with the Marines on Pelei, catching this action…all of it raging down along the river, in the battle of Juarez.