Juggling for Life—Circus Performers Face the Violence of Juarez

Juggling for Life—Circus Performers Face the Violence of Juarez

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JUAREZ, Mexico—Fire-eaters, clowns, tumblers, jugglers—amateur circus performers of every sort have long provided entertainment on the street corners and intersections of Mexican cities. But today, in Juarez, it is hard not to see the carnival act as a gaudy symbol of wasted youth and the valor of the Mexican poor in tragic times.

His name is Rene Colorado. He is 22 and best known in the streets as “Sinner.”

Colorado was born in Juarez, but has wandered across Mexico since his early adolescence, trying to survive like so many other young Mexican men.

According to government figures, there are now 7 million Mexicans ages14 to 24, with neither a job nor prospects for adequate schooling or employment. In a country of nearly 112 million, that represents a bit more than six percent of the total population.

Sword Swallowing for Drivers

During the evenings, Colorado sets up shop at a busy intersection across the city. He splashes gasoline on the ends of a four-foot wood stick, transforming it into a double torch--for a 45 second "sword swallowing" show. His audience: drivers as they wait for the red light to turn green.

With exquisite timing, Colorado ignites the torch and performs his fiery act, while walking between the waiting cars, asking for a tip. On a good but rare night, he makes about $12.

More often, Colorado says he is either picked up by the police or robbed by the cops of whatever he managed to earn during the evening. By all accounts he prefers the first option because even though the police will get his money, they will let him go without the usual 24-hours in jail and $40 fine “for interfering with the traffic.”

“I have lost two carnales (buddies), the last one just a month ago,’’ says Colorado, tears running down his face as he remembers his friends, killed or executed in the mayhem of the drug wars of Juarez.

As of last week in Juarez, the death count stands at 285. Last year, the official figures were over 3,000. Most of the dead were under age 30 and were reported to have had some kind of affiliation with criminal gangs.

“Life is all screwed up,” Colorado says, sitting on a sidewalk in front of a convenience store shortly after finishing his round for the night. “Once you get into [gangs], you can’t get out alive.”

Colorado denies ever being completely affiliated with any of the many gangs that roam the city, recruiting pre-teenage boys and girls. However, he acknowledges an addiction to drugs.

“I began smoking marijuana when I was 12 years old, and then I went on to sell drugs so I could have some for myself and get high. But that was two years ago and I’ve been clean since,” says Colorado.

“I have a one-year-old daughter and would like to find a way to support her,’’ he adds, showing off a pen-and-pencil drawing he recently sketched of her.

“Are You Going to Kill Me?”

“Are you going to kill me?” says Tribilin. He is 23, born in Chihuahua, but living for the past five years in Juarez. He is suspicious of the reporter he sees approaching him as he prepares his street-corner act. His face is masked like a clown.

Just like Colorado, he works the streets to get money for food, rent, and on good days, marijuana joint.

“It helps me to relax and get into a good mood,” he says with a laugh that is edged with sarcasm and desperation. “You know, I could get more money doing other things, but I’m a good person. That’s why, instead of kidnapping people or doing a job for some street gang, I prefer to try to make a living by making a little show.”

Tribilin’s smile reveals his lacking of front teeth--the result of what he prefers to call “accidents of life.”

Joining a street gang in Juarez can mean a weekly salary ranging from $400 to about $2,000 a week, whereas juggling in the streets of Juarez can barely result in $200 a month.

Just as at a Fortune 500 company, anyone who opts to work for the drug cartels must follow the rules and meet performance expectations.

“First, you’ve got to do a job,” Colorado says, after relating how he recently lost two of his friends. "Doing a job," he explains, means kidnapping or executing someone. “Then you become a prospect.”

After that, he says, your employers will give you more assignments to further ensure your commitment to the cartel. “Then you become a carnal (a homie or bro),” he explained. The more violence you commit, the higher you go and the more money you make.

“Once you try to get out, you’re done, and that’s what happened to my carnales,” Colorado laments.

With that explanation completed, he picks up his carnival equipment and walks off into the night, his face painted like a clown.