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Home A Look From Within: Navigating Extreme Violence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

A Look From Within: Navigating Extreme Violence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

Jesús Ángel Estrada* has helped many at-risk youth as a social worker for a non-profit in Ciudad Juárez, the sprawling manufacturing hub on the US-Mexico border. But he still struggles with the case of a boy who saw his father murdered in front of him.

The brazen killing came at the tail end of an extreme period of violence in this border city. Between 2008 and 2011, Juárez recorded multiple killings every day and had one of the highest murder rates in the world.

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Jesús Ángel Estrada* has helped many at-risk youth as a social worker for a non-profit in Ciudad Juárez, the sprawling manufacturing hub on the US-Mexico border. But he still struggles with the case of a boy who saw his father murdered in front of him.

In 2012, when the boy was just five years old, he was sitting in the family car with his father at the wheel when several armed men arrived in a white Durango truck. They approached the driver’s side window and murdered his father without saying a word.

The brazen killing came at the tail end of an extreme period of violence in this border city. Between 2008 and 2011, Juárez recorded multiple killings every day and had one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Juárez After the War

Estrada took a particular interest in the boy who witnessed his father’s murder, relying on in-depth, multidisciplinary techniques in therapy. But nothing worked. The boy, now a teenager, is fixated on one thing: locating the white truck and killing those who murdered his father.

“His mind is always busy. I have worked a lot with him, delving into the murder of his father, but without mentioning the episode because I know that would close the conversation again,” Estrada explained.

Estrada first arrived at the Youth Advice and Promotion Center (Centro de Asesoría y Promoción Juvenil), known as CASA, more than a decade ago. Since then, he has worked to change the lives of about 250 students between the ages of 6 and 18, all from marginal neighborhoods.

Violence in Juárez has marked the lives of several generations from these neglected areas, but Estrada calls this one the “children of war.”

“They were little kids that survived, but many of them ended up working for the gangs and becoming hired assassins due to a profound pain that never left them,” he said.

Estrada is now at the heart of a local effort spearheaded by a network of activists and community leaders to rescue the youth of Juárez and show them a better future. Though the work is difficult, he draws motivation and inspiration from his firsthand experience navigating the city’s complex violence dynamics.

Marked by Violence

When Estrada was just 15 years old, he landed in juvenile prison in Juárez and met an infamous inmate known as “El Güero.” The experience went on to have a major impact on his desire to help young people affected by violence.

El Güero was largely abandoned as a kid. With his father in jail and his mother working at one of the city’s manufacturing plants, one of his caretakers sexually abused him when he was five years old. Years later, police arrested him after he killed one of his uncles, cut up the body, and spent a day and a half inside the house next to the body.

Estrada, on the other hand, was a small-time gang member who had been jailed for a couple of minor offenses. Local police surprised him in the middle of a street fight just after he had graffitied the city’s old municipal president’s building.

The other inmates warned Estrada about El Güero, who was tall and strong and stood out for his physical presence. They told him he was the devil, a butcher, and not to go near him. But one day after playing soccer, Estrada approached him and asked if they were going to finally share a meal. El Güero accepted and ended up telling him his life story.

Like Estrada, El Güero was an exemplary inmate. He never fought with anyone or got upset by the fact that he was segregated due to the severity of his crime. Because he was a minor, a judge sentenced him to five years in prison. Three of those would have been in the adult prison where his father was jailed, but he was released early for good behavior.

But El Güero’s fate was sealed. He was murdered the same day he was released. Nobody knew who killed him or why, and authorities didn’t bother investigating.

Estrada left jail shortly after, just as the city was entering into what would become the deadliest time period in its history. While he managed to escape the violence temporarily, it would have profound impacts on him and his future work, just like it had for El Güero and countless other young people in Juárez.

Forced Gang Recruitment

After Estrada left prison near the end of 2007, Juárez saw a string of murders and disappearances that hinted at the city’s social decay. But this was only the beginning. A violent gang war was brewing for control of the city’s criminal economies, mainly drug trafficking, and groups were recruiting low-level gang members like Estrada to fight.

Between 2008 and 2011, Juárez recorded more than 10,000 killings. In those years, nearly one in every five murders in Mexico took place in the city. The statistics were unprecedented. But they lacked any context about the bigger story behind the bodies that piled up, dismembered, decapitated, or hung and crucified so that literally everyone could see them, including boys and girls.

During this time, 7,000 federal security forces, including soldiers and police, patrolled the city’s streets on the orders of then-President Felipe Calderón under the pretext of the so-called “war on drugs.” In reality, those same forces were intimately linked to the wave of violence that engulfed the city and provoked one of the biggest mass exoduses of people.

As the violence raged, civil society groups estimated more than 230,000 residents left Juárez for El Paso, a safe haven on the US side of the border in Texas. Estrada was among those who stayed behind.

After he was released from prison, he returned to his home in the Barrio Nuevo neighborhood. At that time, a group of jailed gang leaders had ordered their subordinates to recruit young people like Estrada into the ranks of the Artists Assassins, or the “Double A’s,” as they were later known. The group needed foot soldiers for an impending war against two other gangs linked to drug trafficking groups and local security forces: the Aztecas and Mexicles.

