A season in Ciudad Juárez (Football and murder in Mexico)

Apr 7th 2012 | from the print edition

 This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez. By Robert Andrew Powell. Bloomsbury USA; 272 pages; $25. Buy from Amazon.com

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, an important stop on the cocaine trail to America, has long topped the list of Mexico’s most violent cities. By contrast its irredeemably hopeless football team, the Indios, is more used to life at the bottom of the rankings. Following 27 consecutive games without a win, it recently became the worst team in the history of Mexico’s primera división.

Robert Andrew Powell, an American journalist, arrived in Juárez at the end of 2009 as the drug war was heating up and the Indios were fighting to stay in the primera league. After taking care each night to bolt the four locks on the door of his pastel-coloured flat (“like military housing for an army of Teletubbies”), he decided to highlight Indios wins on his calendar and to mark murders on a wall-map in red felt-tip. After a month he gave up, no wins to report and the map already soaked crimson.

Unlike most chroniclers of Mexico’s misfortunes, Mr Powell deals calmly with Juárez’s breathtaking murder-rate. Following a spate of killings, an American friend sent him a message: was he still alive? Sitting in a McDonald’s, where a little-league team was having hamburgers and a Snow White-themed party was going on, the question seemed absurd. Juárez’s mix of ordinariness and horror has seldom been so honestly described.

But the violence seeps in. The Indios’ youth-team coach was killed, perhaps because his uncle wouldn’t pay protection money on his mobile-phone shop. (No one will ever know: the police are so hopeless, and local reporters so intimidated, that virtually no murder is investigated.) Next, the star striker’s brother was shot dead, which the coach decided not to tell him until after the day’s game.

The Indios’ slapstick performances bring welcome comic relief to the book. The antics of el Kartel, its dubiously named supporters’ club, are especially enjoyable. At an away-match against posh Monterrey, a granny Kartel-member was arrested. “She had lifted up her Indios jersey to flash Monterrey’s fans, who graded her breasts with chants of ‘chicharrón!’—a stadium snack of wrinkled and fried pork.”

There are sharp comparisons, too, between events on and off the pitch. As the Indios battle rival teams, the city’s resident drug mafia is locked in a turf war with the Sinaloa mob, run by Joaquín “el Chapo” Guzmán. As the Indios’ manager complains that the referees are biased, locals suspect that police have taken sides in the turf war. “Guzmán wants Juárez. The home team refuses to give it up…That’s the sport being played,” writes Mr Powell.

The complexity of Juárez’s problems means that the anecdotal style of the book sometimes feels thin. In one excellent chapter Mr Powell makes a convincing case that the infamous murders of women in Juárez have been exaggerated by an excitable media. But elsewhere he repeats popular theories (about the alleged corruption of politicians, or the supposed failure of Mexico’s free-trade deal with America) without really probing them. Near the end he mentions that the Indios themselves might be a giant money-laundering operation. This important claim deserves more than the few pages’ attention it receives, 21 chapters into the book.

There is a happy ending, of sorts. Mr Powell left Juárez in 2010, a dreadful year, convinced of the goodness of most locals but predicting that the violence would get worse. In fact, 2011 saw the number of mafia-hits in Juárez drop by about a third. So far, this year has been quieter still. Juárez may, possibly, be turning a corner. The Indios, sadly, remain useless.



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