People walk past a new 40-square meters mural of Mexican singer Alberto Aguilera Valadez, better known as Juan Gabriel, in downtown Ciudad Juarez. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

The Mexican border city’s murder rate is nowhere near where it once was. But Americans haven’t gotten the message.

Murder capital of the world is no one's idea of a good tourism promotion. But Ciudad Juárez's murder tally has long since plummeted from the astronomical high of more than 3,000 recorded in 2010. In 2014, 424 or 538 people were reported killed in Juárez (depending on what entity is doing the reporting). Per capita, even that higher number represents a murder rate similar to that of Detroit or New Orleans. The border city nonetheless remains forbidden territory for Americans who in prior decades would cross over from El Paso in droves to visit family, bars, restaurants, dentists, pharmacies and strip clubs. Juárez is by no means a paragon of security, but it’s certainly safe enough to grab dinner.

"Before, a lot of businesses were closing because they were losing money," says Ángel, 58, a Juárez native trying to lure passersby into a downtown pharmacy. He wants tourists to return. "I think that many [people] still don't have much confidence, but things are now good here in Juárez … There's a lot of security."

That's not, however, an easy message to convey after years of brutality. "The reputation that was given to Juárez worldwide was really bad," says Ángel.

The drug war, which raged so intensely between 2008 and 2012, made customers, both foreign and domestic, scarce. Meanwhile, criminal gangs took advantage of the impunity to extort local merchants citywide—even small operations like the Juárez Avenue stall, just a short walk across the border, from which Jorge Hernandez, 47, sells melon and pineapple aguas frescas. All while the global economy slid into crisis. Merchants were squeezed from all sides.

"There weren't [any tourists]," says Hernandez. "They stopped coming when the killings and everything began." The streets were empty, and "people went inside early… Now, more people are beginning to come on Fridays, on Saturdays, to dance… and to drink. But before, no. The youth didn't come out."

Noé, 35, a taxi driver waiting downtown, is not optimistic that things will return to normal.

"It was full of people," says Noé. "There was a lot of work and everything. Right now, there is nothing."

Today, Juarenses pack the downtown market and take in, or at least tolerate, a preacher's amplified voice ringing out across the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. But the return of once-ubiquitous American visitors has been slow to nonexistent.

Noé says that outsiders need time to regain their confidence in Juárez. But the same also goes for Juarenses. The drug wars shattered many of the already fragile social bonds in a city reconstructed upon a maquiladora economy that entailed rapid population growth and massive urban sprawl. There are plans for a convention center, and to attract more of the medical tourism that for Mexican border cities has been a competitive advantage. But many of the city's newest development efforts appear in large part geared toward increasing civic self-esteem and local commerce.

Redevelopment projects underway include a major remodeling of downtown buildings, and the construction of amenities to support pedestrians and cyclists (there are precious few of the latter) by closing streets to vehicular traffic, restricting parking, widening sidewalks and adding bike routes. Recently, a "Be Proud to be from Juárez" advertising campaign launched, touting the city as just as beautiful as New York or Paris, and as the birthplace of the margarita and the burrito (both claims are disputed). And the city is building a new Noa Noa, the long-since shuttered nightclub where singer Juan Gabriel began his career. A fresh mural downtown features a portrait of the dazzling Divo de Juárez, with the quote: "Congratulations to all the people who are proud to be who they are."

Efforts to change the city's image also represent a form of denial on the part of local elites, says the social scientist Hector Antonio Padilla Delgado of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez. He dates that effort to the 1990s, when civil society groups loudly protested the infamous and unsolved killing of women in the city. It's almost as if to say "that what you see is not true," says Padilla. "It denies, minimizes and excessively plays down the questions relating to the lack of public safety. I agree that violence isn't everything. But you can't deny it either."

*****

For many El Pasoans, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic, a one-time casual lunch destination remains off limits. Pedestrian crossings recorded by the U.S. at El Paso ports of entry decreased from 8,454,434 in 2007 to 6,015,421 in 2013. More dramatically, personal vehicle passengers dropped from 29,180,824 in 2005 to 14,940,566 in 2011. But it was American national security politics and anti-immigrant sentiment that walled Juárez off from its American neighbor well before the cartel wars went into overdrive.

"Look, Juárez Avenue began to decline, more or less, before the violence came about," says Carlos Velasquez, 47, a longtime bartender at downtown's venerable Kentucky Club. "It was since September 11, when the towers fell over there, that they closed the bridges, and the obstacles. It was then that Juárez Avenue began to fall… And what happened is that, after 2007, it was just finished. Everything."

In 2000, before the response to the September 11, 2001, attacks created permanently long lines of cars, 48,420,274 vehicular passengers crossed. Americans could cross back into the U.S. with just a driver’s license. Now, a passport is required.

"You drive over there, it's a nightmare getting back," says Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso. Often, "it takes an hour or two… The inconvenience factor combined with the perception of danger and fear is just impossible to overcome."

