Mexico's city of dogs

A portrait of ambitions and failures in Ciudad Juarez


In better times — and there were better times in Ciudad Juárez — even the mangiest street dog could count on kindness for its survival. Unwashed and unkempt, the streets were his home, the neighborhood his master. Scraps, the stray bone, a bowl of water — he got by.

Imagine, then, the upheaval that upended this imperfect but functioning system when a manageable 20,000 street dogs morphed into a teeming population of 200,000 mutts, German Shepherds, Labs, and the favored dog of city dwellers for years — the Poodle.

The bond between man and his best friend was corrupted. One man nailed a dog to his fence. A gang of 10 children lassoed a cat, hurling it up onto the street cables high above, leaving it to dangle there.

On the surface, this breakdown in the relationship between man and beast could be attributed to the brutal violence that tore at the social fabric in Ciudad Juárez between 2008 and 2011.

Often described in overly simplistic terms as a "drug war" among "drug cartels," the disaster that erupted in this city resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10,000 people, 100,000 abandoned houses and 2,000 businesses shuttered or destroyed in fires—within four years. But no single occurrence in this border city across from El Paso explains the roughly 700 dogs found dead on city streets every month, victims of hunger, car tires or execution. 

When the number of homicides dropped significantly — from an estimated 2,086 in 2011 to 751 in 2012 — many declared an end to Juárez's designation as the "murder capital of the world" and spoke of a city on the mend.

But to this day, the dogs still roam the streets. Their miserable bodies betray the lasting legacy of violence, their wretched lives warning that the human conditions — which ushered in the crisis and determined their sad fate — persist.

Dogs were often the first to arrive at the crime scene — slinking through the blood, slipping behind police tape.

On the south side of Juárez, where cotton fields once bloomed, New Juárez, or Nuevo Juárez, as it is locally known, began to take root in the late 1990s. A vast development of cookie-cutter homes, it was lauded by government officials as a home-ownership project that factory workers could afford.

By 2002, construction was nearly complete on the subdivisions of Riberas del Bravo, further north, abutting the Rio Grande. The development became home to migrants from southern Mexico — "the disposable ones," as human-rights activist Gustavo de la Rosa calls them, "the ones whose deaths don't matter." The area is so poor, one sanitary official says, it hardly sends any garbage to the city landfill because anything of value is extracted and little is wasted.

During the worst moments of the violence, when the desert was littered with dead and mutilated human bodies, parts of New Juárez and Riberas del Bravo were all but lost to the dogs.

One summer day in 2010, five squads of anti-rabies canine units arrived. The men pulled out their dog-catching cables and, like the cowboys working on nearby ranches, lassoed the dogs. In one day, says Dr. Juan Jose Martínez, director of Centro Antirábico, or dog rescue, these urban cowboys captured 130 dogs from the streets of Riberas de Bravo.

Those very same dogs once symbolized home and humanity for the families of New Juárez and Riberas del Bravo, like the local children's paintings of faraway islands and flowers on the walls of the now gutted houses. Such small touches brought life to dreary conditions – 14,000 identical houses planted in neat rows across the desert, houses so small they could not accommodate a sofa in the living room, where nothing more than a double bed fit in the bedroom. These houses were suitable for individual workers, but were occupied by entire families.

More than just beloved pets, dogs served as protectors in Riberas de Bravo and New Juárez, where a two-income family typically lived on roughly ten dollars a day earned at factories in the city, and where violence raged on their doorstep.

Constructed under intense protest, Riberas del Bravo suffered from a lack of required government approval. Schools and services never caught up. It is an area born of a disregard for law.

"These type of things only produce disorder," the newly elected mayor, Jesús Alfredo Delgado, said at the time of the subdivision's inception. The waiting list for one school had nearly 1,000 names on it, according to news reports. Mothers protested. Kids stayed home. When the city became known for its astonishing death rate a decade later, roughly half the killings of people under 30 occurred in New Juárez.

Only the mutts knew for sure what happened. They were often the first to arrive at the crime scene — slinking around the blood, slipping behind police tape. They watched from sidewalks as the caravans carrying armed men rumbled past. Rottweilers and poodles alike were found standing guard outside the carcasses of torched homes, defending the remains.

Before long, nearly a quarter of the population — some 250,000 people — had fled. Houses emptied out seemingly overnight; entire blocks lay quiet. Meanwhile, every six months, the dogs produced a new brood, a new gang, and the dog population reached crisis levels. 

In a city where few human cases were even investigated and less than five percent of killings resulted in a conviction, animals weren’t considered a priority.

But it wasn't just the killings that led to this exodus. The Great Recession in the U.S and competition from China dried up the demand for many goods, and with it went the factory jobs that had lured families north from Veracruz. With no work and no prospects, houses financed by the state would soon be lost. And with a situation so severe and ripe for political points, the governor of Veracruz launched a program to rescue families from the collapsing border city. And so it was that New Juárez was left to the dogs.

