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From issue: Natural Resource Extraction in Latin America (Winter 2013)

AQ Feature

Dispatches from the Field: Ciudad Juárez

Documenting the return of civic and economic normalcy to a city under siege.

Civic and economic life is coming back to a city once synonymous with gangland murders and violence against women.

The lunch shift is in full swing at Viva Juárez restaurant. After a morning of shopping, pedestrians trickle into the popular eatery on Avenida Benito Juárez, where cooks chop onions and peppers at a formica counter and the aroma of carnitas wafts onto the sidewalk.

The mood inside Viva Juárez and on the nearby streets is relaxed. But the bullet holes in the peeled and faded burnt-orange façade of the nearby Del Pueblo restaurant, closed down after a shooting, are stark reminders of the city’s recent history as the “Murder Capital of the World.”

Since 2006, Chihuahua state statistics show that more than 10,000 people were murdered in Ciudad Juárez during former President Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs. According to the Ciudad Juárez Chamber of Commerce, an estimated 10,000 businesses closed their doors because of extortion by street gangs, and city officials say that 100,000 residents fled the city to El Paso, Texas, or to other parts of Mexico. Even before Mexican security forces began a crackdown on drug cartels, Ciudad Juárez received international attention for the murder and disappearance of women.

Yet, since 2011, a guarded sense of normalcy has returned, and many citizens feel Ciudad Juárez is getting a second chance. In 2011, the murder rate plummeted 45 percent—from a high of 3,622 homicides in 2010 down to 1,976 the next year. That number was on track for another 40 percent drop by the end of 2012.

An explanation for the decrease in murders is elusive.

Ciudad Juárez Mayor Héctor Murguía credits Julián Leyzaola, whom he hired as municipal chief of police in 2011. According to Murguía, the hard-charging but controversial Leyzaola—who has also received significant negative attention for alleged  police abuses against suspects—cleaned up Tijuana before moving on to Ciudad Juárez, where he has attempted to instill a new degree of professionalism in the municipal police department, weed out corrupt officers, and establish a community-oriented style of policing. Key to Leyzaola’s crime-fighting strategy was establishing patrol sectors and shifting resources to high-crime areas.

But there is another explanation, says Jorge Villa, the state medical examiner. “There just isn’t anyone else to kill.”

A tranquil park in front of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in downtown Ciudad Juárez. Photo: Courtesy of Joseph J. Kolb
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The four-year battle between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels for control of the so-called “Juárez Drug Plaza”—and control of drug routes into the U.S.—has wound down now that the Sinaloa cartel is widely considered to have defeated the Juárez cartel in a brutal turf war.

Life After Wartime

For the residents of Ciudad Juárez, the reasons and explanations for the drop in violence are irrelevant as long as they can live peacefully again.

Marguirite, a college student who declined to give her last name to avoid being targeted by extortionists, says her family has owned the popular Viva Juárez restaurant, just down the block from the Paseo del Norte Bridge that connects Juárez and El Paso, for 20 years. They survived the dark days of 2008 through 2010, when murder and extortion were at their peak.

“People are coming back to Juárez from El Paso, and people from Juárez are coming out of their houses again, no longer afraid,” she says. “Things are getting so much better that my family has opened a second restaurant here.”

Meanwhile, Alberto Calvo, a middle-aged man folding T-shirts in the downtown souvenir shop Mexico Lindo, notes business has improved since Juárez’ crime rate started going down, but times are still tough.

After all, it is the American tourism dollar that helps sustain his business, and Calvo’s shop is on a block that thousands of Americans would have passed on their way to local dentists and pharmacies, many of which are now either closed or scaled back because of the drop in business.

“I am just surviving,” he admits.

Still, U.S. tourists are slowly returning to the city, thanks to the lower murder rate and a greater confidence in security. It’s a development that city and state officials hope to capitalize on with a massive physical and image overhaul.

Combined municipal, state and federal investments in Ciudad Juárez have been the cornerstone of the revival, according to Murguía, who is enjoying a second non-consecutive term as mayor after a first term from 2004–2007. The reason for the reinvestment is simple economic survival, Murguía says. He and Chihuahua Governor César Duarte hope to return Ciudad Juárez to the commercial and manufacturing hub it promised to be in the early days of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Construction crews are beginning a $300 million project to improve the city’s bone-jarring roads and reduce choking traffic jams. New red and white seats have been installed in the $15 million baseball stadium for the city’s professional team, the Indios, which opened in November 2012. Even nightclubs that were once closed are reopening.

