The Gates of Paradise, La Ciudad Juárez, Summer 2010

An 8-yr-old boy was killed yesterday in Juárez in an attack apparently aimed at his father, in the Francisco Madero neighborhood in western Juarez. Both were outside of their house at about 7:30 pm, when a group of sicarios drove by and shot them. The bodies were left strewn in the dirt street and the attackers got away. The adult was not identified, but it was reported that he was known as “The Buddha.”
—from a post on the Frontera List, 6-13-2010
In Juárez, since January 1, 2008, when Presidente Felipe Calderón declared war against the drug cartels, 6,000 people have been murdered. The number for greater Mexico is over 28,000 but Juárez is certainly the epicenter of the bloody vortex. The government blames the vast majority of the violence on a turf war between cartels, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel. The normal human response to such violence is more violence. Calderón dispatched the Mexican army to Juárez but the army has become part of the problem, responsible for murder, disappearances, home invasions and other human rights abuses.

Yesterday afternoon, Gabriel, a man who lives in Juárez and who works for us here in El Paso, came by to talk with me. He needed to tell me something. Gabriel was whispering. It happened on the street that becomes the Zaragoza highway. That’s where they built the new American Embassy. In fact, he was walking down the street toward the American Embassy. Gabriel is an American citizen, but his older son was born in Juárez. Gabriel needs to get his son all the right papers to bring him across. It’s not a simple task. The red tape is a net to stop poor people like Gabriel, an American citizen or not. So Gabriel’s son is growing up in all that murderous violence. The streets are dangerous. He’s not going to school, he’s in his house all day, waiting for his father to come home.

So Gabriel keeps hacking away at the red tape.

Gabriel was wondering if he should catch a bus or should he walk? He’s always balancing time and money. He needs to get to work, he can’t spend too much money. The bus stop was crowded. Gabriel is whispering all this to me. A street vendor, he says, was rushing across the street. He was lugging along a large white ice chest strapped across his shoulder. The strap broke and paletas and sodas and ice scattered on the hot street. The vendor turned his head and stopped. Cars rushed by, swerving to miss the man. One car came almost to a stop close to the man. An SUV with dark windows. A window slid down and a man leaned out with a gun in his hand. A large automatic pistol. He shot the street vendor three times, once in his head, twice in his chest. Blood and pieces of flesh and bone exploding from the body. The SUV sped away, the man with gun waving and laughing at the startled bystanders waiting for the bus.

Gabriel looks at me and says, “That’s exactly what happened, Mr. B.”

He’s told me three or four stories like this. Usually, the stories are about stuff that he didn’t quite see, stuff that happened before he came by, pop pop pop, the gunfire so peculiarly a piece of the white noise on Avenida Juárez, a man staggering out of a restaurant and dying on the sidewalk, more gunshots in the night, a little tienda that sells burritos where gunmen barged in and told everybody to leave. They had business with the owner. The poor guy was late on his extortion payments. Gabriel whispers these stories to me. Like they are secrets.

It’s not unusual hearing these stories if you know somebody living in Juárez. Everybody has a story to tell. Another friend told me once that when people on the streets and in the bars and even in their living rooms talk about the murders they whisper. They don’t talk out loud. Like they’re worried other people are listening. And the conversations have the feel of men and women talking about family problems or spiritual and religious questions. They are deep exchanges of stories and feelings—not argument. It’s become a small comfort to share these stories and to work at understanding their sorrow.

“Did you see this body or that body on the corner of such-and-such street? That guy was walking off to work. He was Guillermo’s friend. He wasn’t dirty. They pulled up in a car and shot him. Twice in the head. Three times in the chest. He was a family guy going to work. I think it was the army. They made a mistake. I hope it was a mistake. I mean, I hope he was not dirty.”


Death and the terror are the facts that matter in these stories. What does a man or a woman do? How will you be when an SUV pulls up next to you, its windows black, the electric window glides down, a gun is pointing at you? Statistics are irrelevant, even if they were considered true. Who is doing the counting and what are they not counting? What about the dead buried in the desert or burned at the dump and shoveled under? Nobody trusts the authorities, the mayor is a liar, the president is a liar, the army is in cahoots with El Chapo, the people don’t trust the cops, they don’t trust the newspapers or their TVs. They certainly don’t trust the killers. Why should the killers speak the truth? And the soldiers and the police are just other gangs of killers. So the citizens pass along rumors and innuendos and fables because these fictions stink of the truth. Just a little bit of the truth is like food. What is truth anyway? The number of dead people on a Tuesday night? Those are black ink in a newspaper. A very clean abstraction. The people on the streets know what is happening, they can see the rivers of blood seeping from the mountains of corpses. They want stories from the people who have been there. People who have seen it with their own eyes.

