If there is indeed such a thing as a real hell on earth -- as opposed to pedestrian, rhetorical hells on earth -- Juarez, Mexico, might be a finalist for the designation.
And when you get right down to it, Juarez became hellish due to a lot of factors you can see, to a lesser degree, in my own Louisiana hometown, Baton Rouge. And in things closer to home here in Nebraska -- like, for example, the growth of "concierge medicine."
This hit me like a thunderbolt as I listened to All Things Considered this afternoon. In the NPR program's feature on the plight of Juarez, one part hit me between the eyes with a journalistic two-by-four.
IT WAS this segment in the report:
In March 2009, Calderon put the Mexican army in charge of the Juarez police department after one of the local drug cartels ordered the police chief to quit.
Calderon now concedes that military muscle alone isn't going to end the violence. "We need to tackle this social plan, because the problems in Juarez have deep roots in the structure of this city," Calderon told a group of local business and community leaders.
Young people lack opportunities, he said. Juarez doesn't have enough schools, hospitals or soccer fields. Only half the roads are paved. Murder, extortion and kidnapping go unpunished.
Calderon said the social fabric and rule of law need to be re-established in Juarez. He received one of his biggest rounds of applause when he declared that motorists should be accountable and people should no longer be allowed to drive around without license plates.
Calderon pledged tens of millions of additional dollars for social programs in Juarez, but he also said he will not pull the Mexican army out of the streets.
The double punch of the global economic downturn and the gruesome drug war has battered the border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The maquiladoras, or assembly plants, in Juarez have cut more than 100,000 jobs since 2008. The owners of thousands of restaurants, bars, corner stores and other small businesses have shut their doors rather than pay "protection money" to local gangs. Many professionals have moved to El Paso.
Alvador Gonzalez Ayala, a civil engineer who works in Texas, has chosen to keep his home in Juarez. "And I want to remain here," he says. "I want my children to remain here."
He says one of the biggest problems facing the industrial city is the huge disparity in wealth.
Gonzalez says much of the blame rests with the local elite, which he says is "a privileged and influential minority that's totally indifferent to the great mass of poor people [who] live in the area." [Emphasis mine -- R21]
He adds that the city has been neglected for decades. Young people who see the opulence in Juarez and just across the border fence in Texas are attracted to the quick money of the drug trade, he says. Workers in the maquiladoras earn $60 to $70 a week. Drug runners can earn that or much more in a day.
Gonzalez is involved in several civic groups, and he recalls going recently to talk to a group of preteens in one of Juarez's poorer neighborhoods.
"We were promoting education and science and math. And we were asking them, what do you want to do when you grow up? Many of them told us, 'I want to be a sicario.' That's striking. A sicario is a paid assassin," he says.
THE PART about tolerating cars driving around without license plates reminded me -- in the sense of a concept being carried to its logical conclusion -- of the great Gallic shrug Louisiana gives the larger concept of civic responsibility and good behavior. As did the part about indifferent elites.
It was the indifference of elites that also reminded me of life here in Omaha, home of one of the nation's poorest African-American communities -- one with only the tiniest of middle classes. The indifference doesn't, in my opinion, reach Louisiana (and certainly not Mexican) levels, but it there.
It's there whenever people can tout "concierge medicine" in the face of high infant mortality rates, astronomical levels of sexually transmitted disease, endemic street violence and disenfranchised people whose greatest deprivation is that of hope for a better life.
There are only two things that can lead to such tone deafness and rank selfishness. One is abject malevolence. The other is abject indifference. I don't know, frankly, which is worse.
But the end of the road, if the better angels of our nature do not eventually prevail upon us, is Juarez.