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That fateful day during Esteban's first-grade year coincides with the beginning of Juárez's transformation into the world's most violent city. In early 2008, a turf battle was raging between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. What had always been a brutal rivalry was exploding across the city. Early that year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón had sent nearly 2,500 soldiers and federal police, known as Federales, to restore order.
"We were kind of glad to see the military arrive," says Josefina Martínez, an editor at Juárez newspaper El Diario and mother of two. "The city had become a drug sanctuary, and we really did think that maybe the military would change that." But now she laughs at the memory.
Despite the arrival of the first round of soldiers and Federales, the murder rate rose above 1,500 that year. Another fleet of more than 5,000 security officers arrived the following year and was given control over civilian institutions, including municipal police and the prison system. Still, the 2009 murder count reached 2,290.
But the growing numbers painted only part of the picture. The violence changed. Killings were no longer contained to the targets. Murders began happening everywhere: in and around churches, homes, parks, playgrounds, day-care centers, schools, community centers, restaurants, and rich and poor neighborhoods. Every square inch of the city became a potential crime scene — and every resident a potential witness or victim. Juarenses struggle to explain why things changed. It seems the military presence drove the cartels to flaunt publicly the same violence the government forces were sent to quell.
"Before the military arrived, there was always a certain logic to organized crime and the murders," says Esteban's mother, Lourdes Almada, who heads Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en Ciudad Juárez, a coalition of Juárez child advocacy and community organizations. "Assassinations were more or less payment of debts, and those who carried them out took care to ensure that there weren't any confusions.
"Suddenly, you had kids witnessing executions or being shot themselves as they tried to flee with their father," Almada recalls. "Reality blew up in our face."
Martínez, the newspaper editor, motions to a wall across from the entrance to her son's primary school. "Right over there, cartel tags started appearing," she says. Before 2008, territorial markings were never so close to a school. Then the extortion began. In December 2008, teachers throughout the city's 900 schools were sent a clear message through the coded markings: Hand over your year-end bonuses (normally equivalent to a month's salary of $450 to $1,000), or students will suffer the consequences.
"It was a new low," Almada remembers, shaking her head. "But that's the thing about Juárez. You think you've hit bottom, and then it just keeps getting worse."
Eleven-year-old Alfonso was returning from buying a soda at his neighborhood corner store this past April when he saw a friend pounding on the triple-locked metal gate of a house. "Come quick," he remembers hearing. "Pablo has been killed." Alfonso's grandmother, Rosa, tried to stop him from venturing around the corner to the spot where his favorite cousin was likely dying, but the fifth-grader couldn't help himself. He turned onto the adjacent street and saw 19-year-old Pablo blood-soaked in a car. Neither Alfonso nor his three friends beside him breathed. "We didn't hear any shots," Rosa says. In Juárez, that's code for a knife killing.
Alfonso is big for his age, and his bangs are long enough to almost cover his wide, dark eyes. He sits on the edge of the couch in his family's living room. The large curtains are drawn, and plastic flowers and fake-gold-trimmed furniture dominate the décor. Though there's a sweetness to him, Alfonso's sadness is palpable. "He was like our other brother," says the stocky boy who wants to be a chef, glancing toward his older brother, 16-year-old Raúl, who's perched on a stool across the room. Alfonso continues, "He would take us downtown to hang out and was very protective. You know, like, always worried that something would happen to us." His voice is barely audible above the hum of the air conditioner, and he's aware of the irony of what he's saying. His eyes linger on the floorboards: "When I listen to the music that he liked, I get sad. Sometimes it makes me want to cry."