“Down below El Paso lies Juarez,
Mexico is different, like the travel poster says….”
-Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, “Mexican Divorce”
I. Touch Of Evil
That was the summer of “birds falling out of trees,” as the Apaches might say. Looming weirdness. I’m in a beat-up Juarez taxi cab, inching slowly away from the Plaza Monumental bullring. A masked character in the truck across from us begins firing an automatic weapon over the top of the cab. Across the street at the Geronimo bar, three bodies fall into the gutter. My cab driver pulls his head down and shrieks: Cristo! Cristo! against the racket of trumpets and accordions from a narco-corrido song on the radio. Cristo, Jesu Cristo! Ayuda me! The cab lurches forward with each string of Jesus curses. I’m riding inside a pinball machine set up next to a shooting gallery. Bodies are falling outside. Bodies are falling in the drug song on the radio. My shirt sleeve is stuck on the handle of the door and I can’t seem to twist and duck my head down below the dashboard. This is not the way I want to die. I try to grab hold of the wheel but the driver pulls himself together, makes the sign of the cross, then turns down back streets and alleys that lead to the border bridge. The rat-a-tat-tat of a weapon fades into the distance. The cabbie wheels to a stop and lights a cigarette. Sangre de Cristo. Fifty pesos, por favor.
It’s another Sunday evening in Ciudad Juarez.
Back then, twelve years ago, it cost fifteen cents to enter Mexico. Fifteen cents to wheel through the turnstile and cross the river bridge into the carnal trap. The Lawless Roads. I used to think of Orson Welles’ noir classic: “Touch of Evil,” when I walked down the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. That sinister feeling which draws the gringo-rube into web of rat-ass bars and neon caves; the nerve tingling possibility of cheap drink, violence, and sex; sex steeped in sham clichés about dark-eyed senoritas and donkey shows. It’s that heady, raw – anything goes, all is permitted, death is to be scorned- routine which informed and carved out the rank borderline personalities of John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and hundreds of Mexican drug lords. Western myth now grim reality. You craved the real west, didn’t you?
The late British writer, Graham Greene, knew the border terrain. He crossed over at Laredo in 1939, noting: “The border means more than a custom’s house, a passport office, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different. Life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport is stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money changers.”
Speechless among the money changers. I like that. I can’t imagine what Hunter Thompson would have come up with if he’d written a version of Fear and Loathingabout the current state of affairs in Juarez. Cristo, Cristo, Cristo. Thompson once said that if you want to know where the edge is, you’ve got to go over it. Juarez is big time over the edge. Amen....
(This is the first page to a Tom Russell essay published in full on a radical new blog called The Rumpus....here's the link to the full story with art.)