By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The bloodshed has prompted all sorts of comparisons to recent history — that Mexico hasn’t seen this much disdain for a government since the 1910 Mexican Revolution against dictator Porfirio Diaz and that its violence is reminiscent of the 1930s mafia wars during Prohibition in the United States. But in body count, Juárez has likely surpassed Prohibition’s bootlegging bloodshed.
“We’re missing the boat here in the U.S. We’re at the front line of a war and Americans think it’s an abstraction,” said El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke, 37, who leads the charge locally to legalize marijuana. “The war on drugs has been an abject, miserable failure. The narcos aren’t making a political statement. This isn’t the FARC in Colombia. ... It’s pure economics and one way to stop this, at least some of it, is to legalize marijuana.”
Juárez was a bustling city of 1.3 million that was the fourth most powerful economy in Mexico. It saw a boom of U.S. manufacturing plants, called maquiladoras, that paid Mexican workers low wages, about $4 a day, after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
But now Juárez is emptying out, and up to 100,000 people are estimated to have fled.
“A lot of my friends and all of my relatives have moved to El Paso,” said one woman, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “I have two nephews who are doctors in Juárez. They still have their business over there, but they boarded it up. One of them was assaulted three times in his office. The last time, it was people with guns.”
It’s hard to find any local government presence; the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, runs his administration mostly from El Paso, residents say. He is a vehement supporter of the military presence in his city. In early March, a pig’s head with a note reading “You’re next” was found outside his Juárez residence.
“The army will remain in Juárez for the time being,” he said at a news conference on March 27. “It has done an excellent job and has controlled the delinquency rate, the robbery of banks and car thefts.”
At this point, bank robberies and auto theft seem minor in a city where children can walk out the door on any given day and see a bleeding body outside their homes. But it is the apparent policy the Mexican government, quite different from prior administrations, is intent on following for the near future.
“The White House thought the violence and corruption was a Mexican problem that wouldn’t affect the United States,” Chabat said. “And Mexico thought the consumption of drugs was a U.S. problem. ... Time has proven that both perceptions are erroneous, and whether we like it or not, the phenomenon of drug trafficking must be confronted by both governments. If we don’t, the chaos will overpower both nations.”
It’s certainly overpowering Juárez, rapidly becoming a dilapidated, lawless city where only those who don’t have other options stay. Many of the poor who came in droves during the maquiladora boom are returning to the southern states they came from. The Juárez business group called Coparmex estimates about 40 of the 300 or so factories have shut down in the past two years, costing thousands of jobs.
The Juárez Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, estimates 10,000 businesses have been forced to close. Many owners can’t pay or refuse to pay the bribes that gangs demand for protection. Dozens of businessmen have been kidnapped for ransom and countless businesses have been torched, leaving central shopping centers empty and boarded up. The once-popular discotheque Broncos and Cowgirls was burned down a few months ago by extortionists, and the surrounding shopping mall in Plaza las Americas has few cars in its parking lots.
In the Plaza de las Armas, the once-bustling plaza that thrived selling blankets and silver to American tourists has disappeared. Although locals still go there to sell hot dogs or get their shoes shined for a semblance of normalcy, it empties out in the afternoon once people return from work.
“There are less people in the plazas, in all public areas, hotels, dance halls, shops. A lot of people are imprisoned in their homes,” said the Reverend Carlos Reza, 32, a priest in the city’s main cathedral. Reza tells his flock in sermons that what is happening in Juárez is similar to the persecutions of early Christians and Israelites, meaning this too shall pass.
High unemployment and lack of education among 18-to-25-year-olds — the age group that comprises around 40 percent of the population in Juárez — have clearly fed criminal activity and crimes of opportunity, but so have low wages of about $5 a day, a rate that has gone up by only about $1 since NAFTA went into effect, fueling an underground drug economy that’s attractive to the young and poor with no other options for making a living.