Eyewitness: The cracks in Juarez’s Base Line

15 May 2011

In the midst of Mexico’s ongoing drug war, Stephen Eisenhammer reports from Ciudad Juarez

In the desert beyond the limits of the most dangerous city in the Americas, lies a grey concrete block. Like a stray Lego piece that did not fit into a child’s game, the Shelter for the Mentally Handicapped sits away from Ciudad Juarez, ignored. From here you can sometimes see for miles, and occasionally nowhere at all. It depends on where the wind is coming from. The wind draws up the dust, hazing the horizon and filling your hair, mouth and nostrils with dirt.

As we drive out to the shelter through the quiet Sunday streets of Ciudad Juarez, we pass by several scrap yards. Battered, wheel-less cars are stacked up four or five at a time. The cars are stripped and the parts sold on, Pastor Galvan tells me. Only when we have driven on, past these piles of saleable waste, do we reach the asylum. 

Jose Antonio Galvan, known simply as El Pastor, has been running his shelter for 15 years. His aim, he tells me – mantra like – is to lead the top psychiatric facility in Mexico. He is far from it, and he knows it. The word asylum is a dated one, now rendered politically incorrect. But El Pastor’s shelter is not a modern facility; nor is it working in a context where the luxury of correctness can be afforded. Asylum is exactly what El Pastor provides. Protection and a little human dignity for those in this city who, if he were not there, would be left on the streets to die. Many still are.

Ciudad Juarez has in the last three years become the statistical centre of an epidemic of drug-related violence that has swept Mexico. 37,000 have been killed in the past three and a half years, putting the national murder toll at around one in every 2,700.

In Juarez it is one in every 150, and counting. In a city where violence, corruption and impunity now hold what is left of the local economy together, there is little space for optimism. However, El Pastor believes. “We will be the top psychiatric facility in Mexico”, he tells me again, smiling and raising his finger in the air. He certainly has no shortage of patients.

By some accounts, 90% of people living in Ciudad Juarez suffer from some sort of mental illness. “I don’t believe it”, retorts Elizabeth Flores, the director of Pastoral Obrera, a Catholic human rights group. “It must be higher than that: 100%. You can’t live in this city, around so much suffering and death, and be not be affected”.

However, the people that are dumped, often by police, at the gates of El Pastor’s shelter are the ones right at the bottom.

One of the less publicised parts of Mexico’s current crisis is the high addiction rate ravaging the northern towns. Many in Juarez regard the local drug consumption as the lubricant that keeps the spiral of violence spinning. Cocaine has become the standard form of payment for any work involved in the drug trade. But cocaine doesn’t usually take your mind. The men and women moving disjointedly around the courtyard of the shelter are the shadows created by the potent derivative, crack. In Spanish it is known as “base”. The asylum is, as writer Charles Bowden told me, “the city’s base line”.

In the late-morning sun, the courtyard looks almost like a primary school playground. Some patients run to El Pastor, tugging on his sleeve and telling him how their day has been. Others sit pensively on the side, enjoying the spring sunshine. Basketball hoops hang unused at each end. There is much smiling and laughter. But the jokes are incomprehensible, and frequently not jokes at all. Their faces are not used to smiling. You can see it around the eyes.

Stephen Eisenhammer

Image: John Sevigny