This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation And Soccer In Ciudad Juarez is the latest book from author Robert Andrew Powell. Mexico's Ciudad Juarez is one of the most dangerous cities on earth, with over 2000 murders in 2009 alone. However, Powell says that the soccer team in Ciudad Juarez, Los Indios, was a source of hope for the city and its people. He joined Bill Littlefield from WLRN in Miami to discuss the book.
Powell said he was surprised by the level of violence when he arrived in Juarez.
"I guess I wasn't surprised in theory," he said. "I knew it was a very violent city, obviously, that's all I had read about. Having a soccer team was such a normal activity, which made me think there was more to the city than just murder, and yet... there was a lot of murder. It was overwhelming."
Powell said the violence in Juarez changed him. While watching a game at a sports bar, Powell was unfazed when a car bomb that killed four first responders went off down the street.
"What amazed me, because I had been there almost nine months by that point, is how I didn't respond. I watched the rest of the game at the sports bar. I drank beer and I ate chicken wings. A week earlier, there'd been a man killed on my street, and the only thing that mattered to me is that all the police trucks were blocking me in and I couldn't get to the laundromat. I had just gotten numb. A good friend of mine in Juarez strongly encouraged me to leave, and he was convincing, and I left."
The primary reason for all the violence in Juarez is an ongoing battle between various drug cartels, and there was some suspicion that Los Indios, the soccer team, was laundering money for the cartels. Powell, however, said that he does not think that was the case.
"One of the best arguments that the team itself, specifically the team, was not laundering money is that they were horrible," Powell said. "The team lost the entire time I was there. They ended up setting a Mexican record for longest winless streak in the major league. This was a bare-bones, skeletal crew, and they couldn't pay their players, and they had the worst players in the league, so it was hard to argue that the money was flowing into Los Indios."
One of the strongest conclusions that Powell took away from his experience was that "la gente," the people, were bigger than the cartels. He spoke about why he believed that to be true.
"On the day the Indios qualified for the major league, was a day when the cartels had warned, 'Don't go out, it's going to be the bloodiest weekend in the history of Juarez. Don't go to bars, don't go on main streets, stay indoors.' And when the Indios won, everyone spilled into the streets and had an all-night party. It was a beautiful moment. I get cynical about sports sometimes, about the value that they can bring to a city, and in was inarguable in Juarez that this team was a beautiful thing in a city that doesn't have a lot of beauty."
Bill's thoughts on This Love Is Not For Cowards:
The love to which Robert Andrew Powell refers in the title of his new book is inspired by a soccer team, Los Indios, but also by the city in which the team plays. Citizens of Juarez, determined to find something to love and celebrate in a home town known for corruption, kidnapping, carjacking, bloody gun battles between drug cartels and the slaughter of innocents, cling to Los Indios. They do so with joy, rather than despair. When the team rises to the Mexican soccer league's first division, the devotion of the fans is rewarded. The ascent is unlikely, and Los Indios don't last long at the top – how can they when their general manager has such trouble convincing players to relocate to Juarez? – but the fans remain loyal and loud.
Powell's account of life in Juarez is a fine and welcome contrast to the brief horror stories that have characterized most of the coverage of the drug wars in Mexico. He acknowledges that the city is a dangerous and depressing place, full of people so desperate for work that they tolerate the daily threats and violence for the sake of bad jobs in grim factories. But the people Powell comes to know – the people with whom he travels to games on a careening and crowded bus – are not merely victims of bad times in a bad place. They are fathers and mothers and singing children, and they are soccer fans.
At several points in the book, Powell points out that people in El Paso, just across the river from Juarez, are inclined to pretend the Mexican city doesn't exist. It's easier that way. Even elsewhere in Mexico, Powell says, people don't like to talk about Juarez. It's a fine thing that he has reminded us that folks there, like folks anywhere else, are merely trying to find their way to better days.
This segment aired on March 10, 2012.