In 2009, more than twice as many people were killed in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez (population 1.3 million) than in New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago (total population 15 million) combined. The violence, much of which is related to the drug trade, is hard to fathom—but not impossible to count.
Since 2008, Molly Molloy has done this macabre accounting on her Google Newsgroup “The Frontera List.” Working from reports in Juárez’s daily newspapers, Molloy, a reference librarian at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, tallies the number of people killed each day, and then translates and transmits the grim news to the listserv.
Molloy also provides important context and analysis to patterns in the violence, both of which are often missing in Juárez news reports because journalists working in the border city are often the targets of violence from cartels themselves. On August 24, the United Nations named Mexico the most dangerous country in the Americas for journalists.
In addition to maintaining the Frontera List, to which more than 500 people now subscribe, Molloy has collaborated with Charles Bowden (who was interviewed in In These Times‘ September issue) to challenge the Mexican government’s official explanation of the country’s violence epidemic and provide research assistance for his latest book, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. She and Bowden are co-editing an autobiography of a Mexican drug cartel sicario, or assassin, to be published in the spring of 2011.
In These Times interviewed Molloy via e-mail in August 2010.
—Associate Publisher Dan Dineen (Photo by Richard Baron)
What do you hope the Frontera List achieves?
I think it raises awareness of the day-to-day reality of the violence in Juarez. When you see, read about, even the most basic details of the murder victims, it makes it much more difficult to believe the rhetoric of both Mexican and U.S. government officials when they say that “90 percent” of the victims [throughout Mexico] are criminals being killed by other criminals. President Calderon has said this explicitly and it has been echoed by his security officials, by both the U.S. and Mexican Ambassadors and by various members of the U.S. administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
There are quite a few reporters and editors on the list and I’ve noticed that the updated numbers I try to post daily on the murder toll in Juarez do appear in the English-language press more frequently than they used to. I still see huge underestimates of the deaths, but I’m pretty confident of my tally and when there are new official reports in the Mexican press, they are almost always MORE than what I’ve recorded on a day-to-day basis. So, when/if I complain about undercounts in the U.S. press, I think I’m right.
I also use the list as a “proto-archive,” a place to store thousands of original articles that document this time-period in Juarez and in other places in Mexico and the border region. I’m working on a plan to develop these archived articles into something that will be a real database that will allow us to find out more about the characteristics of the victims (ages, gender, circumstances of the murders, etc.) This information will be an important piece of the record of what happened.
Which media outlets, both American and Mexican, do you depend on for the Frontera List?
I get most of the information on the killings in Juarez from the online versions of El Diario and Norte de Ciudad Juarez. I look at Mexican national sources like El Universal, Milenio, Proceso, La Jornada and others. I also check websites including Lapolaka.com and Arrobajuarez.com. I also have several Google alerts for Juarez news and get postings from the mainstream press and a lot of blogs and websites that way. Also, there are reporters from the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, NPR, El Paso Times and various regional TV stations on the list. They will often let me know when they have a new story. There are also quite a few activists and academics on the list and they will send press releases or links to new publications. It is a real hodgepodge of sources.
Are you in contact with any journalists working inside Juárez?
Yes, there are several Juarez reporters and photojournalists on the list and they sometimes point out stories I have missed. I also e-mail them now and then to see if they have other sources for current statistics or for follow up on certain stories.
Why does the perception that the violence in Juarez is femicide persist?
That is a hard question to answer, but I think that a focus on the murders of women enables people to feel that the situation in Juarez is containable, that it is a crime drama to be solved with good police work, with activism, consciousness-raising, protests and a variety of artistic production (novels, movies, art exhibitions, etc.) It seems more manageable perhaps to deal with a phenomenon in which all the victims are so obviously innocent and sympathetic. It is a lot more challenging to look at the huge cauldron of social pathology that Juarez has become—that Juarez has been becoming for a long time.
The murders of women began to be noticed and written about in Juarez in the early 1990s and in the U.S. press a few years later. For about 15 years, women made up about 10-12 percent of murder victims in the city. When the murder numbers exploded in 2008, the percentage of victims that are women dropped to about 5 percent while the actual numbers of all people killed increased by more than five times and those numbers of both male and female victims continue to increase. As of early August 2010, the death toll in Juarez is more than 1,800 and about 170 of those are women. The percentage of female victims is climbing again.
