New book details the Juarez cartel-wars

Laura Wright

“The Fight to Save Juarez” is not a book to read before bed. In the first 100 pages alone, educational psychology professor Ricardo C. Ainslie’s non-fiction account of the drug war in the Mexican city of Juarez includes funerals disrupted by helicopters raining down gunfire, “narco-messages” left on public monuments in the dead of night that list police officers to be killed and “houses of death” with backyards filled to the point of bursting with mutilated corpses. 

Each of these incidents sounds uncannily like a plot point in a violent American blockbuster, but as Ainslie’s book forces the reader to recognize, America doesn’t need to look to the silver screen to witness such acts of violence. They all occurred in the Mexican city of Juarez, which sits just across the United States border from El Paso, Texas and a mere 600 miles from the UT campus. The city has suffered through a multi-faceted drug war that exploded around 2008 and, as the book notes in its epilogue, continues to this day.     

Though the worst years of that war took place right next door and were due in part to the American demand for drugs, it “received scant attention” in the U.S. media. The United States’ lack of news coverage on the violence was surely caused in part by the sheer complexity of the situation since cartels fought cartels, cartels fought police and police fought police. Luckily for the reader, Ainslie deftly parses the violence and cuts it with emotionally compelling accounts of individuals living in Juarez that keep the book compelling even as it explains details of Mexico’s public policy.     

The book focuses on four people who experienced the drug war first-hand: Juarez’s municipal president from 2007-2010, Jose Reyes Ferriz, the mistress of a mid-level cartel manager, Elena (a pseudonym), the human rights activist Gustavo de la Rosa and the local photo journalist Raymundo Ruiz. The book splits itself into 29 short chapters, each around four to 10 pages long, which focus on a specific character’s life. In this way, the book manages to make confusing situations surrounding the drug war easy to comprehend, while grounding them in artfully memorable vignettes about life in Juarez. 

It is hard to forget, for example, about how Elena’s drug-running lover Hernan picked up beautiful young women in bars and convinced them to serve as drug mules, which required them to strap “one kilo [of cocaine] on each of the inner thighs, one on the small of the back, two around the stomach and one in the crotch area.” Consequently, it is also hard to forget the subtle way in which drug runners get around border crossings. 

Even more memorable is the account of Guillermo Prieto, the Juarez police chief, breaking down and crying “Why him? Why him?” after his second-in-command was gunned down after a game of dominos. Ainslie expertly ties this emotional event back to the practical assessment that “cartels were continuing to decimate [the Juarez] police force … systemically eliminating its leadership.” 

Ultimately, the surreal violence in the book, rather than deterring UT students from picking it up, should prompt them to do so. If nothing else, students should take the time to read Ainslie’s book out of a sense of common concern for a city experiencing mass violence only 600 miles away from where they live and work.