The five college guys in a Chevy were stopped in traffic on a bridge going from El Paso toward the dog racing track in Juarez, Mexico.

It was in the early 1970s, and it was not at all uncommon to see urchins on the Mexican side of the bridge brandishing filthy rags and offering to "clean" your windshield for a nickel, dime or maybe a quarter.

On this evening, there was a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, plying the trade under the watchful eyes of a slim girl only slightly older.

"Hey, Meester," he said with his singsong Spanish accent, "I wipe your windshield?"

"No, kid," said the driver. "That's all right."

"Hey, Meester," said the little boy. "I wipe your mirror?"

The driver and the others in the car shook their heads.

"No, kid. Forget it. Don't touch anything with that rag."

Then the boy's face showed the most mischievous smile I have ever seen.

"Hey, Meester," he said. "You want my sister?"

With that, the outraged girl _ obviously a good girl _ started beating the heck out of the boy, who just couldn't stop smiling.

The denizens of the car roared with laughter, called him a great kid, emptied their pocket of coins and tossed them out the windows to him as their car started moving with the traffic toward the dog track.

Even back then, when I lived in El Paso, the lives of those in the Mexican border town named after Benito Juárez _ the nation's greatest hero _ were tenuous.

Today, to live in Juarez is to live in hell.

Back in the '70s, there were nice areas of Ciudad Juarez where people took great pride in raising their families, attending church, operating businesses and being productive members of a proud society.

But that wasn't the Juarez that the tourists _ including servicemen from El Paso's Fort Bliss and students from the University of Texas at El Paso _ visited.

That part of Juarez was a squalid, jaded, anything-goes collection of junky curio shops, bars and houses of ridiculously ill repute.

Most of the time, the Rio Grande River that separates Juarez from El Paso is nothing more than a trickle, and there has always been virtually unfettered trafficking in drugs and humans under the bridges.

Every 30 yards or so on the Santa Fe bridge from downtown El Paso, there would be wretched, hungry-looking children and women begging for coins.

Upon arrival on Avenida Juarez, visitors would immediately be accosted by fast-talking cab drivers offering to take them anywhere they wanted to go.

The cabbies' most common suggestion was "Boy's Town," where, it was rumored, every sexual fetish from farm animals to young transvestites could be satisfied.

Meanwhile, on Avenida Juarez and the seedy side streets, bargaining the price down was the rule in every shop and brothel, and with Mexican beer costing as little as a quarter for a bottle, drunken bar fights were anything but rare.

Get too out of hand, though, and the Federalis _ the government police _ would take you away to what was said to be an open-air jail, where if you didn't have the money to bribe the famously corrupt constabulary, you might stay for weeks ... or months.

The Juarez of the 1970s was humiliating for the rest of Mexico, which has produced more than its share of scholars, doctors and accomplished artists.

But the Juarez of 2009 is so much worse, and no one seems able to do anything about it.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war about a year ago on two powerful drug cartels operating in Juarez.

All that did was prove that the weak and corrupt Mexican military is no match for the heavily armed drug organizations.

Last year, more than 1,500 people were killed in Juarez, the vast majority of murders attributed to a drug war between the two cartels. Hundreds of people, including women, have been beheaded. Hundreds more have disappeared without a trace.

Our government is getting ready to spend $1.5 billion over the next several years to equip and train Mexico's law enforcers, but it's probably too little, too late.

Fear and lawlessness are everywhere. Even when an arrest is announced, it's the cops who must wear masks to hide their identities and avoid retribution.

Meanwhile, Avenida Juarez is pretty empty these days. Last Sunday, Fort Bliss officials stopped issuing passes to soldiers who want to go to Juarez. It's just too dangerous.

El Pasoans who used to visit for entertainment, cheaper health care or groceries are staying away, too.

And those guys who were so delighted by that mischievous kid on the bridge? They wouldn't be caught dead in that dangerous, terrifying place now.

That's because they could be caught dead _ for real.

___

Sam Pollak is editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.

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