Here’s another story from another friend, a man who grew up in Juárez. He said when he was a kid his granddad used to tell him that every town or city has its wise men and wise women hanging around in the shadows of cities and little towns. His grandfather was talking from his experience as a little boy during the Revolution. So many people had died then. But no matter how forlorn things became, there was somebody out there who understood. His grandfather had met some of these men and women. He would sit at their feet and listen to them. Mexico, his grandfather told him point blank, is rich with such wise men and women. They have stepped off the railroad track. The train rumbles by with all its chaos and confusion, but these men and women have found a little something that let them be at peace with themselves. And they have stories and wisdom and even techniques and pieces of herbs to help others along. But as my friend grew older he began to laugh at the memory of his grandfather telling him about the wise men and women who scatter themselves through the cities and countryside. His grandfather didn’t trust God, he said. “God doesn’t listen.” That’s what his grandfather told my friend when he was a little boy.

As the violence grew worse my friend began remembering his grandfather and what he said. He wished it were true, but even if it was, he figured that Juárez didn’t buy the right ticket. Juárez feels like the unluckiest city in the world in the summer of 2010. So much blood and death so it’s no surprise that all the wisdom sort of was leached out of the city.

Then six months ago his mother told him the story about an old man named Jacobo. A small wiry man. Half-Mexican, half-Lebanese or some Arab-thing. A hodgepodge of roots. Puro meztizo. He was very brown, almost black, the color of mud. His hair and his beard were speckled with white but it was difficult tell his age. A strange looking guy. He liked to hang out behind the cathedral downtown Juárez under the flag of Mexico. The tri-color. He wasn’t comfortable in front of the plaza. So many people there. Jacobo loved those people. They are the color of earth, he said, and sometimes in the hottest parts of the day, he’d sit with them on the benches and the walls in the precious shade of the trees. But there was too much bustling and commerce for Jacobo. Too much religion. The Catholics scurrying off to mass, the Pentecostals preaching in the plaza, and even the Aztec dancer with his crown of feathers and his leather breechcloth and the rattles and drums. Jacobo said he felt happier behind the cathedral. Not so much chaos. He could do his exercise movements—like a dance, his skinny legs and arms slowly swirling around his meager frame—and he could sit at peace, his eyes half-shut, the noisy world a fragile shell in which he rested. And besides a bookstore was across the street connected to the art school. The art school has a nice clean bathroom with toilet paper, and the bookstore clerks liked him because he read books. They let him use the bathroom when he wanted. He could take a book into the bathroom where he could read and do his business. It was a cool clean place to spend a little bit of the hot afternoon.

Anyway Jacobo would show up most afternoons around 3pm. When he was there, a few men and women would come talk to him. It was like a ritual, a way to pass the time away, get something in their hearts to carry home and to think about. They’d bring him a bottle of water or a diet coke. Maybe cold slices of mango or a banana. Jacobo liked fruit. They’d pester him with questions. They wanted to know why is it that Juárez had to endure so much suffering. What about God? Didn’t God care? Jacobo would look over at his interrogator and whisper little short answers. He didn’t want to talk about God. God is another question. And the wrong question at that. He asked them instead questions about themselves. About their families. He wondered how they spent their days with all these big questions. He told them stories. Little teaching stories from all over the world. Sometimes he’d give little talks. Short things. About living in the moment, the right now, the heat in the sky, the nice cold slice of mango. He never gave them any answers, he didn’t tell them how to live but still the men and the women seemed satisfied. They’d show up the next day with more questions although one or two would disappear. They’d get a job. Something needed done at home.

One day a tall man showed up. He had a big square head and a black moustache. He was dressed up to look like a rich cowboy. He was wearing a big white Stetson hat and hand-tooled cowboy boots, and tight blue jeans, an expensive black silk t-shirt, a black windbreaker. Black aviator sunglasses. Thick in the chest. A paunch starting to hang down over his silver belt buckle. He looked dangerously cool. And mean.

“Are you Jacobo?” the man grunted.

Jacobo looked up at the man. The guy was a giant compared to him. He asked, “Who are you?” Jacobo’s voice was so soft the man could barely hear him.

“None of your fucking business,” the man said.

“Well, so be it,” Jacobo said and turned to talk to a young woman. But the woman was gone. She was afraid.

“Look, old man, don’t fuck with me. I came here to ask you a question.”

Jacobo turned back around. “Yeah? About what?”

“I want to know about heaven and hell.”

“Heaven and hell? Why do you want to know about those places?”

“I’ve killed a man. I’ve killed 12 men. Maybe 15 men. What’s going to happen to me?”

