The Parking Attendant in Ciudad Juárez
A couple days before the presidential election in Mexico, I spent a day in Ciudad Juárez talking to ordinary people about voting. One of the most interesting conversations I had was off-microphone with a parking attendant, or 'parkero' near the border bridge.
I can be in Mexico within ten minutes of leaving my house in a historic neighborhood of central El Paso. The bridge is less three miles away. In those few minutes between countries, I'll usually brief my editor over my cell phone headset saying, "Okay this is where I'm going … here's who I'm meeting … this is what I'm wearing…."
Juárez feels less dangerous than it did two years ago, but I still try to take the same precautions.
I turn into the bridge, drive past the American checkpoint saluting the Border Patrol and Customs agents with a nod and a slight smirk. I wonder, how do they know I'm not carrying weapons or a stash of cash exceeding ten grand?
They don't, really. Their best tools are certain visual cues, instinct and sometimes the weight of the car or trained sniffing dogs. Sometimes, it's just luck that results in a bust.
Once across I pass Mexican customs, a few rifle-touting soldiers in helmets and the same old man selling copies of the newspaper, El Diario, from his wheelchair. He's been there ever since I can remember, back when I'd cross over with my great-grandmother for a Sunday meal.
Then, in the next block, I spot a half a dozen young people huddled around the edge of the Chamizal city park.
Ah, I think to myself, I wonder what they think about the election? After all, it's young people who are leading the major election-related protests in the center of Mexico. I swerve around and park my car.
Turns out they are college students on their way to a party hosted by the local university. And they have just been robbed.
A girl in heavy, electric blue eyeshadow tells me they'd just stopped to buy some food from a vendor in the park when someone yelled at them that their car was being broken into. They lost a passport, some clothes and money.
When I ask if they'll call cops, they say, "No. What for? They won't help."
This is a pervasive attitude among Mexicans, who tend to distrust law enforcement. The students tell me they feel the same way about voting. The candidates are all the same, they don't keep their promises and nothing changes, they say.
I walk back to my car and this is when I meet the parking attendant. I can't remember quite what he looks like now, probably just an ordinary middle-aged man with worn look on his face. I do remember his skin reminding me of coffee beans, rough and dark brown from too much sun exposure.
I ask him about the young kids who got robbed. "Aren't you guys supposed to be here watching out for that sort of thing?" I ask.
He says, "Yea, but on the side where they parked, there are no parkeros watching over. People on that side get robbed all the time. It's always the same two white cars. One of them is a Cavalier. The cops never catch them."
Suddenly I feel unprotected. "So what's to keep them from robbing this side of the park," I ask. "What are you guys gonna do to stop a robber? What if they are armed? Are you really gonna save my car?"
Just our mere presence keeps the car robbers away, he tells me. But he admits if someone pulls a weapon on him, he's pretty much powerless. It's happened before. Once a robber nearly ran over him when he tried to stop him from taking a Mustang. He was holding something that looked like a gun, he tells me.
The cops present another dilemma, he says. When they do come around to take a report on a car theft they often come and talk to the parkeros. He says once they suspected him as the thief and beat him. Then they took him to the people who'd made the report and told them they'd caught the robber. But the people said, 'No that's not him.' The cops let him go.
Now the parkero carries an ID around his neck that he got at from the parkeros union office. It's helped keep the cops off my back, he says.
As a parking attendant this man gets only a few pesos for each car he watches. These guys are everywhere in Mexico: in restaurants, shopping malls, soccer stadiums, bars.
This particular pakero tells me he's an ironworker by trade, but lost his job three years ago when the workshop where he was employed shut down. The owner was being extorted. Then he worked at a maquila, or factory, but got laid off. So now he barely gets by watching cars from under a juniper tree in the public park. It's the story of probably hundreds of people in Juárez. The city took a double punch by both drug-related violence and the economic recession.
What's more, this parkero will not vote in two days. He shares the same apathy as the young people who were robbed. He says he prefers to bare his hardships on his own, not having faith in the government to make things any better.