A friend and I had lunch in Ciudad Juarez last week. For a few bucks each, we savored different versions of sumptuous fish soup. Tasty and flavorful, the soup was as good- and much cheaper- than the same food sold in Mexican beach resorts. Feeling fine, we paid the bill and headed out the door of the restaurant with a pair of satisfied stomachs.
Then we got a taste of the reality that many of the residents of the troubled border city experience on a routine basis.
Strolling down Avenida Juarez, the main drag of the battered downtown tourist district, we were motioned aside by a group of three men who were wearing municipal police uniforms. Without any explanation, one of the officers demanded to search us.
Since the Mexican Constitution guarantees freedom of transit, and because the officer had not stated a reason for the requested search, I felt the order was out of line. But studying the looks of this particular trio of Ciudad Juarez’s finest, I judged it best not to challenge their command at the moment. So it was, “Up against the wall, mother..!!!”
One cop did the talking and searching while the others stood guard. The active one asked what we were doing in his city, and gave a blank look when we responded that I was a journalist and my friend an academic from the U.S.
In short order, we proceeded through the meticulous backpack search, the pat down, the pockets emptied on the ground, the fingers fondling the money in our wallets. Personal belongings were strewn on the ground. At one point, the main cop appeared excited, like he had struck a vein of gold, when he pulled a rolled up sock from my backpack and asked, “Ohhh..what’s this?” Then he seemed let down when he realized it was just a roll of coin pesos.
Luckily nothing was taken, but if the search had happened when it was dark, who the heck knows what could have happened?
If the officers had names on their uniforms our eyes missed them, for we were carefully focused on the lead cop’s inspection of our money. Unable to find drugs, syringes, explosives, firearms, bullets, or any other piece of contraband, the police squad let us go on our merry way. As we were departing the scene, the trio of officers stopped a few men passing by, seemingly Mexican nationals, and began questioning them.
Later in the evening in an El Paso taqueria, a worker and her daughter told me they were not the least bit surprised by my experience. Slapping together tacos across the counter, one of the cooks nodded that he too had experienced a recent run-in with the Ciudad Juarez police.
On the same day we were stopped and searched, Ciudad Juarez Police Chief Julian Leyzaola attended a law enforcement conference in neighboring El Paso. In a report on the event the following day, El Diario de El Paso quoted Leyzaola as telling the crowd of police professionals that El Pasoans could now peacefully visit Ciudad Juarez and safely enjoy the restaurants, night clubs and other public attractions of the city.
Really? Without being stopped and frisked?
Still uneasy about last week’s incident, I called Lic. Adolfo Castro, head of the official Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) office in Ciudad Juarez. Castro told me that as preventive law enforcers, the city police have the right to stop and search people on the street. “People that look suspicious can be stopped, any person that looks suspicious,” Castro said. But he also agreed that police officers should not abuse their authority, and that they should employ practices based on a reasonable suspicion of actual or potential law-breaking.
Calmly walking down the street doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
Castro added that his office registered a number of complaints related to street detentions back in January, February and March, but had not handled any such cases in recent months. According to the state official, an officer’s name must be visibly displayed.
In the transition of law enforcement responsibilities from the army to the Federal Police to the new municipal police force touted by officials, the behavior of city cops remains a source of controversy and contention. Numerous human rights complaints including allegations of torture are pending.
The CEDH’s Castro said a new security working group has been set up to discuss and resolve outstanding police-community issues, with the participation from different sectors. According to Castro, the municipal administration of PRI Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguia has named Clara Torres, known for her activism with the rival PAN political party, to act as the liaison.
Our encounter with the police took place in a section of the city that is slated for major redevelopment. Coinciding with the revitalization, the municipal cops have been detaining street vendors who do not possess the proper permits. The make-over also entails the razing of old buildings to make way for new, uncertain ones, though a consensus could be emerging among the business class to build a convention center adjacent to the part of Avenida Juarez closest to the international crossing to El Paso, according to a story in today’s edition of the Norte newspaper.
This summer, a grassroots movement started to save one of the businesses in the path of the bulldozers, Café Central, a homey diner located on Avenida 16 de Septiembre near the Cathedral. A Facebook page has even be posted to rally the faithful. Just inside the front door, visitors are asked to add their signatures to an already-thick book of names protesting a possible demolition.
First opened in 1958, Café Central is part of the history, culture and fabric of Ciudad Juarez.
Open 24 hours, the restaurants’ affordable menu of coffee, pastries, comida Mexicana and Chinese food attracts people from all walks of life. Even amid the violence that tore the apart the city in recent times, Café Central stayed open, standing out as an oasis of life in a desert of death. Of the approximately 40 workers, some have been on the job for decades, including an 80-year-old waitress who still has the stamina to take orders and serve coffee. If the Café Central is razed, the waitress and her co-workers will lose their jobs.
In its bid to recover from what the academics call hyper-violence, Ciudad Juarez surely needs to attract tourists from across the border again.
But randomly stopping and frisking out-of-towners doesn’t seem to the best way to encourage return visitation.
And while downtown Ciudad Juarez certainly needs new development, tossing elderly workers into the ranks of the unemployed somehow doesn’t seem like a sensible economic development strategy.