"I have the most satisfying job in Juarez," says Arturo Chavez. He drives what the locals call a pipa, or water pipe. For poor Mexican neighborhoods like Anapra, a desert slum of 5,000 families with no water or sewer lines, tanker trucks like Chavez's are the only source of water clean enough for drinking and bathing. So when pipa No. 415 pulls up over the dunes, it's a community event: families emerge from their shanties as if to greet a rich uncle bearing gifts. Chavez pumps 500 gal. of free water into concrete cubes called pilas, which, say residents, can also mean the "batteries" that recharge their lives.
Not even the pipa, however, could save seven-month-old Antonio Garcia, who choked to death in Anapra this spring. The slum's sallow air had filled his tiny lungs with dust and disease. Dr. Gustavo Martinez, director of a private Juarez hospital, watched helplessly as the infant writhed in pain before he finally suffocated. "You don't ever forget the face of a seven-month-old who doesn't want to live anymore," he says. When Martinez went afterward to see the family, he found their one-room shanty, built of pallets and cardboard, open on all sides to the wind. Dust swirled around the empty crib in the corner. "I just leaned against the wall and thought, 'I can't compete against this,'" he said.
Juarez is the migration story that most Americans don't hear about: the one that stops just short of the border and grows and grows. The Juarez-El Paso population of 2 million makes up the largest border community anywhere in the world, expanding more than 5% a year. It is a big, wild experiment in what happens when two halves of a metropolis are governed by very different economic, civic and cultural rules. This is a place where two cities breathe the same air, drink the same water and share the same destiny along what U.S. Congressman Silvestre Reyes calls a "seamless border."
El Paso and Juarez offer a test to all the high-minded globalists who think that if you fix the economy, the other solutions will fall into line. On the one hand, manufacturers from Ireland to Japan are streaming into town. Some 400 maquiladoras, or assembly plants, have all but eliminated unemployment in Juarez and have sown the seeds of a stable middle class, "not Mexicans with sombreros," says Miguel Angel Giron, 26, an accountant at an auto-parts factory. But all the problems that booming trade creates are concentrated here as well; the potable water in the cities' common aquifer is set to run out in 25 years; the air quality is imperiled; diseases are spreading, and they don't stop at the customs station. Presidents Fox and Bush talk a lot about working together to find solutions. But at the moment, the most creative efforts come from local officials, the private sector, the charities and community groups that build informal alliances across the river. And they often do it without help from Mexico City or Washington, whose NAFTA dreams created the problems.
Juarez, once a dusty border mountain pass, is now Mexico's fourth largest city, with a population of 1.3 million and 50,000 more arriving each year. Huge clusters of tiny workers' houses rise out of the sand and stretch in every direction. "It's instant urbanization," says Nestor Valencia, who directed El Paso's city planning for 11 years. "One year it's a desert. The next it's a city."