Guest Columns

SMITH: BUT INHABITANTS OF JUAREZ FIGHT BACK

Murder and poor mental health in the most dangerous city of the world

Contributing Columnist

Our society is crying out,” El Pastor says.

It’s Thursday, February 23 and we’re in his battered little red car driving south from Juárez, Mexico to what he calls the asilo (asylum) or manicomio (mad house or insane asylum).

José Luis Galván is El Pastor. A big man of 60 with curly greying hair, he wears a dark suit with a Special Forces pin in his lapel that was given to him by his son who has served in the Special Forces for ten years and is now in Afghanistan. El Pastor went to the United States as a young man, got married and had three children and earned good money as a crane operator. He began using drugs, however, ended up in prison and was then deported back to Juárez where he lived on the streets for a year. Somehow he repented. Fifteen years ago, he founded this asylum out in the desert where there’s nothing but abandoned buildings and an occasional yonke or junkyard.

Three men in a cell — Manuel, Victoriano and Miguel Angel. They are dangerous. Outsiders were warned to go ahead and talk with them, but not to get too close.Photo by Morgan Smith

Juárez is crying out, as he says. It is a city of some 1.5 million people (less the many thousands who have fled from the violence) that had more homicides in 2009 than the combined total of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Baltimore and New Orleans.

Yet there are only eight psychiatrists in the whole city and no mental health services. Compare this to the Adams County Mental Health Center (now named Mental Health America) which serves a county population of some 430,000 with a budget of about $22 million, some 300 employees, 14 sites throughout the county and a foundation of about $5 million that was built up by Youlon Savage during his many years as director.

El Pastor’s patients are mentally ill who have been deported from the United States, are living on the streets of Juárez or have been involved in crimes. Many, like Josua Rosales, his assistant, have been dumped on his doorstep by the authorities.

In the last two years, there have been roughly 7,500 murders. That means that there are tens of thousands of survivors — family and friends — who are in mourning. In addition, thousands of orphans live on the streets or in tapias or abandoned houses. “They are children of sadness, of hate,” El Pastor says. Since they have no education, no work skills and no family support, they are easily recruited into the dozens of gangs that make Juárez so dangerous.

We arrive as breakfast is being served. Many of the men are eating off trays in one large, dark room where they also sleep. I remember the grim conditions in the psychiatric ward at the State Hospital in Pueblo when I was the Public Defender of Adams County back in the 60s but this is worse. At the same time, El Pastor’s inmates receive much more attention than the inmates I remember in Pueblo. With him, there is a feeling of family and respect.

“They say that these people are human garbage,” he tells me, “But I see them as hidden treasures.”

Some are learning to paint, even though their volunteer teacher fled for El Paso when her husband was kidnapped. Others work in the kitchen under the supervision of the cook, Elvira. Three hundred meals a day have to be prepared so inmates chop vegetables for huge tureens of soup, wash trays and deliver food to those who have to remain locked up.

El Pastor’s second in command is a man named Josua Rosales. Born in Juárez, he emigrated to Los Angeles, was in the South Side gang, served eight years in prison, was deported and then lived on the streets of Juárez. Almost dead from drug use, he was dumped at El Pastor’s asylum. He remained in a cell for eleven months but has now recovered to the extent that he is effectively in charge when El Pastor isn’t present.

In mid afternoon, he summons eight or ten men to wash the bedding. The first step is hauling water from a faucet outside, filling a large tub and dumping the blankets into the water. Then one man, talking feverishly to himself, stomps them until the water is dark with dirt. The others then take them out and, working in pairs, wring out the water. With more hauling of buckets, the water is changed again and the process repeated with soap added. It’s a laborious process but everyone has a role to play.

Who are these inmates?

Petra Escobar had an anxiety attack, threw herself under a train and lost an arm and both legs. She had nowhere else to go and now wants to learn to paint.

Magdalena was married to an American, had several children but is a schizophrenic and dangerous. She was released on the recommendation of a doctor who works for El Pastor but was returned by the police the same day. She needs to be in a transitional program which El Pastor would like to initiate.

Manuel killed his mother and has to be kept in a cell together with Victoriano and Miguel Angel.

Leticia is a tiny woman who can’t speak coherently. Her family had kept her chained up.

God and medicine, El Pastor says. Without medication, many of the inmates would be uncontrollable.

Fund raising is a huge issue. Recently he went to Denver and preached at several Christian churches to raise money. Someone even gave him a car with wild looking stripes along its sides.

Why do people like El Pastor do work like this? Why do they continue in Juárez, the most dangerous city in the world? Despite all the horrors, they have an ongoing sense of pride in this battered city and a belief that it will recover. It’s inspiring to be with them and to feel this message about fighting back and not giving in, a message that we could all learn from.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1973 to 1978. He was chairman of the Adams County Mental Health Center from 1970 to 1972. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.