When people talk about violence in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez is likely to come up in the same sentence. I know for myself, I use it as an example of where not to safely travel in Mexico. Well, we came across a man that’s done more than any other person (that I know of), to change that perception, and he’s doing it one step at a time with what he calls his “Walk Across Juarez.”
Between the days of August 24 and August 26th, Dave Hensleigh took a bold series of steps and publicized what he now calls “A Walk Across Juarez.” Why bold? Well, from the images that I’ve seen consistently broadcasted across most major US news media sources, you’d think that Juarez was in the depths of a murderous civil uprising. Loosely, I’ve heard reports that Mexico’s northern governors were ruling in absentia from the safety of across the US border. Did I bother to follow up on these reports? No, because the impression was that the border areas between Mexico and the US were extremely dangerous. So when I first heard about Dave’s journey to show America that the perceived danger coming from the US press is misguided, I was intrigued. Accordingly, Juarez is a functioning, beautiful city full of history, culture and has a thriving economy, thanks to Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, and other US companies they feed.
What impressed me most about listening to Dave’s story was the similarities that we find in other areas that we’ve visited in southern Mexico. The people are warm, friendly, and caring, and never have I once felt like I was an unwanted guest in their country, nor have I felt unsafe. But even more notable, was the lack of interest that the US press received Dave’s quest to set the record straight. Stories about people visiting and having a safe time in Juarez don’t garner followings or sell stories, nor do they warrant coverage. Children play football on the border too, but no US media covers this type of event. We hope that by listening to Dave’s story, you’ll learn more about the notorious border city, which to me at least epitomizes the struggle Mexico is having fighting its cartels.
Geordie: Can you explain a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what lead to your walk across Juarez?
Dave: I live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, which is where my offices are, and my business specializes in bringing small groups of people into Copper Canyon, the Sierra Madres and the areas around central Chihuahua. It’s a culturally rich tour, but not a bus tour. We go in and out of El Paso, and it’s becoming increasingly frustrating that people from the US have an excessively negative view of Mexico and Juarez in particular. Well, I was joking one time with a group because they sometimes have cautions about going through Juarez, and this became frustrating for me because I wouldn’t be taking them some place that was dangerous. And to this group, just jokingly, “You know some day, I’m going to walk across that bridge and into Juarez, and I’m going to walk across Juarez. I am going to take my smart phone, and I’m going to tweet about my walk.” At the time I never thought I was going to actually do it, but it became apparent that while there are problems with Mexico, it really is safe to go there. And, so while I was in Chicago 2 or 3 months ago I was talking with Rodrigo Espalda at the Mexican Tourism Office there, and I said “You know, I really should just do this.” He replied, “Yes, you should, an American really needs to do it.” So, I just scheduled it, and started to promote it. It started as a joke but then seemed like something that needed to be done.
Geordie: Can you tell us how you publicized and pre-marketed for your walk? You say you had 2 or 3 months to schedule the walk, what exactly did you do to publicize the event?
Dave: We started out sending press releases, and I have a database of email users of people that have done the trip, that I’ve met, or that somehow ended on my list and told them that I was going to make this walk, and was going to tweet about it. Then we tried to work with some of the Texas press, and the New Mexican Press, but the ONLY response from all of the media that we tried to contact from the US was from a travel editor from an Austin paper that wrote a terse note saying “I urge you not to go there.” We didn’t receive a single word from any of the papers from El Paso, which just sits right there. The Mexican press was very responsive, but we didn’t hear a peep from El Paso or any of the US press.
Geordie: Did you feel then that it appears that the people that are even closest to the border are actually the ones that have the worst perception of violence?
Dave: Exactly, and it’s not even, they (the people next to the border) are the most negative about it (Juarez), and even the Latinos that live next to the border are negative about Juarez. It’s this gigantic assumption, gigantic placing of blame that seems to be happening with Latinos, they say that they would never go across the border, it’s too dangerous. And this is 100% from the people that live next to the border on the US side, including the Latinos that live next to the border felt that I shouldn’t do this, but 100% of the Mexicans that lived in Juarez, or North Chihuahua said, “Get on over here! We think this is a great idea, we’ll host you.” They’re proud of the area, of the culture, the economy and the history.
Geordie: Well, it’s not even the people on the border because I’m in south central Mexico, and we see images of Juarez, and Nuevo Laredo and we hear people down here saying, what ever you do, don’t go near Juarez, or any of those border towns. Can you tell us what it was like in Juarez once you had walked across?
Dave: Laughs – I was in Juarez for 3 days, and I originally thought I would walk across the place, but then I realized that it would be a lot more strategic to walk around it, or in places to maximize the exposure. I walked across the bridge, and then into the town and stayed at a hotel near the bridge. I had a guide that met me there, he’s a guide that works with me on my tours, named Alfredo Murillo. I just put a blog up about him, really funny guy just like a brother. He helped provide some van stuff, and some visa stuff. The press interviewed him as well while I was out horsing around getting ready. He sent me an email a few days before that said, “I will be thinking this will be a good thought, but not a good idea.” Dave laughs again.
Geordie: Did the people know who you were, or what you were doing?
Dave: I was mostly just walking around talking to people. Then we had some people that began hosting us, a guide from the Hotel Association and this guy on the arts council that showed us the old city hall, and then a cabin on the border that doesn’t have a fence where Pancho Villa stayed in, Casa Adobe its called, real important in terms of the Juarez history. Mostly I wanted to get an idea of what it would be like walking around on the streets. Sometimes we had to drive across the city to get to places, and you’d think that the place would be deserted, but there were traffic jams all over the place, and the Maquiladoras were just jammed with people. We stayed one night out at a really nice area near where a lot of the maquiladoras are and it was near a mall, there’s a McDonalds there, the US Embassy is there, and the US Consulate is there, it’s just like any other Mexican city. There are parts of town that have been more impacted by it (the violence). The old bars and strip clubs are closed in the down town areas because the cartels are talking about extortion, so there are parts that have been impacted, and there are Federales there (The Federal Police Agency for Mexico), but most of the army is out. There isn’t that much military presence there compared to 6 months ago, you know they had 15,000 troops there, but I didn’t see that much of a military presence.
