Contradictions of the New Juarez

The push to rebrand and re-sell the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez is in full swing. With violence way down as 2012 draws to a close, business and political leaders are extolling the return of security, inaugurating public works and opening new restaurants. According to the electronic industry trade journal, upwards of 22,000 workers have been hired this year in the assembly-for-export factories called maquiladoras, with especially strong rebounds in the auto and electronics sectors.

But how much of the public relations blitz is hype and how much is real?  And who benefits from the new Juárez?

Perhaps a November 20th Revolution Day concert by legendary performer Juan Gabriel—“The Divo of Juárez”–symbolizes the promises and pitfalls of contemporary Ciudad Juárez. Juan Gabriel launched his storied career from the city more than 40 years ago, bringing to Mexicans in the interior of the country a carefree image of life on the border with hits such as “Arriba Juárez,” “La Frontera” and “Noa Noa.” All were songs that portrayed a party-filled, happyburg on the doorstep of the cold, behemoth of the north.

In a jam-packed performance inaugurating the new “Juárez Lives” baseball stadium, “Juanga” as he is popularly known, brought tears to a crowd of tens of thousands as he commanded the stage. Press accounts of the event described how the superstar dedicated words to “all the mothers of Juárez,” and stood alongside Chihuahua Governor César Duarte and Ciudad Juárez Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguía as a white dove of peace was released.

“Mister Governor,” the famed crooner was quoted, “With my eternal appreciations as always, I want to toast to the health and wellness of peace and tranquility for my land, Ciudad Juárez…”

But outside the new stadium, crowds rushed a barrier and attempted to force their way into the capacity-filled stadium. In response, a riot squad pulled out the police dogs before emotions calmed down and many gatecrashers got into the venue anyway. After the show, some concertgoers discovered that the batteries had been stripped from their vehicles parked in nearby lot.

Economic rebound—for some

On recent visits, the swirling crowds, swinging moods and saturating sounds of Ciudad Juárez buzzed all around. Unlike two or three years ago, the sounds of ambulances were less frequent as were sightings of the heavily armed patrols of soldiers or federal cops.

Residents were out shopping, playing soccer, enjoying the parks and cramming eateries.

Still, countless buildings still stand abandoned and evening traffic was noticeably light.

At an optometry business on Avenida Juárez, a pair of women workers said the visitors from El Paso who once pumped dollars into the downtown business district still haven’t returned even though the security climate has “improved.”

But economically, the situation was not getting any better for workers like themselves, the women said. The prices for tortillas, eggs and bread had shot up while wages stayed flat, they said. “Now it’s a luxury to eat an egg,” one woman said.

Downtown Ciudad Juárez is the silver cradle for the touted rebirth of the city. It is also contested territory. A major revitalization project, paid for by loans encumbered by the government, is picking up pace. Workers were even out on a Sunday finishing the demolition an old nightclub on Avenida Juárez that’s been reduced to a giant pile of tangled beams, bricks and rubble.

Nearby, work crews soon began preparing the ground for a new train underpass that will be one piece of an urban transformation that includes the removal of old buildings, the construction of a mega-plaza and a new convention center close to the Santa Fe Bridge border crossing to El Paso.

The makeover has sparked controversy. A group of at least 14 downtown business owners, supported by many citizens, has expressed opposition to the underpass as well as the demolition of the block adjacent to the existing plaza next to the Cathedral. They recently unrolled banners on their businesses that declared, “Yes to Remodeling” and “No to Affecting.”

Slated for the wrecking ball, Café Nueva Central is a hub of community resistance. Inside the 54-year-old establishment that never closes, customers pack tables and a circular counter that is a hybrid of a soda fountain and liquor bar. Among friends, they sip coffee, converse with co-diners, read newspapers, and sign petitions against demolition. In addition to the standard Mexican fare, diners can savor Chinese and Spanish dishes. Live music entertains the clientele.

“We are like family, not like customers and business owners,” quipped café manager.

Lola Mariscal. The engaging woman should know. Counting 37 years at Café Nueva Central, Mariscal began her life’s career in the business as a teenage cashier and then worked up her way up the ladder. Shutting down the café, she said, would throw 75 people out of work and disperse a community. “Our children depend on the café for their education and the government doesn’t help us with it,” Mariscal said. The longtime Juarense charged that the government “wants to put new business people” in a re-modeled downtown.

Displacement is a defining noun in the “New Juárez”–displacement from the so-called drug war, displacement from demolition, displacement from economic disaster and displacement from U.S. deportation.

In Ciudad Juárez’s Great Violence of 2008-2012, an estimated 11,000 people were murdered, 8-10,000 orphans created and hundreds of thousands of others displaced or otherwise traumatized by violence and crime, according to various press and government accounts.

Controversy simmers over the number of people displaced from Ciudad Juárez by the twin hammer of the Great Violence and the Great Recession. Because of the nature of the fluid, revolving migratory flows in the Paso del Norte borderland, a precise number is impossible to pin down, but 2010 Mexican census figures coupled with counts of abandoned residences suggest as many as 300,000 people might have left the city at one point or another during the past five years; an undetermined number reportedly have since returned.

Graciela de la Rosa is a displaced Juarense. A retired social psychologist and teacher, de la Rosa blamed her move on hostile conditions that went far beyond the individual acts of criminals or abusive officials, describing an authoritarian, “neo-liberal” social conditioning and an accompanying psychosis of sorts that’s enveloped the city and been internalized among the population.

In her case, de la Rosa said, she suffered “personal aggressions, insults, absurd charges and overall human denigration at the hands of various persons,” resulting in physical illness. The former border-lander is pessimistic that genuine change will occur in the city anytime soon.

