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Miracle Of Ciudad Juarez: A Symbol Of Mexico's Violence Is Reborn

Once the world's murder capital, the Mexican city that borders with El Paso, Texas, has seen crime plummet. But deeper problems still persist.

Day of the Dead celebrations in Ciudad Juarez
Day of the Dead celebrations in Ciudad Juarez
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt

CIUDAD JUÁREZ — Luz Maria Davíla is no longer a mother. When she speaks, her eyes glisten with tears she won't shed, as if to show that she will never forget, nor forgive.

Davilla attended the trial of her sons' murderers, and saw and heard no signs remorse. But today, this poor woman from the maquiladoras factories has no fight left in her anymore. If you tell her that crime has since become an old story in this city, she will only nod with an absent expression on her face.

The energy she has left Davíla uses to remember January 31. “It was a Sunday night," she begins. "The kids were having fun outside. They came back home before leaving again to a birthday party — as if they wanted to say goodbye.”

The teenagers were in a little house across the street, when four SUVs suddenly stopped. The men blocked all the house's entries and started firing into the crowd. Bodies were piled up everywhere in the house and a river of blood was flowing. Fifteen young people, aged 15 to 20, died this day. Among them: Marcos, 16, and José Luis, 19. Davíla's only two children. It came out later that the shooting was only a "mistake." The killers thought the league AA soccer players at the party were members of the AA "Artists Assassins," the armed wing of a drug dealing gang.

These were the kinds of tragically absurd stories that made Ciudad Juárez the subject of attention around the world as a new global capital of crime and narcotics trafficking. By some counts, it was once considered the murder capital of the world. But we are here today because the homicide rate in this northern Mexican city has been cut by 95%. Some have called it a model for finding a way out of Mexico's plague of drug dealing and death.

Angel Corral, who owns the trendy bar Tres Mentiras has not forgotten his friends who were gunned down. But now, Angel embodies the new Juárez. He speaks with his three-year-old son on his shoulders, noting that he would not have wanted any children back in 2008 or 2009. At that time, he employed more than ten bodyguards in his bar and remained very discreet on social networks. Today, he's no longer afraid, and he's not the only one.

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Ciudad Juarez back in 1993 — Photo: Daviddje

Pablo Herrera came to watch a jazz concert in a city park recently — an event utterly unimaginable just a few years ago. “Everything has changed," explains the retiree. "We were used to staying home after 8 p.m. There would be gunfights everywhere.”

Ten homicides a day

But this city of 1.3 million inhabitants was destined for a miracle: In October 2010, the violence peaked: an average of 10 homicides committed every day in Ciudad Juárez; last April, there were only 18 for the whole month. Thirteen kidnapping charges filed in 2010, while none has been lodged for the past 20 months. In addition to that, business racketeering was cut by 85% and violent car-jacking shrank by 97%.

From his office at the U.S. Customs, in El Paso, a peaceful American city right across the border from Ciudad Juárez, Oscar Hagelsieb warns that the battle is not over yet. This aging man who sports a ponytail and plenty of tattoos explains that the wave of violence was caused by the feud between the Sinaloa and Juárez gangs for control over the main drug trafficking hub on the road to the United States.

The violence faded with Juárez gang's overthrow, but imprisoned leaders may be plotting a new assault. “It is too early to say that violence has totally disappeared from Juárez," Hagelsieb says. "I don't think the rivalry between the Sinaloa and Juárez gangs is over.”

Some worry that the current peace in Ciudad Juárez may be nothing but a fleeting moment, and warn that other Mexican cities would be wrong to take it as a model. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has softened the rhetoric of “war against traffickers” of his predecessor, preferring to show to the world the economic progress and modernization of his country rather than images of the army fighting against drug dealers.

But in reality, Mexico's policy hasn't really changed: beheading drug gangs by eliminating their "heads."

Within the six last years, ten top cartel leaders have been arrested or killed, including six since Peña Nieto was elected. Still, violence has not decreased nationally, and the case of the 43 students kidnapped and killed last year in Guerrero has served as the starkest reminder.

Tourists are back

Guillermo Asian is a member of "Mesa de Seguridad," a citizen association created when the wave of violence was at its highest level. “One of our first measures was to tackle the number of homicides," he says. "It took us three years to reach our objective of 50 killed per month, which is better than in New Orleans.” Among the measures that he cites is a tougher policy against suspected murderers, as 45% of homicide cases are filed today compared to only 1% in 2010.

After his restaurant was burned down in 2008, Oscar Herrera packed up his family and moved across the border to El Paso. “I felt like a coward who had abandoned Juárez,” he recalls. In 2011, he finally decided to move back, and his new restaurant is doing good business, with plans to launch an industrial bakery and culinary school in July.

Enrique Serrano, the mayor of Juárez, boasts that his city has a lower homicide rate than in Los Angeles, Washington or Baltimore. “Tourists had deserted, but they are coming back, little by little,” he says.

Police chief Cesar Omar Munoz says cracking down on corruption has been key. "Now the population has started trusting us," he says. "Before, the police ran from the criminals. Now the criminals run from the police.” Others however insist that the police salaries are still too low to avoid corruption.

Herein lie the limits to the would-be miracle of Juárez. “Poverty and drug dealing will not end, they are an integral part of this city, says José Tavizon. This former heroin addict became a pastor and welcomes everyone in need in his border canteen. “Drug trafficking has become a harder activity for the gangs, so now they prefer selling cigarettes," Tavizon explains. "But violence can come back any day.”

Others note the rise of both heroin and marijuana trafficking, especially as more and more places in the United States are legalizing the latter.

But perhaps the most deeply rooted problem in Ciudad Juárez is poverty. The city grew too fast, with no urbanization plans. Public schools in a deplorable state, and more than half of teenagers drop out of high school within two years. We must remember that this remains the city of maquiladoras, with export factories ready to exploit their employees for long hours and low pay. Just like Luz Maria Davíla, who still goes to work every day when her husband finishes his own shift.

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