In Juárez, to enter and leave prison without snitching on anybody was laudable. But not for the reasons one might think. Neighborhood gang leaders saw it as a sort of badge of honor. Those types of honors brought unwanted attention, and Estrada and the rest of his friends knew it.

Invitations from all three gangs to join didn’t go out to just anybody. They looked for leaders, those who never flipped, or who had a long arrest history for carrying out armed robberies of banks and department stores, or attacking police. They wanted people who knew how the city’s underworld worked.

Estrada had only ever been a low-level gang member. He wasn’t a leader, and didn’t have a long rap sheet. But what mattered was that he wasn’t a snitch, so different gangs sought him out on three occasions.

The first was a friendly request that came via some mutual acquaintances. “There’s a lot of money and protection,” they tried to convince him. He declined.

Not long after, a second, more forceful demand came. “So what’s it going to be, Jesús, are you going to join or not?”

After he declined again, the final request was more of a direct threat.

“You better join man or you’re fucked.”

Escaping Fate

In the early years of Calderón’s crackdown, Juárez’s gang wars affected one specific demographic more than anybody else: young teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19. Estrada knew this better than anyone due to his own connections with troubled youth and struggles to escape gang life.

“It’s cool to defend your neighborhood, but it’s not enough to kill just for the sake of killing, to get into a drug trafficking war. It was like you had to defend a certain group and give your life for them,” Estrada told InSight Crime, looking back at that time.

He and many of his friends resisted gang recruitment. But of the 100 or so young people that lived alongside him in Barrio Nuevo, he estimated that about one-third wound up dead, the majority murdered for not going to war for one of the gangs.

In this context, Estrada moved from neighborhood to neighborhood around the center and west sides of Juárez. He wasn’t trying to hide, he was trying to escape a fate he felt was almost guaranteed.

It was 2009, and about two years had passed since he left jail. The feeling that he was just moments away from being killed forced him to drop out of school. To survive, he sought out the services of the CASA youth center, where he would later work. Under their protection, he managed to complete high school. Later he became a licensed teacher and began a master’s degree.

But to get ahead in a context of extreme duress is nearly impossible. That was the case 15 years ago, he said, and it may be even more difficult to do so today. It’s not enough to change your clothes, hide your tattoos, or change your hairstyle to continue with your life and studies.

Today, there are more than a dozen local gangs that operate in the city. Many of them also work with corrupt security forces and parts of the Sinaloa Cartel or New Juárez Cartel, which emerged from the remnants of the Juárez Cartel after a bloody battle with the Sinaloa Cartel left it reeling.

Juárez Cartel Criminal Profile

Estrada rejected demands from the Aztecas, Mexicles, and Artists Assassins to join them as they fought for control of the city’s criminal economies. But many others jumped at the opportunity and now formed part of criminal networks that enjoyed police protection and access to high-powered weapons.

Despite their support, the staff at CASA could not guarantee Estrada’s safety. In the spring of 2009, armed gang members snatched him from a house party and drove him to a house. They tortured him for hours, even jamming a metal rod through the bottom of his chin. His heart rate fell so low that his attackers thought he was dead. They threw his body in a ditch at the foot of a building that was under construction not far from where he was taken.

Estrada survived only because a passerby came across his discarded body. At first they tried to rob him, but when Estrada winced in pain, they realized he was still alive and called paramedics to bring him to the hospital.

The gangs tried to kill him again two years later, in May 2011. Gang members shot him in the hand, foot, and head as he stood in front of a neighbor’s house. They also punctured his lung with an icepick and tried to cut his throat with a machete. It didn’t work because the blade was too dull and small. Estrada was left for dead again.

Miraculously, an unknown observer eventually called an ambulance to the scene, which saved his life. He was hospitalized for two weeks and underwent physical therapy for five months after that.

After narrowly surviving these targeted attacks, Estrada again felt helpless. But just as he had in the past, he decided to return to the one group that had helped him through some of the toughest times of his life: CASA.

Clinging to Hope

For several years following the attacks, Estrada kept a low profile while he volunteered at CASA. He officially joined the staff around 2015. While he is hopeful and stays committed to the work, he says the negative cases still outweigh the positive.

It is an uphill battle. Juárez was gripped by another wave of violence last year. The city logged more than 1,000 homicides in 2023. Many of the victims and victimizers were young men and women under 25 years old.

In one case in February, three vehicles calmly entered a network of tiny homes known as UrbiVilla in the southeast corner of the city. In less than 10 minutes, they murdered six people and then calmly left the scene without speeding. The only people arrested for the massacre were two teenagers.

“What is happening [today] is much deeper and more painful than what we experienced,” Estrada lamented.

But despite how many lives he has lost to the violence in the streets, Estrada tries to focus on the lives he has saved.

The young boy who saw his father murdered has kept coming back to therapy. He seems less fixated on revenge, and for Estrada, that is enough for now.

*For security reasons, InSight Crime changed the name of the interviewee.

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