International News

Mexican Death Match: Ex-New Times Reporter Covers Life, Death, and Fútbol in Ciudad Juárez

"The bodies slump on the ground next to a car parked in the store's drive-through lane. The car is a white Dodge Intrigue with Colorado plates like mine and a soapy For Sale sign scribbled onto its tinted back glass. Two bullets flew through the passenger-side window, one for each person in the car. A surgical hit. Professional." So begins Robert Andrew Powell's new book This Love Is Not For Cowards. Powell, a former New Times reporter, spent a year in Juarez, Mexico, the most dangerous city this side of Baghdad. He followed the local soccer team, Los Indios, as it struggled against relegation.

All the while, a dozen bodies piled up per day as drug violence roiled the border city. Bodies were left dangling from bridges; heads tossed onto dance floors. Victims included players' family members, team coaches, and nearly Powell himself.

Powell's project began with a simple question: How could a city as murderous as Juarez have a professional soccer team?

"I was drawn to go there because it seemed like Hell on Earth," Powell tells New Times. "How could you have something so normal as a soccer team in a city that seemed so unlivable?"

After seven years at New Times, Powell left Miami in 2005. He moved to Colorado and spent three years writing a book that was never published. He was divorced and in his late 30s. "That's how you end up in Juarez, when everything goes wrong," he says. "I had nothing to lose. And I was thinking that I would stay for the rest of my life."

This Love Is Not For Cowards begins with corpses and ends with the funeral of a futbol franchise, but Powell's focus is really on life in Juarez -- a dusty, ugly stain across the militarized border from El Paso, Texas. Against the advice of friends, he rents a cheap apartment in a middle-class neighborhood instead of behind a security gate. And as he spends Tecate-drenched days with Los Indios' riotous fan club, El Kartel, Powell begins to see the city through a different light than the drug-war-obsessed American media.

"Murder is essentially legal in the city of Juarez," Powell points out. "You could kill me. I could kill you and we would essentially get a way with it. Which means that more than a million people in Juarez choose not to kill. It's oddly reassuring. In this city where you can pretty much commit any crime that you want, almost nobody is a criminal."

Powell profiles the team's players, owner, coach, and fans. But This Love is also about his enchantment with the city, and how Juarez nearly kills him. Near the end of the book, Powell is sitting in a bar near his house watching a soccer game when a car bomb explodes down the street, shredding several policemen. Powell feels the blast inside the bar. But instead of rushing to the scene or heading home, he stays glued to the screen.

"The next day I ran a 10K road race along the same street" as the car bombing, Powell says. "That's when a friend in Juarez metaphorically slapped me in the face. He said, 'You don't have to be here. You need to get out.' It's not healthy to just ignore an incredible crime of that magnitude. That kind of numbness is a survival tip in Juarez. You have to live really blasé about life and death."

Powell left Juarez a few weeks later and now lives in Miami. He misses Juarez, even if he's glad to be gone.

"You can't live there if you're sane," he says. "That's the ultimate conclusion of my book: If you have options and you are sane, you have to leave."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.