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A typical business drive and visit to Juarez

Street vendors wait near the Paso del Norte international bridge waiting for visitors who walk or drive across the border into Ciudad Juarez. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

I am often asked what it is like to travel to Juarez, Mexico, which I go to often for business. A lot of people who used to travel across the border frequently are now reluctant or outright scared to travel to this northern-Mexico border city because of the drug wars and reported violence.

It’s easy to perceive Juarez as a scary place where bad things can happen. However, we can tend to lose sight of the fact that this city has residents who do live normal lives, and face the same challenges that we do on the U.S. side of the border. In order to provide people who will not travel into Mexico the opportunity to live vicariously through my visits to Juarez, I will provide a play-by-play of my latest visit to that city for business.

I leave my office accompanied by two of my colleagues, headed east on I-10 intending to take the offramp to the Americas/Cordova bridge, which goes into Juarez from central El Paso. I forget that the offramp is closed for repairs, and have to perform a series of redundant moves on the freeway to bypass the offramp, and queue in the line at the bridge headed into Mexico. The lines south on the U.S. side are not too long, but cars start to bunch up on top of the bridge as cars ahead of them pass through a stoplight in Mexico, indicating green (proceed to your destination) or red (pull out of line for inspection by Mexican officials). We luckily get the green light and start driving into Juarez. In the park immediately south of the bridge are multiple tents, housing families that I am told are predominantly Mexican, which are seeking asylum in the U.S. This is a new development, because as of late, northbound asylum seekers have been dominated by people from Central America.

I drive us through the old PRONAF district of Juarez to our appointment south of Avenida 16 de Septiembre. The business is in a half-residential/half-commercial district. Parking is scarce and I have to park a block away on a narrow street. Many businesses in Juarez have installed bars on their front doors, along with an intercom, to verify that you are not there to cause harm to the inhabitants. We get buzzed in and proceed to have our meeting. Upon leaving, I notice that clouds are gathering and start to get a little concerned. Cloudbursts can wreak havoc in certain Juarez neighborhoods due to drainage problems. I have seen major streets turn into lakes in a very short period of time.

We need to stop at a supermarket to pick up some things for an event we are having later in the month. We find an S-Mart store, which is a major chain in northern Mexico. Inside, we are surrounded by rows of food vendors, tucked inside alcoves. Older men are playing chess in the food court. Families and shoppers are everywhere. I love going down the different aisles looking at the exotic foods and observing what people are purchasing. My senses are inundated by the smells of freshly-made tortillas, homemade Mexican tacos and flautas, and the waves of people coming in and leaving. The store, which rivals any U.S. supermarket, is neatly arranged in a modern sense, with attractive fresh produce, meat, seafood, and prepared food sections. Everything looks delicious and it’s hard to tell that I am not in a modern U.S. supermarket, save for the uniquely Mexican touches. My companions insist on getting a couple of orders of papitas (chips), one with cheese and spices and the other “loco,” or loaded with avocados, other vegetables, cream, and even peanuts. We snack on these as we watch young rockers, grandmothers, and couples shopping in the store.

We leave the supermarket to go home via the Santa Teresa Port of Entry, about 15 miles away and the westernmost international port in the El Paso metro region. This entails taking the Rivereño, the Mexican highway that winds east-west along the south bank of the Rio Grande. Of course, I take a wrong road that takes us south of the Rivereño, and we end up in a modest working-class Juarez neighborhood. With several twists and turns, I find my way back to the Rivereño and we are headed west. The skies then decide to open up and the rain comes down. To get to the Santa Teresa Port, we have to go through Anapra, a poorer suburb in west Juarez. The community is built on hills, some with a steep grade that make driving in the rain even more exciting. Three cars ahead, the traffic comes to a halt as a fender-bender has occurred. The parties exit their cars and begin a discussion as to who was at fault.

For about five minutes traffic backs up, and we are wondering whether a fight will break out. Finally, the dispute is settled and both drivers enter their vehicles and drive away, alleviating the traffic jam. We resume proceeding west as the rain starts pounding the highway. As I have learned during my career doing business in Mexico, it is better to be cautious while driving during inclement weather. Roads in Mexico can have dips that accumulate water and it is easy to hydroplane. We make it to the Santa Teresa port and cross to the U.S. side.

On the way back to the office, I thought about our trip, and that Mexicans and Americans have so much in common. Yes, Juarez has major problems and the drug wars, even though not at the level of 10 years ago, have not gone away. However, people become accustomed to their circumstances, and life goes on. Getting out of the car I look south. A beautiful rainbow is touching Juarez. What a perfect ending to a great day.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at jerry@nmiba.com.

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