At 6:40 am on a Saturday in November, the sun lingers below the mountains, and the temperature in Santa Fe lingers below freezing. Outside Tequila’s, the south side liquor store plopped on a graveled lot near Santa Fe Place, four people in hooded sweatshirts and ski hats stamp their feet to ward off the cold.
“Didn’t used to be like this,” the biggest man says, in Spanish, to one of the others. “Used to be you could just go.”
The other man nods, a tiny movement abbreviated by the cold. His breath hangs, cloud-like, in the air.
We are waiting for la camioneta, the 15-passenger van that makes the 12-hour trip from Santa Fe to Chihuahua, Mexico, four days a week. At this hour, the streets are deserted. One of the men, who later introduces himself as Juan, goes to sit in the passenger seat of a pickup truck.
A few minutes before the van’s scheduled departure at 7 am, Sonia Torrez, the owner of the Santa Fe-Chihuahua Express, arrives. Inside Tequila’s, she writes each passenger’s name in a large registry book, collects fares ($75 each way) and motions passengers toward the van parked outside.
Juan stows several packages in the van’s small, white trailer decorated with a single bumper sticker that reads, “I trust Obama.”
Inside, he settles himself against a worn pillow and pulls a thick, blue ski hat down over his forehead. He wears a brown canvas jacket, blue jeans that look brand-new, and freshly polished cowboy boots. Half of his front teeth are missing, but he smiles easily.
Juan is from Delicias, a Mexican city southwest of Chihuahua, the capitol of the state that includes Ciudad Juárez. He was in Santa Fe on a three-week trip to visit some cousins, he says, and he liked it, except for the cold.
As with most conversations related to US-Mexico travel, this one turns quickly to the narcoguerra, the drug-related violence that has plagued Mexico for more than a decade. In some respects, it is now a full-blown war.