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Bearing witness to the mental harm of violence in Mexico

Located in the state of Chihuahua, across from El Paso, Texas, the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez sits sullen on the US border. It is filled with thousands of migrant workers and factory seamstresses, all who have come to this dusty frontier town to make a better life for themselves. But another reality had come to this place.  Violence and all the horrors wrought by it.

Between 2007 and 2012, over 11,400 people had been murdered here. Despite having just one percent of the Mexican population, this border town had nine percent of Mexico’s homicides. By 2010, ten people a day were being gunned down on its dust and blood swept streets. That year over 3,500 people died and Juarez earned the title of the most violent city in the world.

The death toll in Juarez had reached the levels of a conventional war. A war carried out between drug traffickers and corrupt officials. One fought with torture and assassinations, drive-by shootings and night-time murder. It was so bad that, in a country like Mexico, where the national homicide rate had risen by 86% between 2008 and 2012, Juarez stood out singularly for its violence.

The chaos of this city was, perhaps, made starker by the fact that, just across the Rio Grande in the United States, lay El Paso. And in 2014 El Paso was voted the safest large city in the United States for the third year running.

The divide between heaven and hell can be as simple as a line of barbed wire.

Ciudad Juarez was not only a case study of what happens when plenty of guns meet weak State institutions. It was also a living and breathing urban cocktail of drugs and violence and impunity. Guns have transformed this city, and made life cheap; an assassination here costs just $85. The name of Juarez had become synonymous for violence.

One night I travelled into the shadows of the Chihuahuan desert with Alicia Fernandez, a brave photo-journalist in her late twenties who was showing me around. We were looking for what violence had done to the soul of Juarez. And we were heading to the place best to find this; a charity that dealt with madness.

The road to the mental hospice was a straight line out into the dark pools of black that lay beyond the ragged edges of the city. As Juarez thinned out, and the desert took her place, the low barbed wire-rimmed walls of the factories ended. Even the shacks, with their contained patches of blue electricity, began to thin out. Until all that was left were the spotlights of the car and the desert silence, the city in the rear window diminishing into the night.

“This is where they bring them before they kill them,” Alicia said, nodding at the radiating desert scrub on either side. The gangs who fought their drug turf wars here used this desolation for their revenge.

Then, five, ten kilometers into the inked gloom, we saw a murmur of light and a low huddle of faded buildings. Then there was a sudden slope of an unpaved road down to the side. Alicia overshot it and we turned in a gritty circle to head back, stones flying.

The Pastor was there, waiting for us and he led us out the back. There a line of cages lay in a mute row.

Each was about two feet wide – barely enough for you to stand up in broadways – and each had a tall metal grill onto which an ugly padlock was locked, a low-slung concrete bed that stretched the length back onto a shadowed wall, and a plastic, knee-high bucket, filled with things you did not want to see.

Eight cages for eight patients. They lay there, cold eyes in the half-light, faces wrapped silent under thick woollen blankets. Their unwashed feet and their un-emptied buckets gave a smell that thickened the air.

But the pills the Pastor and his staff had given them worked well. The downers and sedatives that came with their meals of rice and beans had kicked in, so they were quiet and did not move. The cages were there to protect them, the Pastor told me.

They were the mentally ill of the Mexican border town – the result of the violence that had hit the dusty streets.

Later the Pastor sat down at his wide desk and beckoned us to take a seat in the office that was also his bedroom. He had found God and God had told him to build this centre for those who had fallen victim to the drugs and the violence in Juarez, he said. And he said how he had scooped up those whose bed was the street and whose minds had long since folded into madness, and gave them food and blankets and a roof. He had no training as a mental health nurse and yet he had a Mexican heart, which was a full one.

It’s easy to condemn a man who confines the mad to caged beds. But you knew if he hadn’t offered the ragged men and women some shelter here, their last bed may well have been the Calles of Juarez.

Hell as this was, this was also a mercy.

There are thousands of places like this in the dark pools of armed violence around the world. Countless beds where the broken and the tormented lie with blank eyes and tortured minds.

There are places where men whose minds are broken by the violence they have seen and committed has left them mute, chained to beds.  There are places where communities live locked behind high walls and thick glass, each family caught in fear from what armed violence has brought into their lives.  There are countless widows and orphans whose whole lives will be marked by the sadness of losing a father to a bullet.

And most of these will live, like those here, in a cage.  Not always a physical one.  But a cage nonetheless.  Because this is the true face of violence, and that face is all too often hidden.