“Progress and abundance (have) to do with educated elites that understand that everybody has the right to have a decent income, if there is no income, then what do people do?  Juárez or the rest of the country are not going to change from above,” de la Rosa wrote in an email. “What brings change is the people and their organization, their awareness of the surroundings, that only exists in Distrito Federal (Mexico City) and in some places in the south. In the north, they have destroyed the poor with the strong control they have over them, so I see very difficult the possibility of a change in Juárez.”

De la Rosa added that mass post-traumatic stress disorder is latent in Ciudad Juárez, and will not be addressed. “The first collective sign has been a population living in terror, fear and distrust,” she wrote. “The people are aware than anyone can kill you with no problem, with no responsibility…”

A new path

Others are digging in their heels to not only salvage their city from the abyss, but put it on a different path altogether. Dozens of non-governmental organizations, some working with the government and others pursuing an independent line, have projects underway in different sections of the border city.

Former maquiladora worker Veronica Leyva, Ciudad Juárez representative for the Mexico Solidarity Network, currently works with others to construct a community center, with grassroots resources, on donated land in a section of the city afflicted by poverty and violence.

“We are reclaiming our rights as citizens, demanding these small things we have a right to a community space where families and kids can get along,” Leyva said in an interview.

As part of a community building and healing process, residents have formed a co-ed youth soccer league to provide a positive alternative to children targeted for recruitment by criminal organizations, and to build cross-gender respect in a city where violence against women has shattered the social fabric, Leyva said.

According to the activist, fundamental issues of human rights, economic justice and public security are pending. “What new Juárez are we talking about?” Leyva asked.

“The fact that the number of people murdered has gone down a bit doesn’t mean that human rights have gotten better,” she added.

Leyva defines human rights in a broad sense that embraces economic rights as well as the more standard definitions employed by governments and illustrated, for instance, by the growing situation of local residents who cannot sell their homes and face foreclosure.

Leyva was careful to add that the future of Ciudad Juárez, regardless of its border geography and subservient ties to the U.S., cannot be divorced from the future of Mexico as a whole.  She criticized the looming labor policies of incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto and the labor reform law approved by the newly elected Mexican Congress, which loosened the rules in employment contracting of a system that was already tilted in favor of employers.  And as the local downtown redevelopment controversy exemplified, the lack of public participation in democratic decision-making is still very much part of the political landscape, Leyva said.

Cases of Murdered or Disappeared Women on the rise

In the bigger picture, the crisis in Ciudad Juárez has served as a smokescreen to conceal a bigger one in Mexico, in that the border, portrayed as “the ugly little foot” of the country, distracts attention from a national breakdown, Leyva contended. “The case of Juárez is no different than what is happening in other cities in the country,” she said.

Contradictions abound on the human rights front. While some residents praise a new professionalism exhibited by the municipal police, who have taken over security functions from the Federal Police, citizen complaints of abuses are rampant. Both Mayor Murguía and his police chief, retired military man Julián Leyzaola, were forced to make public comments and/or take action against allegedly abusive officers recently after a growing public outcry.

Posters of disappeared young women, whose numbers first attracted international attention back in the 1990s before officially subsiding only to soar again after 2008 when armed men in and out of uniform dominated the streets, still haunt the avenues, but new messages from a government-sponsored campaign proclaiming that the “disappearances of Juárez have to disappear” are just as visible.

Recently, the state prosecutor’s office announced that it had located 11 missing women safe and sound. On the other hand, relatives of disappeared young women regularly stage protests demanding government action in finding their loved ones. Stemming from a 2001 Ciudad Juárez case involving the mass murder of young women that remains unresolved, the Mexican government is under an obligatory sentence from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to curb and investigate violence against women.

On the question of violence, government officials insist the corner has been turned. For its part, the U.S. Department of State is not convinced that Ciudad Juárez is a safe place for U.S. residents to visit. The inclusion of the border city in Washington’s latest travel advisory stoked the ire of Mayor Murguía. Calling the advisory “unjust,” Murguía said it conflicted with U.S. policies of collaborating with Mexican municipalities.

“This weekend we had a great number of people visiting businesses and stores, and this gives us great pleasure,” Murguía added. “(Travel advisories) are countered by speaking well of Juárez and telling our truth.”

Violence Although the high-profile massacres and double-digit weekend body counts of 2009 and 2010 appear to have faded into a sordid past, violence continues to claim lives on a regular basis.  Recent press accounts reported a man executed in daylight near the popular Rio Grande Mall; a man murdered in a hair-styling salon; another one stabbed to death in front of his female companion while walking along the old tourist strip of Avenida Juárez; bodies found in poor neighborhoods on a regular basis.

At the end of November, authorities recovered the remains of at least 20 men from narco-fosas, or clandestine graves associated with organized crime, in the Juárez Valley south of the city. Presumably victims from the height of the violence a couple years back, the remains were found in the same general area where the numerous bodies of disappeared young women have also been discovered.

Additionally, new reports of kidnapping, extortion and car-jacking – all once rare in Ciudad Juárez – continue to make the news, though state law enforcement officials claim progress in reducing these crimes, too.

In many ways, the most recent killings resemble the pre-2008 pattern of homicide when the city registered 200-400 murders per year- an alarming number for a place that was approaching a population of 1.5 million people before the bottom fell out nearly five years ago. Like nowadays, many of the pre-2008 killings occurred in low-income neighborhoods, where street gangs proliferate and where victims from marginal, socio-economic backgrounds are generally forgotten about by the larger society.

As Ciudad Juárez plunges ahead into the 21st century, a huge question is whether historical memory or collective amnesia will win out at the end of the day. And just as importantly, whether justice will come to thousands and thousands of victims in a city turned upside down by death, displacement and disaster.

 Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwest of the United States, Mexico, and Latin America and a regular contributor to the CIP Americas Program at

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.