It's a Friday night in Juarez, one of Mexico's most dangerous cities, and Mauricio Barba is bored and wants to party. In his parents' kitchen, within the gated walls of a downtown neighborhood, he sips from a bottle of Dos Equis and texts his friends. Just a year and a half ago, the 21-year-old college student didn't leave the house after dark. When we head down a poorly lit side street, Barba cradling a case of beer under one arm, I see why -- the city feels hollowed-out, almost post-apocalyptic. More than 11,000 people have been murdered in this border town in the last four years, and 110,000 homes sit abandoned.
But now, Barba tells me, Ciudad Juarez is changing. The murder rate has dropped 84 percent in the last year, car-jackings are at a three-year low, and people like him are reemerging. Up ahead on Avenida Lincoln, a white stretch limo sits idling in front of a club, where girls in stilettos wait behind a velvet rope. A truck with tinted windows drives by, blasting a popular drug ballad known as a narco corrido.
No one knows for sure why the violence is decreasing, but even those skeptical of official statistics say homicides in Juarez have dropped significantly. The most popular theory is that the two cartels warring over the lucrative I-10 corridor, which stretches from El Paso to Dallas, have reached a kind of temporary truce. "There's a lot of speculation that the Sinaloa cartel has beaten the Juarez cartel, and that they're in charge of the city now," says Molly Molloy, a researcher at New Mexico State University who has studied violence in Juarez. "But there's also less people to kill. Most of the people killed were young men between the ages of 15 and 30. There's less of that demographic around."
The most compelling theory, however, is even simpler than that, chalking up Juarez's drop in crime to good, old-fashioned police work. The murder rate began dropping about a year and a half ago, around the arrival of a new police chief named Julian Leyzoala, who brought with him a back-to-basics, broken-windows approach to policing. A former military colonel who studied at Mexico's equivalent of West Point, Leyzoala came up in Tijuana, where he served as warden of prisons and later as police chief.
At his office in Juarez, in a police station that feels more like a military compound, Leyzoala showed me a series of charts tracking the city's crime rates. "In one month in 2010, there were 259 murders," he said. "Last month, we had 29." When I asked him why, he smiled. His manner is casual and relaxed, but the deep bags under his eyes suggest the stress of his current assignment. For safety, his family lives in the U.S., and he only sees them once every four months. "In Mexico, the police chief is usually someone who likes guns and has friends in high places," he said. "But police work is not for amateurs. It is for professionals, and I am a professional."
When Leyzoala arrived in Juarez, the city was virtually lawless. Convoys of Suburbans and Escalades rumbled through town, voices broke into radio traffic taunting police and feeding them misinformation, and an estimated one-third of the police force worked for the cartels as drivers, lookouts, and hitmen who did their killing in uniform.
On one of Leyzoala's first days, a banner surfaced over a local highway: "Welcome to Juarez, Leyzoala. Tonight we kill you." He survived the night, but the next morning brought a fresh threat: a police officer would die every day until he quit. By dawn, one of his cops was found dead in the street, and another the next day. So Leyzoala put the rest of the force in lockdown at a nearby hotel, forcing the cartels to attack his officers on patrol rather than at home after they got off work. Leyzoala's cops were better trained than cartel members and won most shootouts. Not long after, Leyzoala "purified" his force, firing or arresting roughly 800 dirty cops.
He then embarked on a campaign seemingly drawn from Community Policing 101, dividing the city up into sectors and instructing his sector chiefs to meet regularly with community leaders to talk about safety concerns. He also empowered his officers to go after any crime they saw, big or small -- a radical step in Mexico, where drug trafficking is generally the purview of federal police. He made allies in the state prosecutor's office, which began trying a higher percentage of murders (still only 11 percent each year, but up from 2 percent before he arrived), and the local business community, which started renovating abandoned buildings and lobbying for federal funding for youth programs and extra security downtown.
Juarez remains a very dangerous place: poorer neighborhoods still see a murder or two a day, and the city's notorious rate of femicide has been increasing since 2008. Gustavo De La Rosa, the state human rights investigator, has received over 100 complaints of police brutality during Leyzoala's tenure, including one case now under investigation in which four young men were picked up by police and never heard from again. Their bodies surfaced several weeks later.
But back on Avenida Lincoln, near a packed mariachi club where six murders occurred in 2010, Mauricio Barba and his friends feel that their city has turned a corner. In the last year, more than 170 businesses have re-opened, and some residents who fled to El Paso at the height of the violence have returned. Two new nightclubs are expected to open nearby soon. "It's not totally back to the way it was before," Barba says, motioning toward an off-duty cop two of his friends have hired as a security guard for the night. "But maybe the worst is behind us."
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.