Saving lives in Mexico's murder capital

Story highlights

  • Green Cross first responders are all volunteers
  • They have training every six months and certification once a year
  • There were almost 2,000 violent deaths in the city last year
On a recent night in Ciudad Juarez a city of 1.2 million across the border from El Paso, Texas, a team of four Green Cross paramedics was getting ready to begin their overnight shift. Juarez, known as Mexico's murder capital, has been marred with violence resulting from a turf war between rival drug cartels.
A call comes in all of a sudden. The paramedics know there's no time to waste. They rush to the scene of a shooting, outside a football stadium. Every second counts. But by the time they get there it's too late. A man is lying dead inside a red Camaro. Police find nearly 100 bullet casings around the car. Morgue personnel will have to deal with this crime scene.
Manuel Gonzalez is the team's chief paramedic. He says that this kind of violence is part of their daily routine. On their next call they rush a young man to the hospital. The victim has been shot six times. "I believe this guy was outside his house and they tried to steal some things from his vehicle or something like that. He resisted that and they shot him," Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez, who's 31 years old, has been involved with the Green Cross since he was 16 years old. He has witnessed how violence has exploded over the last five years in this border city. In this environment of violence, Gonzalez says, no one is safe, not even first responders. "(We have) shootings and fights in the streets so it's hard and they (the criminals) don't respect anybody so it doesn't matter if you're a paramedic or a police officer," Gonzalez says.
Violence has gotten to such level that at the IMSS 66, a government-run hospital, authorities decided to install bullet-proof doors. This after a number of shootings happened right outside the hospital. In one instance, the paramedics say, a group of armed men entered the hospital and shot a man inside.
One surprising fact is the paramedics risk their lives for no money at all. Green Cross first responders, who play a support role for their sister organization, the Red Cross, are all volunteers.
The ambulances are generally donated and American charitable organizations financially support the Green Cross with operating costs including fuel and supplies.
But that doesn't mean that they're not professionals. They have to undergo training every six months and certification every year. Marlette Rios, who's only 19 years old and enrolled after finishing high school, says she doesn't mind the rigorous training.
She says in general, paramedics are so focused in their efforts that sometimes they forget the risks they face in some of Juarez's most dangerous neighborhoods. "At that moment we're only concerned about saving a life. We don't care if that person is good or bad; we just want to save their lives," Rios said.
Another call comes in and the team goes out again to the treacherous streets of Ciudad Juarez. There were almost 2,000 violent deaths here last year and, these paramedics know that in their line of work their own safety cannot be guaranteed.