"People opted to abandon them, either inside the houses or opening the doors and set them loose," says Carolina Montelongo Ponce, director of the veterinarian hospital at a local university.

For months, rescuers arrived in Riberas and other neighborhoods to find dogs locked inside homes, behind fences, left to defend meager property. "They would leave someone in charge of going and giving the dog water and food," says Martínez. Eventually, the caregivers up and left. "We had many cases of dogs found inside houses, dead or really skinny, or one dog would die and the others would eat him. It was horrible."

The entire world of dog maintenance began to collapse, pulled down by the destruction of the people in Ciudad Juárez. Pet adoptions dropped to zero. Sterilization campaigns ended after mobile clinics came under attack. Dr. Martínez remembers the time a group of men arrived at a mobile clinic, and shot their victim in front of other people and pets.

Veterinarians across the city became targets of kidnappings and extortions. After one clinic refused to hand over a payment to a criminal group, says Montelongo Ponce, armed men began firing and drenched the building — still filled with people and animals — with gasoline. Fortunately, for some inexplicable reason, the building did not ignite.

Volunteers and government workers persisted in their efforts to rein in the dogs. In a city where everyone was suspect, dog catchers arrived in neighborhoods where shootouts occurred, where tanks rolled through and whatever authority existed was viewed suspiciously. Martínez says every member of his team has encountered a pistol or knife while in pursuit of homeless animals.

It was in these years of upheaval, animal advocates say, that cases of abuse and mutilation began to appear. Mutts with legs severed clean suggested the work of criminal groups practicing human dismemberment. There was no way to know for sure. In this city with a conviction rate of less than five percent, few investigations in human cases produced results, much less with animals.

We speak for those who suffer in silence.

Outrage over both the abuse and the impunity exploited by the criminal and police class alike eventually coalesced around a scrappy dog named Canela (Cinnamon). Like most pets in Juárez, Canela was not confined to a yard. She was prancing around the sidewalk outside her home on a summer day in 2011 when a group of policemen walked by. She began to bark insistently. In front of everyone, an officer drew his .45 handgun and fired it straight into the dog's back.

Canela dragged herself under a pickup truck, without even a whimper, leaving a trail of blood. Local reporters called animal rescue but Canela had suffered significant internal damage; she died within hours.

In a city where public officials routinely characterized victims as criminals, the dog, for sure, was innocent. People protested, holding signs that read: "We speak for those who suffer in silence." An investigation was launched and the policeman who fired the shot was temporarily suspended.

It was as though Juárez had acknowledged that abuse of the weak had to end and that there was no better place to start with the weakest among them.

Around this time, Barbara Quintana, a college student, began rescuing dogs in her neighborhood. She says she shooed off some youths who had stuffed a puppy in a sack and used him like a ball. The big Labrador mix she found, apparently mutilated in a clandestine dogfight, was nursed back to health and named Rocky.

With a declining death toll that began last year, officials now deliver speeches about Juárez’s recovery. Businesspeople see a bright future for Mexico now that the cost of labor there is less than in China, according to a report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch released in April.

Still, the dogs wander the streets, vulnerable to man and city. In August, city workers reportedly collected 372 dead dogs from parks and streets across Juárez, victims of the road and the heat. Animal rescue began limiting dog catches to those reported by people. On Aug. 31, a shooter killed a man and his dog when he arrived at the veterinarian clinic. And general impunity continues unabated. According to an analysis of government statistics by Animal Politico, a Mexico City based investigative reporting news service, 98 percent of homicides committed in 2012 remain unsolved.

Dr. Martinez says the profile of the abandoned dog has changed too. Desperate owners now leave their pets at rescue centers. "A lot of people lost jobs, or their salaries are very low and they can't maintain their dogs," he says. "That is now the number one cause of abandonment."

Nevertheless, Juárez is looking to the future. The city now boasts yet another innovative fixture — an organic-waste system created to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The municipal landfill was reorganized and outfitted with tubes and engines for extracting methane gas from organic waste.

Every day, a bulldozer opens a special pit next to the garbage heap before two pickup trucks equipped with metal cages arrive carrying dogs, mostly from Nuevo Juárez — roughly 80 each day.

On one morning, workers unloaded the carcasses of a puppy, a small white furry lapdog wearing a collar, a huge Saint Bernard, a Rottweiler and tossed them all into the hole. The methane from their decomposing bodies is siphoned through a network of pipes along with the other organic waste and cycled through an intricate network of motors and coolants and transformed into energy. The dead become energy to power the city’s street lamps.

But neighbors in Riberas del Bravo say that the street lamps rarely work, providing perfect cover for criminals. By day, lookouts record the license plate numbers of outsiders and circle the streets on patrol. Among the gutted houses, there’s no one left to report the little dog, its ribs laid bare, tossed on a mound at the end of a street named "Century 21."

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