“So I ask you again, who are you?”

The man looked at Jacobo. Then he said:

“I’m one of the Aztecas. That’s who I am.” He pulled out a pistol, an automatic that was tucked into his belt under his windbreaker. The other watchers, like birds on a wire, drifted away. One lady murmured a prayer. She was almost running. A clumsy awkward gait, pulling along a shopping bag.

 “The Aztecas,” Jacobo said, “they were a handsome race. They had handsome noses, they had long shining hair. You don’t look like an Azteca. You look like a thug. A stupid ugly thug. A thug with a big gun in his hand. A fucking common gangster.” The profanity sounded coming from Jacobo’s mouth.

“Shut the fuck up,” the man said. He put the gun to the side of Jacobo’s head.

Jacobo looked at the gun. He took a deep breath. He didn’t want to die.

“So you have a big gun. And that makes you a man? It makes you an Azteca?”

The man was breathing hard. At least a minute passed, Jacobo and the thug staring at each other. Then the man clicked off the gun’s safety, he was locked and loaded. He was leaning over Jacobo, close enough so that the two could smell each other’s sweat. And Jacobo could smell the clean oily smell of the automatic. The man took good care of his gun. The city rattled in their ears. They could pick out little pieces of the white noise. A kid’s whimpering in her mother’s arms. Sssh. Sssh. A bus coughed and roared down the street. A man and a woman were laughing somewhere across one of the streets.

Jacobo, almost whispering, said, “So here open the gates of Hell.”


“You are walking through the gates of Hell. Right now. This place. The gun in your hand opens the gates of hell.”

And again there was silence. A long silence like before. The men looking at each other. Jacobo was such a little man. He didn’t seem afraid. Like he was at peace. How could he be at peace if he was about to die? The man took a deep breath and clicked the safety back on. The gun dropped to his side.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He took a few deep breaths. He could feel his heart beating. Like a time clock. He was still bent over, leaning down close to the old man’s face. He said, “And thank you, old man.” And then strangely, he reached his big hand and touched Jacobo on his cheek.

“Here open the gates of Paradise,” Jacobo said. “Right now. This place. Your hand.” The man let out a deep sigh, his hand trembled. He stood up straight, he slipped the gun back into his belt.

“Thank you again,” the man said. And he walked away.

That was the story my friend told me. “And it’s the truth,” he said. “It’s exactly like I heard it. Word for word. That woman who was there. She is a friend of my mother.”

It was one of those strange magical stories that you hear when people are talking about Juárez these days. I didn’t want it to end.

“Well, what happened next?”

“What do you mean, what happened next?”

“What happened to the killer?”

“You gringos,” my friend said, “you never want a story to end where it’s supposed to end.”

“Come on, tell me what happened next?”
“I’m not sure. The cops came. They found a pistol in the gutter. The big man had disappeared. Jacobo had disappeared. But the cops could have put the gun where they found it. And they could have killed the man.  I don’t think so, but that’s possible. Nobody trusts the police. They’re assholes. They’re cold fucking killers.”

“And the old man, what happened to him?”

“I don’t know. My mother says he doesn’t hang out at the cathedral anymore. He got to be too famous. He’d have 15 or 20 people gathered around him. He didn’t like that. My mother said she heard rumors. People have seen him over in the Chamizal Park. He sits under a tree there sometimes. Reading a book. Others say he lives over under the mountain in the west. Near the Rio Bravo. He has a family. A beautiful wife.”

“You think this story is true?”

“It’s the story my mother told me. It makes sense to me.”



Peace for the City and the People of Juárez.

NOTE: Every morning I click through stories about Juárez collected by Molly Molloy at Frontera News Service. I find it very distressing, but important reading. Not only because my family and I live only a few miles from where this bloody vortex has descended, but I consider this on-going tragedy emblematic of our world’s future. Now our leaders can respond to violence with more violence. The violence, as we’ve learned over and over again, leads nowhere. So I wrote this piece—part fiction, part non-fiction—after hearing Gabriel’s story one afternoon. That morning I had read the little story “The Gates of Paradise” in the classic collection of teaching stories and koans Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. I’ve always wondered how to put those stories in a contemporary story. 

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1 comment:

Glenn Buttkus said...

Someone once wrote, "If you really want
to understand War, send in the poets."
Your reporting and reflections are so
very moving and important for the rest
of us, semi-safe in our dark corners of
this country, far from the border, far
from the wall, the bullets, the death
that dances like a blood demon bitch
every day, teasing and tormenting
the poets amongst us; with you at
both the vanguard and the maelstrom,
heart-deep in the vortex. A terrible and
glimpse into the death zone in
your back yard. Thanks again.