But based on the available information, most of the women are killed in the same circumstances as the men—shot to death on the street or in their homes or in other public places like bars and shopping malls. Many women are also victimized by spouses or other male relatives or acquaintances, and in fact, during the years when the “Juarez femicides” became the dominant focus of activists and academics outside of Mexico, it is estimated that at least three-fourths of those cases were domestic violence. …
From 1993 through August 5, 2010, more than 800 women have been murdered in Juarez, and more than 8,800 men. It does not mean that the smaller percentage of female victims do not matter, but rather that ALL of the lives—of women, men, boys and girls—ALL of them matter. And that in the current explosion of crime and violence, all of the people of Juárez are victims, not only the women. What is happening in Juarez is much more than “femicide.” It is a human rights disaster.
What effect does the violence in Juarez have on youth culture in Mexico?
I think a lot of youth are afraid that they could be victims of violence and with reason. I think that most of the victims are probably younger than 25 and many are teenagers. Kids have been killed on the street, at large gatherings in private homes, in bars, dance clubs and pool halls. There are reports of growing nihilism among young people, the desire to live fast and die young and that many are attracted to the life of gangs, crime and violence.
But there are also youth who study and play sports and work in social causes. I don’t get too much personal exposure to youth in Juarez, but here are two recent anecdotes. Last spring, I attended an all-day Saturday workshop at Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis, the domestic violence counseling center founded by Esther Chavez Cano. In attendance were about 50 volunteers and staff, at least three-fourths of them were high school and college students. They spent about 9 hours that Saturday listening to a variety of counselors and academics giving presentations on the origins of domestic violence, gender violence, the crisis of masculinity in the border region and other such topics.
To me, that indicates a pretty high level of personal commitment to social change. Just yesterday, I went to an Indios soccer game. The kids I met there were devoted supporters of Juarez’ minor league professional team and they were rowdy, drinking and smoking and cheering and hanging out. The stands were far from full, but the crowd was raucous and happy cause the team had a big win.
But after the game, it seemed that all the kids were going home, no late night parties at bars, even though they told stories of how much wilder things used to be. Also, as I crossed back over the bridge to El Paso, I noticed a lot of young people who had been at the game in the line going back to the US. Many families who have the means and the opportunity to do so have moved to El Paso in hopes of protecting themselves from random violence, kidnapping and extortion.
Does the immigration debate, in the wake of Arizona S.B. 1070, distract Americans from the situation in Juarez? How are the immigration crisis and the drug war related?
In a way, I think it distracts both Americans AND Mexicans. The Mexican government has gone on the record protesting the discriminatory nature of the Arizona law, especially the likelihood that Mexicans will be targeted for discrimination regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. And it is certainly true that the law will discriminate against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and anyone who “looks like” some profile of an illegal alien. We should all protest the implicit civil rights violations in this legislation.
But what about the human rights abuses of the Mexican government? Not only against their own citizens, but also against immigrants from Central America who must pass through Mexican territory on their even longer and more dangerous journey from countries even poorer than Mexico and also experiencing increasing levels of violence, some of it probably caused by Mexican drug trafficking organizations operating in their countries.
In the U.S., I appreciate the protests against the Arizona law and I believe that this growing activism may spur the federal government to work on more comprehensive immigration reform. But I do not think that a focus on discrimination and abuse of immigrants in the U.S. should be viewed in isolation from the increasingly violent situation in Mexico. The violence, to a large degree, comes from the same factors as the illegal immigration to the U.S.: the failure of the Mexican economy to provide a decent livelihood for most of its citizens and the failure of the Mexican government to provide the most basic security and justice for most of its citizens.
Mexicans are certainly more aware than Americans are of the effects of corruption, government protection of and dependence on criminal syndicates and rampant abuses of power that affect their lives every day. It makes sense that they would try to build better lives for their families. Comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. must look realistically at Mexico and not pretend that free trade, a few criminal justice reforms and ever more power and resources in the hands of the Mexican military will make that country a place that respects the human rights of its citizens.
Is American public discourse so narrow that it can only handle one narrative about the border?
This use of the word narrative implies that there are multiple stories being told and that you can just pick one you want to believe. That is a belief system, an ideology or a religion, and allows people to ignore facts they find disagreeable. I think facts and knowledge are necessary to understand problems. There is no way that a particular narrative or rhetorical framework can control what Americans or Mexicans think or say about immigration, drugs, violence or any other issue.
But there is no hope to influence any positive change without some understanding of facts on the ground. A lot of Americans think that violence is spilling over the border, but there is no factual basis for that story they choose to believe.
Is the legalization of drugs, as Charles Bowden suggests, the only way to quell drug violence in Mexico?
