Football in Juárez, Mexico, the murder capital of the world

Football in Juárez, Mexico, the murder capital of the world

Héctor Gómez had just sent half the Estadio Leóninto into hysteria. His goal for Club Indios de Ciudad Juárez made it 2-2 against rival Léon and virtually ensured Indios’ passage into the highest tier of Mexican football.

At the final whistle the players are truly stunned. It is the greatest moment the club has ever experienced – an unprecedented high. The coaching staff flood the sun-drenched pitch and embrace the players. It’s a moment of immense pride and relief for a small club embedded in one of the most dangerous cities on this planet. Finally, they have the opportunity to play professional football with the best teams in Mexico and rub shoulders with the cream of Mexican club football. Bigger pay checks, matches broadcast regularly on international TV and the chance to play in front of 100,000 spectators in Mexico City’s famous Estadio Azteca.

That triumphant day saw thousands of fans swarm the streets of Juárez in celebration. Banners, horns, songs; every celebratory instrument imaginable was present for greatest display of acclamation this club has ever witnessed. However, the ecstatic fans were risking a grave fate by simply appearing on the streets after the match – they were defying a direct order from a drug cartel to stay indoors as rival cartels engaged in a power struggle. It was 2008 when Indios achieved that historic promotion to the Mexican Primera Division. In that same year, 1,600 people were murdered in Juárez.

Juárez has seen a steady decline in homicides from 2012 but it is still viewed as one of the most dangerous places in the world. It is the home of the Juárez cartel, whose endeavours include large-scale heroin and cocaine smuggling, racketeering and widespread police corruption. The people of Juárez had to live in fear when a brutal cartel war exploded between the Juárez and the Sinaloa cartels in 2007. That year – arguably the darkest in the city’s history – left an indelible mark on the society and shocked their northern neighbours in the United States as Juárez was labelled “The murder capital of the world.” Not exactly an ideal place to play football.

For many, the success of Indios on the football pitch acted as the only guiding light in a city engulfed in violence. Sadly, the golden age was decidedly short-lived. Indios endured a living nightmare in the Primera Division by racking up an astonishing winless streak of 29 games – in the process officially becoming the worst club in the history of the league. It was a harsh pill to swallow, but Indios were about to tumble back down the ladder of Mexican football. Even worse, they pedalled eerily close to permanent extinction.

Following their collapse, owner Francisco Ibarra sold the club and the future was suddenly plunged into improbability. During the 2010-11 season in the Liga de Ascenso, the club disbanded and Juárez was left without a professional football team.

The city’s football lovers were inconsolable, a deep hole left in their hearts. Considering that at the time of the club’s insolvency the murder rate remained sky-high, there was little room for hope in Juárez. The only connection left with the team is the odd school bus painted in the Indios colours of red, white and black or faded club slogans on city walls. In terms of football, the city is empty.

Indios’ history isn’t as tightly associated with drugs, murder and the cartel supremos as Atlético Nacional in Colombia – who infamously received financial backing from Pablo Escobar and rose the ranks of Colombian football – but they still bore the brunt of the city’s rain of violence. Pedro Picasso, the Indios’ youth-team coach was killed in 2009 in mysterious circumstances that have yet to be untangled. He was only 34.

The club released a statement expressing its rage and saying that he was a “good, decent man.” It went to show that there was no escaping the deadly risks living in Juárez, even when you are associated with the much-loved football club in the city. Francisco Ibarra would say that he fought for the club in times of economic hardship and more as Indios games were the only time Juárez would be mentioned in the national news without the words “murder”, “execution” or “bloody” preceding it.

All the drug cartels want Juarez. It is the holy grail of drug routes, an ideal place to move drugs from Mexico up to Dallas, Denver, Chicago and New York. Juárez has always been a drug-smuggling corridor, even with all the military attention focusing on the city. Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, leader of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, wanted Juárez for himself. He raged a vicious warfare consisting of killings, beheadings and burnings to push La Línea, the Juárez cartel, the home side, out of the city but Línea reciprocated with counter-attacks every bit as terror-some. The police force of Juárez was hideously corrupt, with officers flipping to the Sinaloa Cartel. La Línea killed police officers in retaliation. There are no rules in Juárez.

