I've covered some pretty gruesome stories in my career, including the big tsunami in Asia, where I had to be careful not to step on dead bodies. I've covered bombings, school shootings, plane crashes and hurricanes. And I've worked in Juarez several times before.
Yet this time, the city hardly felt like the Mexico I know. I was born and raised in southern Mexico — exposed to all things Mexican, including its cruel class divisions.
The current wave of violence ravaging the city was unsettling, but perhaps it was different this time because our subjects were so young and so hopeless. Correspondent John Burnett and I met baby-faced teens as young as 15 who had become mixed up in organized crime.
Misery is everywhere.
We visited poor neighborhoods without paved roads, parks, libraries or sufficient schools, but where young people can buy drugs easily. We went to a juvenile prison and met young men at a picadero — a drug house. We stood outside the dilapidated house talking to an 18-year-old heroin user with a freckled, lifeless face. The stench from the building was pushed out by the wind — a mixture of dead animal and human waste.
We met Tony, a 26-year-old former gang member who now helps find alternatives for barrio kids who are being recruited by organized crime. The kids are getting younger and younger. "In the past, the cartels would hire young men to sell drugs exclusively," Tony said. "But for the last three years, when a kid is hired by organized crime, he's hired to do everything: assaults, executions, distribution and transportation of drugs to the United States."
Tony's words are stuck in my mind, along with the images of the pimple-faced young men we met. They talked about guns and executions. They seem to see death as part of the gamble — and are not afraid.
I always find a way to chill on hard assignments — but Juarez wouldn't let me. Scenes from our meetings were hard to fight. And I found myself seeing a sicarito, or child assassin, in every young male. During our stay, a prominent lawyer was assassinated in broad daylight, at a main intersection not too far from our hotel — just one more killing in a city where they are common.
That's what was different in Juarez this time around.