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.

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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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