Football was being played in a city where approximately 200 people were killed every month. The staggering statistics of this haunted city forces one to think how lucky some cities are; places like London and Manchester can enjoy top-class football every week without fear of becoming entwined in a deadly power struggle between two equally powerful and dangerous organised crime syndicates. For some people in Juárez, they were running a business while the chaos ensued. Francisco Ibarra was the man who, as owner, led Indios through their times of ecstasy and pain. Ibarra was a businessman with a background in engineering but he decided to combine his acumen with his passion for sport and buy the local football club after a successful foray into broadcasting.

Ibarra’s vision for Indios was entirely his own. He realised that, considering inhabitants of the town were required to travel to Monterrey usually to watch football at the highest level, he needed to make Indios stand out. The badge was designed as a nod to the native Tarahumara who originally lied in Juárez – a red bandanna wrapped like a sash around a football.

Before long, Ibarra was planning to build an entirely new stadium for his club. He shocked every soul in Juárez. Reporters and politicians regularly mocked his ambitious plans for the fledgling club and his proposals were widely discredited with scepticism and negativity. However, just as the plans looked to be scrapped entirely, Indios were promoted to the Primera. This was the ultimate crowning achievement, everything that Ibarra had envisaged when he initially bought the club.

When Indios were promoted to the top flight, Ibarra found himself increasingly pressurised into selling the club. He defiantly refused time and time again. He was told that by selling the club, he would make a once-in-a-lifetime return on his original investment. But Ibarra was not concerned with profit or figures. He was not interested in selling.

Being closely connected with the city, he knew that the club acted not only as a sports team but as a social program, bringing people joy and excitement and he knew they needed to be led by someone who truly cared for them. At that time, several of the top Mexican clubs were backed by wealthy companies. Monterrey, Club América, Chivas Guadalajara and Santos are all bankrolled by lucrative deals with major television networks and their wealthy owners. Indios have never enjoyed the same level of investment.

It is in keeping with their cities narrative that they slumped to the worst record in the Primera Division’s history. They suffered a winless streak of 29 games, losing relentlessly as they circled the drain towards the lower levels once again. The murder rate in Juárez remained sky-high as the Indios carried on losing, a seemingly inescapable metaphor between city and team. Ibarra was finally forced into selling his beloved club, clinging onto a medal rewarded for the team’s promotion as the only memento left of their better times.

Three months later, in December 2011, the club disbanded. Ibarra pointed the finger of blame at the various governments who, according to him, failed to deliver the promised financial support. As a result, the Mexican Ministry of Finance charged Ibarra with tax evasion – merely as a response for denouncing them. The club was officially insolvent and the players and coaches scattered around Mexico.

For two years, the city was left without a professional football club until they suddenly reappeared as Indios Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ). The absence hurt the fans, who felt like they no longer had a solace for the reign of murder refusing to rid itself from the city. But the resurrection of the club under a new name brought, almost inevitably, new hope. They brought new success as well when they took the 2014 Liguilla de Copa Clausura, defeating Irapuato 1-0 in the final.

The 2014 success, much like the 2007 Apertura conquest, are the beacons for a city that exists perennially under a dark cloud. Ciudad Juárez may never have the best football club in all of Mexico, but as long as they have one the people will be happy. It may seem like an exhausted cliché; using a football club as a source of inspiration for a city. But with Juárez, it seems genuine.

Football loves a story centred on rising up against adversity and Indios face that adversity everyday. They live in a city where the idea of safety is unattainable, where they are constantly looking over their shoulder. News reports and bulletins flood in on a daily basis about a shooting or a murder, but the football lives on, knowing that the city needs it.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11

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