Mi Fortuna

Extreme Philanthropy on the Streets of Ciudad Juarez

Originally posted on the Tides Foundation blog on March 14, 2012

by Suzanne Gollin

The following is a personal dispatch from a site visit tour by the Angelica Foundation and its program partners in the spring of 2011. Since then, the violence in Mexico has spread - exploding in some areas while leaving others untouched. Social movements throughout the country are gathering strength, but still face daunting adversaries. This account is intended to mobilize and inform fellow progressive grant-makers. The Angelica Foundation's Mexico Border Fund for Human Rights and Drug Policy Reform is now entering its second year.


I kept telling myself we were headed to a place where two black eyes mean you got off easy.

The philanthropic site visit trip to Juarez was off to a rocky start. I landed in El Paso with eyes blackened from an eye surgery the week before, wounds that could only be hidden by the sunglasses I kept on even after dark, so as not to alarm my trip partners and the activists we were there to meet. Fortunately, in Ciudad Juarez people wear sunglasses a lot. In this place where identity is liability, where the windows to the soul are better left shielded, I would fit in just fine.

I am, however, a social justice donor with a family foundation called Angelica, and a middle-aged American mother of three. I was running around Juarez, over the protests of everyone who cares anything about me, with money to fund people and projects based in the city's drug war-inflamed, violence-ridden streets. In that respect, fitting in was going to take a lot more than sunglasses.

My husband Jim and I have been running a small scale progressive granting program in Mexico for years, supporting groups fighting for economic justice, migrant rights, indigenous rights, women's rights, press freedom, fair elections and all of the other rights and liberties that could build a progressive Mexican future. And then the drug war exploded.

We went to Juarez as a team: Ted Lewis from Global Exchange; Ana Paula Hernandez, Angelica's then Mexico-based program officer; and John Gibler, author of To Die in Mexico, an excellent book about the drug war; and me. We teamed up to make seed grants to a small portfolio of border organizations. The four of us were there to see if philanthropy had any productive role to play to curb the violence, defend the victims, support what remains of the free press, and to affect the underlying economic and social inequities that have reaped the whirlwind.

We would be meeting in the days to come with women's groups, drug harm reduction groups, human rights defenders, journalists, activists, political leaders. We weren't kidding ourselves. There weren't many other small foundations roaming around Juarez trying to be helpful. Who could blame them? The definition of helpful was up for grabs. What kind of grant-making strategy might be pursued in a war zone? How can civil society protect a population when its government can't or won't? What were the dangers to the groups we sought to help? What were the dangers to us?

The trip started in El Paso, at the book signing of our colleague and grantee, the journalist Marcela Turati, whose new book Fuego Cruzado (Crossing Fire) about the Mexican drug war, just came out. She was having an event at the University of Texas, El Paso. A reporter from the magazine Proceso, Marcela just returned from the mass graves sites discovered in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. She was asked about her work capturing the stories of the mothers and wives who come daily to the 40 separate mass burial grounds looking for husbands, fathers, sons. She doesn't concern herself with which cartel is guilty of the crimes, Gulf or Zetas. To Marcela, the devils are interchangeable. Her stories are about the people who are living through this war, or who are not living through it. I found the stories brave and moving but I did not want to remember them. There is no place in the normal human heart to carry stories like that.

Marcela's after party was in a hip, art-filled home owned by a painter in an historic old El Paso neighborhood. The small rooms overflowed with Mexicans and Americans, academics, writers and activists who share a love of this border zone. The wine flowed festively, but the conversations were dark. Felipe Calderon's government had tried to pass a version of marshal law (Ley de Seguridad Social) over the Easter holiday when everyone was busy celebrating Semana Santa. Though the measure was scuttled by some quick resistance, the threat against the Mexican democracy still looms. The government had also forced a pact among the major media organizations in the country to restrict coverage of the drug war, intending to further stem the flow of horrifying and already censored news. The rich, who can flee, are doing so in droves. Trading partners are nervously retreating from long range plans. Unable to improve the country's actual security, the Mexican government is hell bent on improving its image.

