“Fear is like the flu: It’s contagious. But so is hope.” Oscar Herrera. Juarez, Mexico is just a short walking distance across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas and just 45 minutes away from where we are currently living, in Las Cruces, NM. When we told several of our friends that we were planning a visit to Juarez, we heard some common replies, “Don’t go there. You might not come out alive… it’s a dangerous place.”
There’s a lot to be said for staying away from a place like Juarez. For instance, nearly 11,000 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez between 2007 and 2013. In 2009, a homicide occurred about every three hours and a quarter of the population fled the city. During the first three months of 2014, the murder rate has significantly declined, down to an average of 10 murders per week. That’s not a good advertisement, even for a day trip. I have to admit there was a part of me that was also intrigued. I wondered how people look in a city in which they could be shot or stabbed at any moment. Then again, as soon as I had the thought, I realized the same thing could be said for my hometown of New York City. According to the New York Daily News, “Just five days into the New Year, the city had already seen eight murders.”
So, before we go any further, let’s do a little math. The estimated population of Juarez is 1.5 million. Dividing 10 murders per week by 1.5 million, the chances of someone (me in particular) being murdered during a day trip to Juarez is about a million to one, given that all other factors are equal. How does that compare to, let’s say, driving 45 minutes from Las Cruces to El Paso? Pulling up some statistics from the National Safety Council, we find that the chances of me dying in a car crash on any particular day is about 6 million to one. SO! Visiting Juarez is equivalent to six days of my average daily driving (of course, Joe may have a different opinion about my driving habits and risk of death). Now, if we throw into the mix that most all of the murders in Juarez are drug or extortion related, and most all happen at nighttime, then my personal risk of death by car far exceeds the risk of a day trip to Juarez.
So off we went to Juarez! After all, there are just so many ways I can die. I can hardly keep up. I can either take a chance and have new experiences or I can stay home where it’s safe and die of inactivity. The choice, of course, is not so dichotomous, but the philosophy is the important thing. Since walking the Camino de Santiago, I try to live by a quote we included in our book, and which others have highlighted:
“It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. There’s more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there’s life, and in change there’s power.” – Alan Cohen
It was a hot, sunny Saturday when we crossed the Santa Fe Bridge from El Paso to Juarex. We were on foot but the distance was so short, it was easy. We didn’t have to show a passport or an ID of any kind on the way in, but we did have to pay for the privilage… it cost us 25 cents, each!
Foreign visitors should not have much to worry about as long as they follow common sense. Avoid venturing out alone into suspicious areas of town, particularly after dark. As in most foreign countries, making your personal wealth obvious to strangers is not only asking for trouble, it’s rude. Stay well clear of any illegal activities, particularly involving drug purchase/smuggling. If you ARE looking for drugs, go to Colorado, not Juarez. And, remember that Mexican police are notoriously lacking in concern for those whose activities are considered “high-risk.” The US Border Patrol can also be quite mercurial about these matters, and neither American nor Mexican prisons are very enticing places to spend one’s vacation.
Juarez is located in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, and there are no beautiful hotels or lovely beaches with cabanas—at least not from what we could see. It’s Mexico without the glamour. Something that struck me when we crossed the bridge, was all the women who were walking alone carrying big bags, apparently from shopping sprees in El Paso. I told Joe, “If these women feel safe walking here alone with bags that anyone can rip off, we should be okay.”
We left our valuables in our car that we parked in El Paso and we walked into Juarez with a light load. Once we stepped into the city itself we saw a big Disney character dancing and bouncing to Spanish music in front of a pharmacy. And speaking of pharmacies, you can buy everything from steroids to antidepressants in the Mexican pharmacies. I had heard some of the patient’s I examined in New Mexico say they bought cheap medicines in Juarez, like Wellbutrin, Zoloft and Prednisone, but I thought they were bringing them back legally. I walked in and specifically asked the pharmacist at the store how it works. He said, “You don’t have to declare it if you don’t want to… “ He explained that it’s illegal to take these medicines over the border.
Our day in Juarez was full of colorful sights and more vendors than you’d ever have time for. Here’s a particularly interesting sight that will stay with me. It’s a portrait of grace and poverty.
As a student of psychopharmacology, I found these products interesting. It’s a good example of how doctors need to be careful to ask our patients about any non-prescription, herbal medications they are taking. Latinos, as you can see below, are known for preferring herbals over prescription medicines.
All in all, it was a great experience. We enjoyed being in a whole new country just a few paces away from El Paso, Texas. The city is experiencing a revitalization as you might see from this article in the Los Angeles Times: “In Mexico, Ciudad Juarez reemerging from grip of violence.”
Seeing it for ourselves allowed us to put our “be anxiety free” philosophy into action. As we have discovered in our travels around the world, the fear I carried into this murder capital was consumed by what happened as we departed. I had the wrong change for the exit toll which required 40 cents exact change. I was about to walk out of the cue to get a dime when a Mexican woman said, “Here, take this.” I stared at her hand and it was the exact change. I couldn’t just take her money so I offered to give her a dollar and she refused to take it. She could have made 1000 percent on her investment! Welcome to the world of anxiety management.
Health & safety
Basic street smarts that might apply anywhere apply in Ciudad Juárez, but the city’s reputation is worse than its reality. Much of the crime is drug-related; tourists here for legitimate travel will find Juárez welcoming and friendly. The main drag along Av Juárez until it meets Av 16 de Septiembre is well lit and has a regular police presence so walking around is fine until late at night – just don’t stray down unlit side streets. East of Av Juárez is a seedy red-light district, which is best avoided. To the south and west many streets get eerily deserted very early in the evening; generally, however, it’s safe to walk around them for the first few hours after dark. Don’t walk over the Stanton St–Av Lerdo bridge at night.
Never accept ‘free’ offers (rides, drinks etc), as they’re never free and can occasionally be dangerous.