Bridge spans the gap between fear and security

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – The short trek from danger to calm starts before dawn.

First, there is the grind of a turnstile – total cost: 3 pesos, or 25 cents – then thousands of legs push forward, broomlike, onto the Paso del Norte bridge and away from Ciudad Juarez.

It takes about 250 long strides to reach the middle, where the United States begins and the view changes slightly: a large billboard advertising Bud Light, in Spanish, practically blots out the sun.

Most of the 14,000 people here who cross over the Rio Grande daily seem to barely notice.

This mound of a bridge, which U.S. officials estimate to be the busiest of all cross-border footpaths between Mexico and the United States, used to be just a simple connector between the shopping districts of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso.

But these days, it has deeper meaning.

At no time in recent history has the reality gap between the two cities been wider.

By some estimates, El Paso is now the safest big city in the United States; Ciudad Juarez is among the most dangerous in the world.

Murders dominate the headlines on one side, economic growth and car accidents make news on the other.

The result is a morning walk north that can sound and feel like the line for an amusement park. The chatter among women waiting to shop is peppered with laughter.

Children bounce. Vendors hawk food while a woman in a white dress with a guitar belts out humorous songs about why some are allowed to cross faster than others.

“It’s just so much calmer and better over there,” said Janet Burcia, 18, on her way from her home in Ciudad Juarez to visit her grandmother in El Paso. “I go whenever I can.”

Access and speed, however, vary.

On the right side of the bridge, in a line with waits of up to two hours, are Mexican citizens, including those with border crossing cards granted by the American Consulate to those not considered at risk of illegally remaining in the United States because of work or family.

On the left, with far shorter waits – and fancier clothes – are people like Burcia, an U.S. citizen born in Texas, and students who go to schools in El Paso.

Spending time in the United States is, of course, no guarantee of safety; recently, three Ciudad Juarez teenagers, including two U.S. citizens who had attended schools in El Paso, were gunned down at a car dealership on the Mexican side of the border.

Still, the number of students crossing appears to be growing.

Last April, after noticing an increase in morning foot traffic, U.S. Customs and Border Protection assigned a special lane to students who cross between 7 and 9 a.m., a result of a push by Mexican parents to place their children in U.S. schools.

On one recent morning, Damaris Giron, 18, shy, in a blue pleated skirt and wearing heavy makeup, was one of many carrying book bags on the bridge.

She said that all 25 of her classmates at a Methodist school in El Paso lived in Ciudad Juarez.

“There are more parents who are afraid,” she said. Not that she was especially pleased with the commute. “I get tired,” she added, “with all the back and forth.”

But she appeared to be one of the few unhappy crossers.

Alejandra Cabral, 19, beamed when asked about the heavy engineering textbook she carried.

Cabral said that she was in her second year at the University of Texas at El Paso, and that she planned to stay in Ciudad Juarez when she graduated.

“I want to do something like what they do at NASA,” she said. Most people in line had simpler plans. Leticia Valenzuela, 53, was on her way to buy special milk and medicine for a child with a severe stomach illness.

Jose Hernandez, 21, was waiting with his skateboard, which he uses to get to work at a hospital in El Paso.

Although he is a U.S. citizen, with an American father and a Mexican mother, he said he was in the slow line because thieves in Ciudad Juarez had stolen his car and his American passport.

Elizabeth Torres, 40, and her mother, Virginia Chavez, 59, were simply on their way to have a little fun. “The first thing we’re going to do is have some breakfast,” said Torres, an office administrator. “Then we’re going to shop.”

Like many others in the line, Torres struggled to articulate what it now means to cross from one place to the other.

One on hand, it is still routine – from the mountains on either side of the border, Ciudad Juarez and El Paso look like one city.

On the other hand – Torres exhaled and loosened her arms to show how much more relaxed people feel on the El Paso side.

“We don’t even have to hold tightly to our bags,” Torres’ mother said.

That is, until the day ends.

By sundown, when the desert sky burns the orange-pink of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, the foot traffic picks up again, heading in the opposite direction.

Once empty arms are now full, with bags from Walmart and American Eagle Outfitters.

A guitarist still sings, but this time it is a man, and the Mexicans walking by are no longer in a rush.

There is no special line to hurry into Ciudad Juarez. No one on the Mexican side is checking to make sure people’s documents are in order.

At dusk, the laughter has turned to silence. Each step across the bridge seems to be just a little bit slower, each smile a little harder to see.