April 2011 had been the deadliest month for murders since Calderon's war on drugs began. The numbers are skewed by the discovery of the mass graves - but those bodies notwithstanding, the numbers of murders, reported and anecdotal, was on an uptick. The official statistics - of the dead (then 35,000, and at the dawn of 2012 estimated at 47,000), of the narcos captured (many), of convictions (few), and of drugs seized - are never correct . Just that day in Juarez a man was shot by narco commandos one block from the US Mexico border bridge, right near an army stop. That last detail is not considered a big deal and is lost in the flow of bigger and bloodier news. A man was executed block from the bridge to Texas.

Everyone at the party was also discussing the latest citizen's resistance movement, centered in the town Cuernavaca, organized by the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered by drug gangs. "All men are not poets, but every child is a poem" was a rallying cry. Sicilia's call to national action and organization of a major march to Mexico City was suffused with rage, poetry and grief - for his son and his country. He was calling for an end to the impunity that is the Mexican justice system, for the army to selectively and carefully stand down, for an end to the drug war as it is being fought by corrupt policy and military. He called for justice, for Mexican renewal, for peace. Opinion leaders had begun talking about a tipping point, the crisis opening up an opportunity for social change and drug policy reform.

As moving as Sicilia's rise to the public stage has been, the crowd at Marcela's after party wasn't sanguine. They had seen the promise of Mexican renewal turn to Mexican dust too many times to count.

It was nearing the bewitching hour when my companions and I left safe, sleepy El Paso for the black menacing streets of Juarez, tooling our rented white SUV onto the empty boulevards. Patrols of Federal police gunned trucks through the streets, their uniformed and masked occupants holding automatic weapons casually, pointed generally in the direction of the cars surrounding them.

The streets were lined with hollowed-out buildings and dead landscaping. Every few blocks we would pass something almost hallucinatory, such as: An open Applebees, lights on, cars in the parking lot, a few families inside. In Juarez you can find Walmart, Starbucks and Wendy's. There are commercial Maquiladora "Green Zones", factory fortresses making cars, toys and appliances. There are 150,000 abandoned houses and vast urban prairies where you should never go. In this post-modern dystopia, a traveler ventures from paradox to paradox, and on each block a vignette of normal life will play out in the theater of the apocalypse.

We arrived at the Hotel Lucerna, one of the city's nicest hotels, and went to sleep in rooms overlooking the pool and walled garden. Sirens wailed through the night. Tomorrow would be a day of extreme philanthropy, and we all needed the sleep.


Casa Amiga, a women's advocacy organization and shelter, is brightly painted, airy, welcoming. Its founder, the late Esther Chavez, was first known for her activism in the period of the feminicidios (feminicides), a period when hundreds of women throughout Juarez disappeared, their bodies turning up in mass graves mutilated beyond recognition. That notorious period of sadistic, sexualized mass murder segued into what Casa Amiga fights against now:  the mundane and relentless epidemic of rape, abuse, torture, murder and disappearance of women and girls.  Some of the violence is random or cartel-related. Some of it is domestic, the consequence of a society where machismo has turned its most ominous and even the worst crimes against women are met with a shrug.

The staff gathered around the conference table in a lavender meeting room. They went through their PowerPoint, and talked about their programs of human rights defense and violence prevention, of the psychological and medical services they provide, of their strategies, their finances, their goals. Outside in the central waiting room, women and children spend time before their appointments, surrounded by upbeat art and heartbreaking posters of the victims. Carolina, pictured in the crown of her quinceañera: disappeared. Maria Teresa - thirteen years old and last seen on her way to school - disappeared.

Casa Amiga patches together an annual budget of $400,000 per year with donations from foundations and some federal Mexican government funded donor organizations. With that, they run the main operation and secret refuges they have located around the city. They are the biggest and best women's organization, and they don't even come close to servicing the need.

