SOAPBOX — Border town blues: life in Nogales and Juárez

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I was born in a small town in Mexico, in the state of Jalisco, and I moved to Los Angeles in 1974. Once a month I visit Nogales, Mexico, a town in northern Mexico on the border of Arizona. My wife is living there while we wait for her visa. She has been there for over two years.

Of the 150,000 residents in Nogales, 50 percent are employed, and 50 percent are jobless or under-employed. The ones that have a job work at factories or ­maquiladoras. If you are lucky and have a good job, you will make 2,000 pesos a week ($168). Most families have one person with a visa, and they go to the U.S. to buy food, because it’s 20 percent cheaper.

Most people in Nogales don’t have a job that pays $168 a week; half of the population is in other types of work. A lot of people work in the drug trade or the trade of moving people over the border, or taking money as bribes from the drug lords.

I visit my wife once a month. After my first visit, I noticed a weird vibe in the air — people were cold, most would walk from work to home without a smile, without the warmth and kindness I was raised with. I couldn’t figure it out.

A month later, it didn’t take long for me to find out what everyone is going through in Nogales. While I was waiting for my wife to get off work, I walked into the store to buy an ice cream. Right behind me a man ran in. He shot a guy who was sitting there eating, and then he ran out. On the floor, a dead man with his head blown off. I looked and saw everyone running, so I ran.

Ten hours of driving back to LA, and all I could think of was how everyone changed right after the murder. People who live in that border town know someone will be murdered, but they don’t know who or when. When it happens pressure is released, and it takes a day to build back up — just 12 hours, not months or weeks. But in those few hours Nogales changes. You see smiles. You see life. Nogales police reported 3,000 killings in one year. But at a demonstration against all these murders, they said it was more like 5,000.

We had to go to Juárez, because it is the only place you can get a visa to come to the United States. Juárez is a big city on the Rio Grande, just across from El Paso, Texas. It has twice the number of factories as Nogales. But the biggest industry is drugs. And second largest is the U.S. Consulate.

Here’s what they put people through to get a visa. It took all day to get into the consulate. Then they tell you they will let you know by DHL shipment. They say it takes three days to get the packet. It took me and my wife three weeks. You can’t call anyone to see what is happening. You just wait. Then after three weeks, we get a letter saying they need to make a decision and they will get back to us in one year.

I saw a lot of people who did not have money for hotels just walking outside all day and night. Someone is making a lot of money from the hotels and food. Maybe that’s why they call the area around the consulate the Zona de oro — the gold zone.

You need a doctor’s exam that costs $150, plus shots. My total bill was $435. You have to be there for three days to get the doctor’s results. We went to the consulate. My wife is told, “You can’t leave Juárez. You will get a letter by DHL in two to three days.” It took three weeks for us to get that letter. I spoke to a lot of people who were told the same thing, but they had been there for two months — waiting.

We were trapped in Juárez. Seventeen kids at a party had been gunned down and the city was on lockdown, no one could get in or out. Drug cartels run the streets, hundreds of women have been murdered going to work at maquiladoras and no official seems to care, because they have been corrupted by the drug money flowing through the town. Meanwhile, there are over 3,000 Mexican troops protecting the U.S. consulate.

If drugs were legal, there would be no drug cartels or corrupt police and public officials. If borders were open, no foreign-owned factories would cluster in these towns paying desperation wages. Juárez and Nogales exist only to exploit the workers, and as way-stations to smuggle drugs and ­weapons.

Here in the U.S. we should fight for an open border, an end to the drug war, and an end to the trade agreements that have wrecked the Mexican economy. Then Mexico could go back to being a beautiful place.

This is a shortened version of a report by the author at a Los Angeles Freedom Socialist Party meeting in 2010. His wife was finally able to join him this year. Perez is a communications tech and member of the Communications Workers union. Send him feedback at

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