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This Love Is Not For Cowards

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Ciudad Juarez is quite possibly the ugliest place on earth - the murder capital of a narco-state strategically located on the border between Mexico and the United States. To describe the city as lawless would underscore the ineptitude of the local government, but diminish the power and influence of the rival Mexican cartels vying for the lucrative entry point to the American market. For ordinary citizens, it is impossible to escape the violence; men, women, and children are inevitably caught in the crossfire.

Against the backdrop of ruthless drug lords, corrupt politicians, and a complicit police force, Juarez is also a place of tremendous hope. The city is more than just a transfer point for drug running, and many Mexicans have made Juarez their home. Children go to school, young couples get married and buy houses, and everyone goes to church. For these reasons, Juarez is no different than most cities and towns throughout Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

In This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez, Robert Andrew Powell leaves his hometown of Miami on a whim for the drier pastures of Juarez precisely as the drug violence begins to intensify in 2009. Throughout his experience in Mexico, he finds himself struggling to reconcile two opposing forces that attempt to define the city. On one hand, the incessant murders are so brutal and "cartoonish" that he is hesitant to leave his apartment at night. On the other hand, it is a place is so full of life and interesting characters that the isolation in his concrete apartment complex would prove just as fatal.

From the outset, Powell recognises that the local soccer club, Los Indios, is a powerful coping mechanism for the violence surrounding Juarez. The team is not very good and relegation is all but assured at the beginning of the Clausura, yet the supporters continue to cheer for them in the midst of the worst losing streak in the history of Mexican soccer. Each match offers an escape from reality for the fans. After one game, Powell writes: "For two and a half hours I wasn't locked in my apartment. I didn't worry about my security. I didn't think about extortion or being caught in the crossfire." It is a sentiment echoed throughout the text.

This Love Is Not for Cowards is nominally a narrative about Los Indios' final season in the Primera Division, with each chapter highlighting a "must-win" game on the calendar. However, Powell uses his proximity to the team as a springboard to explore the Juarez community, its relation to the rest of Mexico, and its fight for legitimacy, on and off the field. Los Indios' players and management and the supporters' club, El Kartel, provide the bulk of commentary about Juarez and how to tow the line without getting killed. Sadly, even the soccer bubble is not impenetrable.

Powell's writing is brutally honest. At one point, he even ponders if he could kill his neighbour for scratching his car. He concludes that he can, and that he would probably go unpunished. Both his naivety as an American in one of the world's most violent cities and his extensive research as a journalist provide a comprehensive picture of Juarez. His interviews cut across all sectors of the population to build a bottom-up and top-down perspective of the city.

Ultimately, the reader is forced to draw his or her own conclusions about Juarez. Los Indios are relegated, Powell reaches his breaking point and returns to the United States, and the violence continues to rage. Yet, even when the players and fans are at their lowest, powerful moments continue to shine through. After the final whistle of the team's last match in the Primera, one of the players, who has not been paid in months, takes to the field to kick around with a little girl for more than an hour. Perhaps the future is bright in Juarez.

Follow Jack Graul on Twitter - @jackgraul

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