"The problem is that many of the husbands and partners who are perpetrators of the abuse are involved with the cartels that have police protection," said Casa Amiga's Executive Director. "We've had soldiers in uniform come to the door demanding access to a woman on behalf of the partner who nearly killed her." Because Juarez is the way it is, the arrival of the police at your door is never, ever a good thing.

If there is an untold story of today's Mexico, it is the story of the heroism of its women. They are, by and large, the ones who report their missing loved ones, file complaints, get on lists with human rights defenders, follow cases, pursue rumors, search hospitals and wander morgues.  When cases are closed - and they are usually closed quickly and without justice - it is the women that protest. Some of them paint signs, print flyers, work the system, become full-fledged activists.

Lately it is these women activists who are in turn being targeted, threatened and killed. In the otherwise cheerful small auditorium of Casa Amiga hangs a painting, a gift by its French artist. It shows a woman, dead and mutilated, hanging on a cross. Depicted behind her are the buildings of Juarez and below her are the graves - the graves of the women lost to the feminicidios. When the painting was delivered to the center, Esther Chavez said it was too graphic and disturbing to be hung in the main public room. It would have to go somewhere else. The women of the shelter said no, it has to hang there because, they said, "The painting tells the truth about what is happening to us, what is happening to the women of Juarez."

Programa Compañeros, a harm reduction organization serving the drug user and sex worker population of Ciudad Juarez, runs its operation out of a nondescript house in an unremarkable neighborhood. Their key work, however, is right in the center of Juarez, providing needle exchange and treatment consultation to those who walk its meanest streets. The red light district, the narcomenudeo (drug marketplace) and the regular public market all coexist in El Centro. Divided into Centro Norte and Centro Sur, it is also cartel controlled Plaza for the Aztecas of La Linea (Juarez Cartel) and their rival gangs in the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The city center is also the place Programa Compañeros serves the most marginalized, endangered people in Juarez – which is saying a lot.

Our first stop was a picadero, a heroin shooting gallery, where users inject low grade black tar heroin at 50 pesos a dose. The first thing to overcome is the smell. You walk past what is unmistakably the latrine and then into a small, ruined courtyard. Beyond that is an interior room, where visitors crowd in. The bed is strewn with people recently dosed, and past that, more corners, more darkness. The users see the Programa Compañeros workers coming and surround them. A box of clean needles is proffered - old ones, perhaps infected with HIV or hepatitis, are brought out to be taken away. Condoms are given out. The users  seem happy to see visitors, grateful for the help and the contact. They want to talk, get their picture taken.

The next stop on their rounds was Mi Fortuna, the kind of whorehouse where sex workers get 200 pesos per trick. The free condoms from the program represents a small windfall that means they can pocket as profit the extra 50 pesos the client has to pay for protected sex. At Mi Fortuna, this is the calculus. The clean needle and free condom makes it a fraction more likely that each encounter will be as safe as such encounters get. Programa Compañeros mission is to reduce the harm of drug use and the sex trade, to prevent AIDS, over-dose, death. To them the arguments that people should not use drugs, or that needle exchange programs encourage use, are ridiculous and immoral. These doctors, case workers, youth organizers, and former users know what they are doing is to improve bad odds and to prolong short lives - one clean needle, one condom at a time.


Human Rights, Drug Policy Reform, Gun policy and Security

Lunch at the hotel was over a discussion of human rights and drug policy reform. The group included a few local opinion leaders, the head of a physicians groups advocating harm reduction, a former congressman.

We discussed the possibility of holding a conference. The summit would bring to Juarez groups from both sides of the border to discuss the key issue areas that could address the violence, support non-profit infrastructure in the region and provide a forum for a progressive bi-national debate about the drug war.

Border hawks on the American right want to build a fence high and long enough to keep Mexico's troubles on the southern side. All of the evidence to date suggests that such a wall can't exist in an open society, that a 20 foot wall will be overcome by a 22 foot ladder. At the same time, Americans are profiting from the export of guns and ammunition to Mexico. And our demand for the drugs made in or transshipped through Mexico is the principal driver of the whole disaster.

