Hope returns to Juarez ... riding a big pink motorbike
On the streets of a Mexican border town notorious for its vicious drug war, 'Las Guerreras', a brave group of female bikers, are fighting back. William Lloyd-George reports
Monday 06 June 2011
It is another baking hot day in Ciudad Juarez on the US-Mexican border when the usual mid-afternoon call comes through the radio to alert local journalists of an execution. While the police were changing shifts, two men were shot and killed outside a convenience store in broad daylight, adding to more than 8,000 murders since 2008, making Juarez one of the world's most dangerous places.
As drug cartels battle to gain control over the lucrative drug trade, the murders continue daily. Meanwhile more than 60 per cent of the population is left in abject poverty and more flee the city and its violence. Fed up with the suffering, a group of women have come together to take matters into their own hands. As police race to the murder scene, Las Guerreras ("the Warrior Women") come together outside a department store to discuss their plan of action for the day.
"We have seen so much pain and grief in this city and just wanted to help families who are really in need," says Lorenia Granados, a 42-year-old traffic warden and founder of the group, whose members traverse the stricken city on their signature pink motorbikes, delivering assistance to families affected by the violence.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in power since 2006, has launched a widespread military campaign against the drug cartels which compete to smuggle cocaine and heroin into the US. He has sent tens of thousands of soldiers and police into the northern parts of Mexico, and violence has surged as the security forces fight the cartels and the cartels increasingly fight each other.
It is estimated that nearly 40,000 civilians have been killed in the drugs war, and in recent months there has been a growing campaign by activists and relatives of lost ones to end the war and pull all military from the north. Mr Calderon says this is completely out of the question. In the meantime, the people of Juarez live in increasing fear and destitution.
Seeing the increase in suffering around them, the Warrior Women – housewives, teachers and business owners – have taken matters into their own hands. Last week the group was delivering a wheelchair to Daniel, a disabled seven-year-old boy who lives in one of the most dangerous areas of the city.
The women have already made a name for themselves in a city where almost all have lost hope, and a hit-man makes less money than a street vendor. Outside the store, an elderly man in a typical Mexican cowboy hat greets the women, applauding them for their work.
Gathered together in matching purple clothes, they jump on their large bright pink bikes with "Las Guerreras" painted down the side.
One of the women shouts out, "Let's go, Las Guerreras" and they're off, roaring through the streets of Juarez where more than eight people a day are murdered by rival drug gangs. Children look on in awe from passing cars and drivers beep or wave as they catch sight of the spectacle.
After an hour's ride to the edge of the city, the women arrive at Felipe Angeles Colony, one of the most violent neighbourhoods where shootings occur daily. The women are quick to drive off the highway, away from the eyes of drug cartel intelligence groups who keep a close watch on the neighbourhoods.
When they arrive at the house, Daniel's aunt begins to cry. Aged seven, the boy looks no older than five, and due to lack of oxygen when he was in his mother's womb, he is unable to walk.
The women give the family their first wheelchair. Previously Daniel would be left at home, or his aunt would have to carry him. "It was impossible to go anyway. Now it will be so much easier. These women have changed our life," says Reveles Dominguez, the boy's aunt.
Like most families in Juarez, Daniel and his family have been severely affected by the drug war. A shrine outside their home serves as a chilling reminder of recent violence that rocked the family.
In 2008, Daniel's mother was shot in the head by a stray bullet as two gangs fought a gun battle outside a department store. Then in 2009, his uncle, a priest, was assassinated outside their house in the middle of the day. And then last year, most unexpectedly, his grandmother was shot several times as she walked home from the shops.
"Like most deaths in this city we have no idea why it happened," says Ms Dominguez. "My relatives were not involved in the drug cartels or anything like that, just normal people trying to lead normal lives."
Since the murders, family members have been terrified to go outside. There are six children to look after who have been traumatised by the events. The family used to have a small shop outside their home on the highway, but since the shootings they closed it, leaving them with almost no income.
"The whole city is like living in a big prison," says Jairo Mandez, who was preparing for a birthday party last year with ten other friends when three cars of gunmen drove past and killed four of his friends, including the birthday boy. "They are killing for nothing now, and the question always remains, why? People don't even know why they are being attacked".
The violence has also affected the city economically. More than 10,000 businesses have closed since the drugs war erupted in 2006. The once-popular tourist area downtown has turned into something resembling a war zone, the walls of restaurants crumbling and the area lined with heavily-armed federal police who cover their faces to hide their identities. Few believe the government is on the right path, and say that much of the funding directed into the military could be used to aid the poor.
"It is vicious cycle – the more the violence rages, the more businesses close down and the economy suffers," says Wilebaldo Martinez Toyes, a researcher at the University of Juarez. "The more the economy suffers, the less opportunities there are and the more people join the cartels' ranks."
In a city where few have been left unharmed by the violence, Las Guerreras have brought a sense of hope that Juarez can rebuild itself. Before leaving Daniel's home, Lorenia, the founder of Las Guerreras, says she wants to increase the group's membership so they can deliver aid to more people across Juarez.
"We might be a small group but we dream we can inspire others to help those in need, and bring hope to the people of Juarez who have suffered so much."
DRUG WARS BY NUMBERS
4 years and seven months since Mexico's President Felipe Calderon declared "war" on the country's cartels.
11 mayors of Mexican cities and towns assassinated last year.
34,612 people reportedly killed in drug-related violence up to January this year.
50,000 troops and federal police involved in the government campaign against the cartels.
90% of the cocaine trafficked to the US is estimated to pass through Mexico.
5,000 women and girls killed in Ciudad Juarez since the early 1990s in a wave of unsolved but probably drug-related murders known as "femicides".
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