Murguía said he is especially excited about the urban renewal project planned for the decaying downtown shopping district, which involves demolishing vacant and hazardous structures and transforming the area into a large pedestrian plaza like those found in Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara, to bring back U.S. tourists and shoppers.

These projects are projected to create 24,000 new jobs over the next year, chipping away at the city’s unemployment rate of 6.4 percent—nearly 1.5 percentage points above the Mexican national average.

The number of export sector jobs jumped from 166,000 in June 2009 to 215,000 in June 2012, an increase of nearly 30 percent. Trade between Ciudad Juárez and neighboring El Paso jumped to $80 billion in 2011, an increase of $10 billion from the previous year.

“The government is interested in restoring not just buildings, but social and family life for the citizens of Juárez,” said a spokesman for Governor Duarte.

That may be the more daunting task for city and state officials.

Developing the Economy

Even with the work currently in progress, the majority of jobs in Ciudad Juárez are extremely low-paying, keeping the poverty rate high. Murguía says that as many as 65 percent of Ciudad Juárez’ 1.2 million residents lives in poverty. The majority of export, construction and manufacturing jobs pay the equivalent of  $55 per week.

“We don’t want the cheap labor jobs, we want high-skilled, high-paying jobs coming here,” Murguía says. “It can be done. We have so many of our youth attending U.S. universities such as UTEP [the University of Texas–El Paso]. This will allow them to stay here and contribute.”

Moira Murphy-Aguilar, a professor at the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at UTEP, lived in Ciudad Juárez for about a decade and is optimistic about the city’s future.

“Juárez has been, since I first lived there in the early 1990s, a vibrant city,” Murphy-Aguilar says. “What people forget, for example, is that Juárez is home to a campus of the Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of the best universities in the world, which also has a stellar middle and high school.”

Murphy-Aguilar believes that Ciudad Juárez’ infrastructure was unable to cope with the accelerated population growth of the early 1990s, contributing to the poverty it must now overcome to become a modern, developed city. During the 1990s, the promise of maquiladora jobs attracted some 100,000 people from southern and central Mexico, but the city was unprepared for this influx of people, says Murguía. Most of the new residents were forced to live in colonias that did not have infrastructure or adequate housing—and were then stranded without jobs when many of the maquilas closed or downsized. Many still live in bare cinderblock or wood pallet homes with tin or tarp roofs.

Regardless of the social and economic improvements on Juárez’ horizon, it’s the image of violence that the city has to overcome if it wants to regain the American tourism dollar.

Across the border, it’s clear Juarez’ renaissance remains unpersuasive.

Bobby Vee, 30, an assistant manager at a cigar lounge in downtown El Paso, says that Ciudad Juárez was always an option for Americans who wanted to cross the border for dinner or to visit nightclubs, but that changed when the violence increased. He says that now very few people from El Paso, including himself, venture across the border, and he doesn’t plan to for the foreseeable future.

He believes that many U.S. citizens remain influenced by media portrayals of the city as a cauldron of crime.

Murguía concedes the point. “We do have an image problem—people fear that as soon as they walk off the bridge into the city, they will be shot—it is a big challenge,” he says. “But we need our citizens to be our spokespeople and invite others to come to Juárez.”

Marguirite, an accounting major at UTEP, could be one such spokesperson, but not yet.

Her family’s businesses are flourishing on both sides of the border, including a growing potato chip business in El Paso, and she may go there instead—an option the majority of impoverished Ciudad Juárez residents don’t have.

Still, at a Catholic church in the western colonia of Anapra, a zone of cinderblock houses with tin and tarp roofs, a 16-year-old girl at a youth group concert displays the spirit of defiant optimism that Ciudad Juárez will need to stage a true comeback.

“If I ever had the chance to go to the U.S., I would still stay here,” she says. “How can I make my city better off if I leave?”

View a slideshow of Ciudad Juárez. Photos courtesy of Joseph Kolb and REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez.

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