But even the most open minded American liberals don't know what to say about the Mexican drug war - so they don't say much. Progressives are understandably focused on immigration reform as a means to help Mexico's poor as they arrive here. But the plight of Mexico's poor is caused by more than immigration injustice and it will be hard to get comprehensive immigration reform with the body count mounting across the river. Immigration from Mexico can only be controlled by making life more tolerable in Mexico.

Ted Lewis has been coordinating Mexico-focused US organizations and their Mexican counterparts in a series of conference calls to articulate progressive US-Mexico policy alternatives in three key issue areas: gun policy, drug policy and security policy. These kinds of broad multi-themed debates, with a social justice frame, don't happen as much as they need to.

Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte

The large staff of Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte joined us in the small meeting room,  and we all negotiated ourselves into a crowded circle.  Though they function in a secular capacity,  the Executive Director is a priest and many of the activists are nuns. They are the most established human rights organization in the region, the advocates of first and last resort. They follow the cases of the threatened, the dead and the disappeared, as the paperwork moves slowly, ineffectually through the system. They accompany the families to the government offices, the police station or to court. They give solace, legal advice and prayers. They join in marches, help to broker inter-organizational agreements. They are incredible.

We watched their PowerPoint, and asked, as good funders will, about their projects and plans. Then they asked us what we thought of them. We told them Juarez was la punta de la lanza - the tip of the spear - in Mexico's struggle for justice, democracy and security. We told them they were heirs to the great historical social movements of Mexico -- indigenous movements, campesino movements, student movements -- traditions of resistance that have made the country great. We told them we would give them a grant.

There was a feeling I couldn't shake, so I spoke up. I have a friend dying of cancer, I told them. She is coping bravely but the cancer is winning. That is how I feel here. Mexico's human rights infrastructure, which on its best day has a hard time protecting people from the excesses of the state, can do little against these omnipotent adversaries. Even simple things are hard, and hard things seem impossible. As critical as the human rights defense work at Paso del Norte is, and it is critical in a place of such broken government, they are giving important but palliative care.

This was the feeling I couldn't shake: the cancer is winning. They didn't disagree.

The Journalists of El Diario and Red Periodistas a Pie

Dinner with a few of the women journalists of El Diario, the city's largest newspaper, was a revelation. No, they are not able to cover any news in the cartel controlled Centro Sur area. No, their news bureaus do not protect them, nor does the army, nor the police. No, they can't publish but a fraction of what they learn.

They arrive at still hot crime scenes armed with pens and notebooks.  They record the facts and do the interviews with mortal hazards all around them. They buried two from their newsroom in the past year.  Throughout the country more than a hundred journalists are either dead or disappeared.  Every lead, every source, every story is a roll of the dice. Red de Periodistas a Pie - Network of Frontline Journalists on Foot - helps reporters throughout Mexico who risk death to tell the most important story of their lives. They have been giving workshops on a range of topics from security to reporting strategies. They are investigating the use of new media and monitoring the deteriorating health of the traditional Mexican press.

Periodistas a Pie, in collaboration with the reporters of El Diario, will formulate Juarez- specific strategies to improve the drug war reporting, to design security protocols, to build shared knowledge and capacity.  They are organizing to better negotiate with media bosses who are frequently part of the problem, and to assess and monitor the threat of the  street thugs who menace them.  For now, Angelica Foundation is their only funder, the only money at the table.

This is the clincher:  In Juarez the journalists feel lucky.  The press is still relatively dynamic there, news is getting out. They watch with horror as newsrooms effectively go dark in the states around them. They call these places Zones of Silence, states including Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon  and Coahuilla.  There is some very brave independent reporting in those zones, even now. Mostly though, what passes for news is sometimes produced by the narco-periodistas  (narco-journalists) themselves - part of the cartels' robust media strategy. What fills the rest of the news cycle is irrelevant, trivial or ludicrous. Mexico's press just slipped in its Freedom House ranking to become, for the first time, ranked as "not free".

