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Vamos Indios!

The soccer-playing heroes of the notoriously violent Ciudad Juarez

The first time I meet Marco Vidal, he tells me I need to hop on YouTube. If I want to understand why he willingly lives in the world’s most dangerous city and why he plays for the Indios of Ciudad Juárez fútbol club and why he feels the Indios are a special team, then I’ve got to watch what happened after his Indios defeated the Esmeraldas of León back in 2008. Juárez and León (a 440-year-old tannery town in the exact center of Mexico) had played a two-game series, home and home, for the highest of stakes. The losers were to stay in minor league obscurity, earning little money and waiting at least a year for even a chance to change their station in life. The winners would rise into the Primera, Mexico’s top league. International TV every week. Big-time paychecks. Home games against glamorous clubs like Chivas of Guadalajara and road trips to such soccer shrines as the 105,000-seat Estadio Azteca, in Mexico City.

Juárez won. Improbably, unbelievably. The Indios beat León 1–0 in a home game played at their small stadium, so close to Texas that an errant corner kick might land in an El Paso railyard. In the second leg, in León, the Indios held on for a 2–2 tie, winning the series 3–2 on aggregate and completing the unlikely dream of the Indios’ owner, Francisco Ibarra. Only three years earlier, Ibarra, a construction scion and former television station sports director, had announced he’d bought a minor league soccer team and relocated it to Juárez, and that he planned for the team to rise to the Primera. Few people thought he could pull it off.

The videos are twenty seconds long in one case, one minute long in another, the cinematography all first-generation cell-phone camera. The moment the referee’s final whistle blows in León, a festival erupts in Juárez’s Chamizal Park, near the stadium. Horns, drums, flags colored Indios red and black. Police cruisers inch through crowded streets, fans rocking one squad car like a teeter-totter. Seven hours of Tecate and tequila later, the party relocates to the airport. Videos show Mayor José Reyes Ferriz on the runway, welcoming the team home. Players squeeze through the security doors into the terminal. Marco’s in there somewhere, accepting hugs, handshakes, and kisses. The Indios’ mascot, his head an oversize soccer ball wrapped in a red bandanna, dances to mariachi melodies bleated on silver trumpets.

This Love is Not for Cowards

“Olé, olé, olé! Indios! Indios!” The chants rocket around the terminal, threatening to lift the ceiling.

“Va-mos Indios! Va-mos Indios!” Go Indians! As loud and passionate as Anfield or San Siro. The fiesta overflows into the parking lot, and then onto the six lanes of the Carretera Panamericana, the main road back to the center of town. It takes the players and their coaches and Francisco Ibarra and their new silver trophy forever just to reach the bus, which is surrounded on all sides. Lights flash and twirl on police motorcycles ready to speed the team to a prayer service at San Lorenzo Cathedral, if that were at all possible. The bus cannot speed. It rolls so slowly through the mob that players feel safe climbing onto the roof. They are the Yankees on the Canyon of Heroes, they are astronauts returned from the first moonwalk. Finally at the church, Marco and his teammates parade the trophy up to the altar. Fans turn the pews into bleacher seats, still singing songs and waving flags. A priest steps up to the pulpit. Everyone thanks God for their good fortune.

I’ve arrived in Juárez in December 2009, too late for the Cinderella story. The Indios are no longer the darlings of Mexican soccer. In fact, they are the worst team in the league. They threaten, if they don’t get their act together quickly, to become the worst team ever to play in Mexico’s top division. The soccer cycle in Mexico consists of two short seasons per year — one in the fall and one in the spring. In the Apertura, or opening season (the fall season), the Indios finished in last place among eighteen teams. I got here just before the start of the Clausura, or closing season. The team is preparing to play every opponent one last time. If they don’t win at least eight of those seventeen games, they will fall back to the minors from which they so gloriously escaped. Eight wins. A tall order for a team that won not once the previous season, their third in the Primera.

People do live here. As many as two million people, the mayor tells me. (The exact population is hard to pin down. I’ve heard maybe only one million people remain, the rest having fled to El Paso or back to Veracruz or, no doubt, illegally to Arizona and California, Denver and Chicago.) Juarenses marry and hold down jobs and raise kids who attend college in town. They are not exactly divorced from Texas or from the United States at large. Marco, an Indios midfielder, is an American. So is the team’s vice president and general manager, Gil Cantú. Indios owner Francisco Ibarra lives in El Paso and has applied for the U.S. citizenship his sons already hold. Fly into the El Paso airport, hop in a taxi, and before you even reach downtown you’ll see Juárez sprawling from just off Interstate 10. You can’t miss the supersize Mexican flag thrust above the valley like a giant middle finger. Juárez is right there. I mean, it’s right there.

