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Robert Andrew Powell Discusses Life, Death, and Futbol in Ciudad Juarez (Part 1)

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In the summer of 2008, Indios de Ciudad Juarez were on top of the world. After only three years of existence the club was moving up to the big time, having just won promotion to the Mexican Primera. What no one knew at the time was just how fleeting a moment it would prove to be. Two years later the team was relegated back to the second division, and in December of 2011 the club folded entirely.

This dramatic rise and fall of a professional sports team would make for a remarkable story in any city in the world. The fact that it played out in Juarez, though, against a dramatic backdrop of rising violence makes it a uniquely tragic tale. It’s a story that certainly deserves a full-length book treatment – and luckily for us that's exactly what we’ll be getting.

Journalist Robert Andrew Powell moved to Juarez in 2009 to cover the Indios, and the result of his work is a book set to be released at the end of this month: This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez.

I recently spoke with Powell about his time living in Juarez and his thoughts on the dramatic rise and fall of the Indios futbol team.

Americans essentially view Juarez as an unlivable place. Every mention of the city in the press here also includes what seems like a mandatory mention of the number of murders during the past year. So back in 2009, at a time when all of the news coming out of the city was so negative, what possibly convinced you to pack up and move to Juarez?

Powell: It was the fact that they had the soccer team, and that the soccer team was playing in the Primera. That their name was the Indios just made me think of the Cleveland Indians, and what if the Cleveland Indians were based in Juarez. It seemed completely incongruous. How could they have something so normal when everything I, and everyone else, was reading about was the blood and all the murders? It made me think that there had to be a bigger picture because the Indios were in the Primera, and that just drew me in. I didn’t have that much knowledge of the city going in, so it was kind of an excuse at the same time.

Let’s go back to the moment that the Indios advanced to the Primera. This was before you arrived in the city, but I know you covered it. From what I understand, there was a widely-distributed e-mail that warned of extreme violence planned for Juarez during the same weekend of the promotion playoff in late May 2008. People were extremely frightened, but the Indios win promotion and tens of thousands of people come out in the streets to celebrate. It’s a huge moment with massive crowds everywhere, and there were no reports of violence. Can you talk about the importance of that moment?

Your understanding of it is correct. This was threatened credibly to be the most bloody weekend in the history of Juarez. They said don’t go out, don’t go to bars. If you have to drive, drive only on the main streets. Really, stay at home. And people had legitimate reason to believe it, and to be scared. The mayor cancelled a trip to Colombia that he’d scheduled because of the threats. Then they win this game. It was bigger and more beautiful than the violence. Everyone stopped and focused on something positive which was this incredible achievement that took place in Juarez with Juarences on the team. It was just a beautiful, life-affirming, positive thing in the city that was at that time about to peak in its horror. Hope becomes a big theme in my book, and that was the most hopeful thing that may have ever happened in the city.

Continuing with that theme of hope, the owner of the team, Francisco Ibarra, who is from Juarez always dreamed of having a soccer team in the city, and suddenly he had one in the top flight. In an interview that summer of 2008, Ibarra compared the city to a pregnant woman, saying 'Juarez is living the pains of child labor. We are in a stage of transition. But something good will be born soon. Our city will be clean and better in the days to come.' Was this an accurate assessment of the city at this time?

He continued to say that in 2010, but when I was there it was harder and harder to be hopeful. There was a quote from author Charles Bowden where he said 'it’s impossible to sustain hope in Juarez.' What I was learning when I was there is that hope was all everybody had. Hope is the predominant emotion. Everyone’s hopeful and looking for reasons to be hopeful. The fact that the team kept losing made it kind of inescapable. Every week Indios would lose and get closer to being relegated, and yet by Wednesday of the next week they’d start to be optimistic again. By game day they were pumped up, and then they would lose again. It played out a real sense of hopelessness that unfortunately -- and probably predictably -- went all the way to the extreme with the team folding. It’s kind of a canary in a coal mine situation. If the city can’t support the team, or keep it afloat, how good is the city? They had this one nice thing and they couldn’t sustain it. It’s deeply sad and it goes against the argument of hope. It’s really discouraging and yet everyone there doesn’t focus on it. You look at something new, though I don’t know what else you can look at right now that would give you that sense of hope. I was there a couple of weeks ago and it’s really obvious that there’s no team any more. There’s nothing to rally around, and it was really sad.

Going back to that first year in the Primera, one of the hopes was for economic development surrounding a proposed new stadium. I remember seeing some initial plans online back in 2008 or 2009 of a stadium that was just incredible – a retractable roof, hundreds of luxury boxes, just the most modern of modern stadiums.

It was 400 luxury boxes, which when you think about it is mind-blowing because they have a new two-billion dollar baseball stadium in Miami and it doesn’t have 400 skyboxes. The plans were approved, the funding was obtained, there was a press conference with the governor, and the mayor, and Francisco Ibarra. It was a go. But right then it got terrible in the city to the point where it was like who would go to these games, and how many people can buy a skybox in this city? It just became inarguable that it was not the time, and it folded. It folded because of the violence and also the economy.

One journalist who covers the team there said that the stadium was the biggest red flag of potential money laundering by the Indios – the fact that they were going to try and build this stadium. I found out after I got there that the DEA had fingered the Indios as a money-laundering front. I’ve since decided that they were probably not, but I wouldn’t rule out the parent company of the Indios, which is Ibarra’s construction company. It’s hard to summarize, as there are some subtleties to it, but I had to address it in the book as there were reasons to be suspicious.

A full year in the Primera goes by, and then we move into the Apertura 2009. This was just a terrible season for the team on all fronts. They don’t win a single game, and then in December – I believe on the same day you move to the city -- the club’s youth coach Pedro Picasso Garcia was murdered.

He was actually murdered two days before I showed up, but I didn’t hear about it. When I heard about it was the day I crossed over. I had already rented an apartment in Juarez, and as I was packing up my stuff in an El Paso hotel I took one last look online and that’s when I found out. I almost died. I’m about to go over. I actually called my 75-year-old father and I said, ‘just for the record I love you.’ I was thinking what am I getting into here?

Then what was remarkable was that no one on the Indios seemed to care. Everyone was really blasé about it, and that’s the first time I was exposed to the detachment everyone has in Juarez. Because you couldn’t live there if you thought about the murders every day. Even when it’s someone very close you still have to be detached. ‘When it's your time to go, it's your time to go.’ I heard that a hundred times when I was in Juarez. It's nothing like I had ever experienced, but while I was there I learned to pick it up. I learned to shake it off -- just another murder. Someone told me when you go numb is when you have a problem, and by the end of my time there I was absolutely numb.

The violence just became totally normalized to your day-to-day life?

Totally. For most of the people there they don’t have options. They cant cross. Juarez is a city of opportunity – it was for Marco Vidal. He was out of soccer basically and he got a chance with the Indios and he ended up back in the Primera. So a lot of people for economic reasons come up to the border and they think they’re going to cross, but they can’t and they end up with a job just making the best life that they can. They don’t have options to leave. So you have to adapt in that case.

Continue on to Part 2 for the conclusion of the interview with author Robert Andrew Powell.