The journalists of Juarez could have told you that was coming a long time ago.

Villas de Salvacar

The next morning, we visited the working class neighborhood of Villas de Salvacar, a neighborhood marked by abandonment.  Homes abandoned by those who have lost their jobs or fear the violence, people abandoned by their own government.  Villas had a brief moment of international notoriety when gunmen burst in on a teenager’s birthday party. Eleven of the sixteen young people that were gunned down at that birthday party in the community of Villas de Salvacar were teenagers, and probably none of them were the ones the sicarios (cartel enforcers) were looking for. They killed them anyway. Among the many victims of the Mexican drug war violence, it is the young men who are the most targeted and who die and go to prison in the greatest numbers.

The ones who resist the easy money and quick prestige of the Plaza live caught between those who don't resist it and the authorities who must appear to pursue them. Daily life for a Juarez youth is a struggle to find work, food, transportation and  school. It is also a struggle to avoid gang shootings and random police shake-downs.

Unemployed, under-parented and marginalized in every possible way, the poor young men of Juarez are the first to be harvested to work for criminal organizations, and the first to be killed or given over to the police to boost arrest numbers.  With few options left to them, and the money to be made irresistible, many cross over: "Mejor vivir cinco anos como rey, que cinquenta como pendejo," is a saying that translates like this: "Better to live five years as a king than fifty as an idiot."

After what they call el massacre (the massacre), the young people of Villas de Salvacar organized. This is what they asked of their government:  A park. They wanted a park for the community to use, for sports to take the place of crime, for the unsightly scrub in the center of their community to become a green demilitarized space for the families of Villas.

This is what the Municipal Government gave them: A huge sports complex in the middle of all of the abandoned and decaying houses of Villas, with American football fields, soccer field, baseball diamond, basketball courts.  They then fenced the impressive complex off (except for a small corner designated for community use) and mandated it only for use by the city's leagues. The youth of Villas now can look through chain link at their park, the park they are not allowed to play in.

The Villas youth formalized an organization, and seeks support for programs and community building projects.  Their rhetoric is tinged with benign socialist jargon from earlier campesino movements. The youth have been organizing around community security issues, have protested the military's presence in their city, are arranging conferences and neighborhood events. They took over two abandoned houses, turning one into a cultural center and the other into a library, homework center and outdoor cinema. The library is a modest house facing the park that, at the rate they are going, will be under renovation for the rest of time. Computers and a small children's reading room are on the ground floor. The rooms on the upper floor house the books for the older youth - books just then coming out of donation boxes and onto rickety shelves.  The collection is impressive and includes works by Cervantes and Garcia Marquez, books about science, math and technology.  On one prominent shelf sit, side by side, the Mexican constitution and a copy of Kafka's Metamorphosis. Judging by their well-worn condition, the youth of Villas de Salvacar are reading both.


We stood in the border line that snakes over a pedestrian bridge joining Juarez and El Paso, a chain link arc over the Rio Grande. The descendants of conquistadors and pyramid builders cooled their heels in line beside the American nationals waiting to show blue passports.

It has always been an interesting and dicey place, this border we share. Today and tomorrow Ciudad Juarez is a place where angels and devils meet in an epic battle for the real future of Mexico and, by extension, the moral future of its northern neighbor. Can philanthropy find its place here and do some good? Despite the difficulties, we insist that it can. More powerful forces than philanthropy will need to mobilize to stem the violence and renew Mexico.  In the meantime, we hope other funders will join us to support the human rights defenders, emerging leaders, youth organizers, and journalists. We will convene meetings and push debates. We will celebrate that there are still a few problems that money can solve.

As a donor who has loved Mexico and fought for its better angels all of her career, it is too easy to succumb to a broken heart in Juarez. Instead, I consider it my fortune, mi fortuna, that I have eyes that can still see the bravery and heart in the fight for Mexico.