It’s an ugly city. Burning tires and improvised slums and poorly built bridges that collapse in spring rains. The weather cycles from snow to dust storms to sun so intense that street vendors sell windshield wipers to replace the ones that melted while you were at work. Employment is the reason everybody is here, including the Indios. Marco and his teammates are men at work in the most violent city going, which is why I’ve started hanging around their practices and games. Following the team, I figure, will also expose me to the rest of the country, since the Indios travel to away games every other week. Like most Americans, I haven’t thought about Mexico all that much. It’s there, I know, right below Texas and a few other states. All the cartels and corruption in Mexico matter to the United States, presumably. No other country holds more influence over modern American culture. It’s time to look at it.

The players and coaches are optimistic about their future when I first start following them. Marco shares stories of the Indios’ strong character, of past escapes from certain doom. “You’re going to witness the greatest soccer miracle of all time!” Yet it is obvious the violence is taking a toll. Francisco Ibarra has abandoned plans to build a modern stadium in Juárez. Marco’s car was stolen at gunpoint. Extortionists threaten players over their home telephones, and one goalie fled with his family after a ladrón — a street thug — pointed a shotgun at his head. Worst of all, one of the Indios coaches, in a development I kind of wish I’d noticed before I flew down, has just been murdered. The Indios have been called a civic vitamin, the one good thing that works in Juárez. Yet they’re not working all that well. If they can’t make it, what does that say for the future of the city? Of Mexico? Of us?

“This shit could all be over in three months,” Marco lets slip one of the first times we go to lunch, before the first game of the spring season has even been played.

There is more to the YouTube videos than the obvious story they tell: that this team of soccer players makes people happy. The missing context is essential, and it’s why I’ve been ordered to watch the videos by many more people in Juárez than just Marco Vidal.

The championship final was played on the last Sunday of May 2008. That’s about a year after the violence in Juárez really blew up. It’s also about a year — and this is not a coincidence — from when Mexican president Felipe Calderón took office, promising to crack down on drug cartels. Juárez is Calderón’s toughest battleground. It’s a drug trafficker’s dream, a transportation hub with easy access to American markets on both coasts and in the Midwest. The city has been run for twenty years by the Juárez Cartel, better known in town as La Línea, or “the Line.” Around the time Calderón announced his cartel offensive — and is this a coincidence? — a rising cartel from the Pacific state of Sinaloa ramped up operations in Juárez, aiming to take over the city.

The home team is fighting back. Cartel warfare killed more Juarenses in the first four months of 2008 than had been assassinated in the city all the previous year. Bloody torsos dangled from the Rotary Bridge, near a Wal-Mart and a Starbucks. AK-47s erupted at high noon outside City Hall. More than fifty bodies lay unclaimed in the morgue, which suggests they were outsiders shipped in for battle. Corrupt police flipped to the Sinaloan side. La Línea shot many of the defectors. After the murder of five turncoat officers, La Línea posted a list of seventeen more cops who would be killed “unless they learn.”

As the Indios prepared for the final, away leg of the series, gunmen assassinated the number-two man in the Juárez police department; the chief immediately resigned and fled to Texas. The owner of Marco’s favorite nightclub was shot in the head. Three bodies found inside a dusty Oldsmobile were identified via handwritten note as “treasonous pigs.” Five more bodies turned up less than a mile from the border, the bodies decapitated and wrapped in white plastic. An attached message, signed by La Línea, labeled the dead “traitors.” On that same day, a viral e-mail warned that the upcoming weekend — championship weekend — would be the “deadliest and bloodiest” in the history of the city. Stay out of the bars! Stay at home even during the day. If you must travel, avoid major streets. The e-mail prompted Mayor Reyes Ferriz to cancel a trip to Colombia. Americans were warned not to cross the river. Police in El Paso prepared for spillover. The Friday before the game, eleven who ignored the e-mail were killed. The Saturday before the game, twelve more were killed.

Yet on Sunday, after the Indios won, la gente poured into the streets. The mayor partied alongside the rowdy Indios supporters who call themselves, wonderfully, El Kartel. Boys climbed onto their fathers’ shoulders. Players climbed onto the roof of their bus as young women danced in blue jeans and form-fitting red Indios jerseys tied at the waist. La gente, the people, proved to be bigger than the cartels. The city showed it was more than just violence. Watch the videos, gringo, and see for yourself. Juárez is home to hundreds of thousands of people who strive only to dance and watch soccer and drink and love.

A beautiful moment. A nice memory.

This is an excerpt from This Love Is Not For Cowards by Robert Andrew Powell. Copyright 2012 by Robert Andrew Powell. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.

Filed Under: Soccer, Sports