National Geographic : 2016 Jun
A s night falls over San Antonio, a shantytown turned neighbor- hood with concrete-block houses, rugged streets, and few trees, children head excitedly to a ware- house stacked with tires. There the din of Ciudad Juárez recedes, replaced by grunts, slaps, and thuds—bam!—of supple young bodies slamming onto canvas. The makeshift wrestling ring, fashioned from iron and cable scavenged from junkyards, belongs to Inés Montenegro, who opened it two years ago after one of his sons suggested the neighborhood’s children needed somewhere to play. In Mexico lucha libre, a style of pro wres- tling with masked fighters performing scripted acrobatic moves, is a national obsession. Mon- tenegro’s funky arena was an instant hit. Tonight four boys ages 11 to 15— Omar, Alfon- so, Eric, and Antonio—hurtle against the ropes, which slingshot them into the center of the ring. They bound gleefully, learning the choreogra- phy for such classic moves as the “tiger jump,” vaulting melodramatically into the ring, and the “scissors,” jumping from the ropes to wrap your legs around your opponent’s neck. The scene would have been unimaginable six years ago, when I last visited Juárez, the largest city in Chihuahua state. Child’s play had been banished from public spaces as drug cartels battled street by street to control the border city, a gateway to the lucrative U.S. drug market. I watched as Mexican soldiers in helmets and sunglasses rumbled in atop armored vehicles to reclaim those streets, gripping assault rifles and machine guns, one of many attempts to halt the macabre violence that had made Juárez infamous worldwide. From 2008 to 2012, the city of 1.3 million people was widely deemed the most dangerous place on Earth. Murders shot above 3,700 in the worst year. Criminals kidnapped and extorted with impunity. A quarter of all cars stolen in Mexico were stolen in Juárez. Businesses closed by the thousands. Anarchy descended. The San Antonio neighborhood was among the worst. The boys now cavorting in the wrestling ring each had relatives killed or jailed. Two of Antonio’s uncles were murdered. “ We’d be out playing and hear gunshots, and we’d run for home,” he recalls. Out in the colonias, or neighborhoods, at least 11 lucha libre rings now draw hundreds of kids donning personae such as Aztec Falcon and Ex-Convict. Juárez’s once empty streets are crowded again. Around the cathedral, clothing stores and Popsicle shops do a brisk business; cover bands play Spanish versions of By Sam Quinones Photographs by Dominic Bracco II Onetime gang members, some now community organizers, paint a mural meant to bring together youth from different, often rival, neighborhoods. Juárez had hundreds of gangs that were drawn into the war between drug cartels.