Geordie: Do you know if that’s because they feel like they’re making progress, and feel like they had to divert the military to some other areas?
Dave: Ummm, my understanding is that from the statistics, and the statistics are hard to get a hold of, but by the look of things, it’s becoming less violent. There are still incidents, but the frequency of big murders, it seems like it’s becoming less violent, but it’s hard to find statistics because every website has it’s own axe to grind. I watched some videos at www.stopthedrugwar.org, and they’re so negative. They want to emphasize when there is violence, it’s hard to get a hold of statistics. But, I received gifts from people, I spent time at a home, and playing cards with a bunch of good old boys, and I had this premonition that before I went I would be trying to find something to eat by 5pm and then staying in at the hotel. But that wasn’t the way it was, we were just out at night.
Geordie: So you didn’t feel like there was any increased level of threat at night?
Dave: No, I went walking alone one night, in the dark. Another night we drove across town at night, and I asked the Mexican driver if he felt it was dangerous, and he replied ” Not really, there are parts of town where you watch it, but not really.” There are vast parts of the town that are safe.
Geordie: What’s going on with the follow up walk?
Dave: I’m going back to Juarez next week to talk to the people there about what they think? Next year we are talking about doing it again, and opening it up to a bunch of gringos, and let’s write about it. Let’s all go.
Geordie: Do you feel like the event went off successfully? Do you feel like you achieved what you wanted to? Or that people didn’t want to hear your story?
Dave: I would say yes, on a personal level I was just hugely personally enriched by the experience, just more than I would ever have expected. But I will say that the reception by the US press was just disinterest. I mean it’s (the walk through Juarez) not the most earth shaking thing to do, but it was pretty interesting to see the reception and difference between the US press and the Mexican press coverage. It was just vastly different. But, I feel really positive about the experience, and I think it was a tremendous step to take, and I look forward to doing it again, and on a scale to increase connections between the US and Mexico. It’s like there are a 1000 miles between the countries, and yet I mean the borders are open, and yet, and the trucks are lined up 24×7. Hauling stuff in and hauling stuff out, we depend on them.
Geordie: Do you have any other ideas to do these sorts of events? Or do you feel like this could be the start of something that helps improve the relations, especially from the US side?
Dave: I may do something over in Laredo, Reynoso, or Tijuana, but I am not really on a mission. I’m just a guy that has a love for Chihuahua and I want to see the connection happen there. It’s possible that we will do something somewhere else, but probably number 1, I will do another walk across Juarez and invite a lot of press, or a bunch of you bloggers to walk along with me. You know, have a look and see what it’s all about.
Geordie: Well, I can say that I would love the chance to jump on a bus and join you at the border, because even inside Mexico, we see images of bodies on the street, and it doesn’t take much after seeing images like that to leave a deep impression. You’ve done more by this event to set things straight, and really, from what I can tell it sounds almost like business as usual in Juarez, which does more than anything to educate and change the perceptions, including my own.
Dave: No body is going to write a story or get much following about children playing football along the border, but it happens all the time. The second thing is for expanding our tours in Chihuahua, and possibly including Juarez and doing tour groups. It is possible that I will take US press and I’m not talking about for 2 hours, let’s go down and spend some days, go out to dinner, go to the plaza, go to the market, and I think I am just going to keep writing about it, and keep my connections there because the history and culture there is so interesting. You know, they used to grow fine wines in the region, and the production of cotton was some of the best in the world and this maquiladora thing that started back in the ’70’s sort of swamped some of the history there. The cowboy history is fascinating, and cowboys really originated in Mexico. Some of the first and most vast ranches came from the plains in this area around Juarez, and Chihuahua. My goodness, the beauty of this country is totally beautiful, I love it.
Geordie: Well, thank you very much Dave and I congratulate you because it takes a lot to follow through with an idea like that and committing to it, and it sounds like you pulled it off with great success.
Dave: Laughs. Well, thanks. You know we have so many experiences like that in Mexico. 99% of the Americans that experience Mexico are really going to the resort destinations, and Mexico has some of the finest resorts in the world. There’s no denying that, but there’s something that we Americans vitally need and that’s gracious hospitality. We just in many ways have lost it in the United States. In Mexico they’ve just got it. In those little towns, it’s just palpable, they’ve got it, and it’s just fun. Laughs – You know sometimes I’ll be just sitting here at my desk, and I’ll just start laughing about some situation we were in and how I was cared for, or how we joked.
Geordie: I am sure that’s even more apparent in the rural towns around Copper Canyon.
Dave: Yes, that’s right in the small ranching towns in that area the mantra “Mi casa es su casa” is a way of life. I’ll call up someone from the area and start talking business, and they’ll be like, ” wait a minute, how’s your family? How’s your health? Are you OK?” and I’m off trying to do business.
We’d like to thank Dave for his efforts to go out of his way to stem the tide of negativity about the city of Juarez. He’s done something extraordinary, and he’s done it by taking to the streets, talking to people, smiling, and laughing. That is the way real changes is made, and more people need to see for themselves what the real story may or may not be in Juarez.
What are you doing to change the world? How can we all be more like Dave? Write a comment, we’d love to hear about it.
- Magazine Preview: Life on the Line (nytimes.com)