I don’t think that legalization of drugs will quell violence in Mexico in the short term because so much of the violence is connected to other factors — poverty, lack of social infrastructure, military and paramilitary actions that may be targeting certain parts of the population for “social cleansing,” perhaps other factors. It is a fact that the criminal syndicates that originated to produce and transport and sell drugs have expanded into many other areas of business, legal and otherwise.
I think that in the short term, if the economic incentives were removed from the drug business, the violence would increase. The money from drugs permeates many facets of economic life in Mexico—most estimates put the drug business at between $30 and $50 billion per year. What will replace it? In the long term, the only way to deal with the human appetite for drugs will be to legalize the substances and to treat addiction as a health issue, not a criminal issue. It will not be easy, it cannot be accomplished by one country acting alone. What can replace the human desire to seek escape from the pain of poverty and hopelessness? I do not have an answer.
Given President Felipe Calderon’s recent statement regarding legalization, do you think this fundamental policy shift could occur?
I think that it would be a positive discussion for Mexicans to have and to have people in the ruling political party open the door to the discussion can be positive. I also do not think that it will have any influence on opening up the same discussion in the U.S. If drugs were legalized in Mexico, it would not neutralize the power and influence of criminal organizations. These groups are already expanding into other criminal activities.
Can you explain the Merida Initiative? Do you think it will change the pattern of drug violence or the culture surrounding it?
The Merida Initiative provides U.S. aid money directly to the Mexican Army and to other security forces in that country. Nothing so far seems to indicate that these institutions are more effective or less corrupt. In the time since the Merida Initiative has been proposed and funded, the violence and criminality has only increased.
Back to the media. Does the language barrier inhibit a national conversation about the state of Juárez and America’s connection to it? Specifically, at the levels of information dissemination (especially on the Internet) and news reporting, does the language difference stop Americans from understanding the gravity of the situation?
I think that it does. The basic facts of the day-to-day violence in Mexico are reported mostly in the local, Spanish-language media. Even the U.S. media physically closest to Juárez report only a small fraction of the carnage. But I do not think that is why most Americans do not understand it. I think they choose to ignore it. I’m not sure I understand it, but I know enough to understand when people in power in both governments are lying about it. That 90 percent thing, for example.
What’s the most common mistake the American media makes about Juárez?
Echoing government spokesmen who tell us that all of the dead in this war are guilty criminals without demanding one shred of evidence. Or repeating over and over like a mantra that the Mexican Army is a heroic and competent institution fighting a war against drugs.
What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you would like to see passed right now?
I’d like to see certain areas in the Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces and the Potrillo Mountains southwest of Las Cruces [in New Mexico] designated Wilderness areas.
And, being an educator, regardless of what happens to comprehensive immigration reform, Congress should pass the DREAM Act allowing access to higher education to young people who came to the U.S. illegally many years ago. These kids are new Americans, regardless of where they were born. We are all invested in them and they deserve to continue their education and to become citizens of the United States if they so choose.
You live about 45 minutes away from Juárez. How does the enormous amount of violence so close to where you live affect your community?
There are more Mexican people from Juárez and other places in northern Mexico who have moved here to seek refuge from the violence. Some are openly seeking political asylum, but many more are living here under the radar and under the border patrol checkpoints, trying to make a living and take care of their families. Many people with family and professional ties to Juárez no longer go there. It is no longer possible to take student groups to Juárez, nor will area universities sponsor or even allow professional travel to Juárez.
Every day, you aggregate and disseminate news stories detailing deeply disturbing violence. What effect does this have on you personally?
I admit to being a bit obsessed with the numbers of people killed in Juárez and I lose some sleep to document it. But I think the work is important. I have the intention of organizing this digital archive into a database that will help to answer questions for future researchers.
Some people insist that my focus on the numbers denies the humanity of the victims and of those working for social change in Juárez. I disagree. The actual victims of the slaughter happening in Juárez disappear in the pages of commentary and policy analysis from government, academic and law enforcement experts in both the United States and Mexico. Poets and critics say that perhaps “Juárez has become a metaphor, an emblem of the future of the U.S.-Mexico border…” [See “Juárez is dying, prominent journalist warns,” El Paso Times, April 10, 2010.]
But Juárez is not a metaphor. It is a real place of great neglect and great suffering. It is a place where gangs of killers—organized and otherwise—commit murder with no fear of punishment. It is a place where the citizens can expect no protection from their government leaders or from their institutions.
My job is easy compared to the Mexican journalists in Juárez and elsewhere who risk their lives to gather facts and tell these stories every day. If it helps more Americans to open their eyes to a human rights disaster on our border, then I feel I’m beginning to do my job.