Right around the same time that free trade eased the crossborder movement of capital and goods, Washington politicians increasingly restricted the passage of individual people. In 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, the Border Patrol implemented Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, flooding the Rio Grande with agents. Before Hold the Line, Juárez residents crossed back and forth, with or without authorization, on a daily basis. That operation, and the nonstop hike in border militarization that has prevailed since, has forced undocumented immigration into the hands of smugglers crossing in the dangerous desert heat. Ironically, it also effectively locked many undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the border who might otherwise prefer to live in Juárez and work in El Paso.

The violence that spiked from 2008 to 2012 was just the latest blow to a city undergoing a long transition from desert bacchanal into low-wage factory town. El Paso and Juárez were twin cities with more in common than not. Today, they can feel painfully distant.

A sign points the way to El Paso from downtown Juárez. (Felix Garcia / Flickr)

"There's not a lot of comprehension or confidence among El Pasoans that it's okay and safe to cross into Juárez," says Chris Lopez, the former editor of the El Paso Times and a current consultant for the Juárez newspaper Periódico Norte. "El Pasoans in particular are not crossing over, and really not anywhere close to what they were doing prior to 2008."

People often tell Lopez, "you're crazy. It's not safe there. And I can talk until I'm blue in the face… but they're not convinced."

Campbell says he has failed to sell friends on the excellent one-dollar haircuts he gets across the river.

"Juárez is not Acapulco," says Campbell, an expert on the border and its drug wars. "It doesn't have natural beauty, exactly. If… your appeal is more subtle, and you have one of the most violent situations in the world going on, how do you overcome that?"

*****

It was the rival Juárez and Sinaloa cartels' struggle for control of Juárez's plaza, or turf, that spiraled into a citywide bloodbath. The national and local police, and the army, all accused of being infiltrated by the cartels and committing terrible human rights abuses, entered the fray along with brutal, cartel-aligned local street gangs recruiting among the city's impoverished youth.

The border is a transit point for drugs heading north and guns heading south, and Juárez boasts a huge local drug market.

But the worst of the violence dropped off beginning in 2011. Government and civic leaders in part credit a crackdown on both crime and corruption. That crackdown included a hardline police effort that was also, many say, brutal and indiscriminate. And, yet more depressingly, many contend that peace was not so much a result of a government victory over cartels but rather of the Sinaloa cartel, with military assistance, defeating its Juárez rival. Critics also accused the military presence of having fomented the violence.

The dynamics behind the violence remain obscure. But what's certain is that it reflected a breakdown between the various powers that be in Mexico, both in and out of government. Today’s relative peace is a sign that a modicum of order has been restored. The problem is that almost no one knows what that order is, or who the true authorities are.  

"The violence," says Padilla, "is not a problem. It's a solution. That is to say, it is the manner in which certain groups resolve things."

The cartel violence was not and is not unique to Juárez, but the city nonetheless became its symbol, and in many ways remains so even as violence burns hotter in other regions. The violence associated with Mexico's drug wars is spectacular, deployed to send a message in the form of enemies decapitated and journalists assassinated. According to BBC Mundo, at least 1,300 people were decapitated in Mexico between 2007 and 2012. As Samuel González Ruiz, a former United Nations and Mexican anti-drug and organized crime official, told BBC Mundo, "The message is clear: we have no pity and will do what it takes to control our territory."

It was, says Padilla, a "machinery of terror, where the idea was to immobilize society." The message was, "You, don't move. You, don't meddle."

In a way, El Paso benefitted from Juárez's nightmare. The city's once sleepy downtown underwent a major revival. There are new bars offering microbrews on tap, fine dining and food trucks, and a shiny baseball stadium for the Triple-A Chihuahuas baseball team.

Juarenses began to "cross into El Paso to go out to clubs, to go out to dinners, and El Paso even developed a new entertainment district pretty close to the downtown bridge crossing," says Lopez.

It wasn't just that El Pasoans stopped going to Juárez. Many Juarenses moved to the U.S. for safety, and those who stayed behind sought entertainment and simple respite across the border, where Juárez restaurants opened new locations.

"Nightlife has really come back to its normal standards for Juarenses," says Fernando Calzada, the 26-year old owner of a Juárez gaming center. "But to be honest I still don't see a lot of El Pasoans around."

*****

For now, Juárez Avenue's elegant Kentucky Club, the disputed birthplace of the margarita, is one of the few places in Juárez where one might glimpse an American tourist.

"We've always been open," says Velasquez, the bartender. "Since 1920." But "many places had to close, and the people didn't go out on the streets." Before, he says, "it was a festival here at nighttime… Every night, every day of the week, every day there was a lot of tourism."

During Prohibition, Juárez boomed. And it wasn't just the seedy border town debauchery of stereotypical lore (though there was that, too). During the city's golden years, Juárez Avenue was lined with exclusive cabarets offering music, high-end entertainment and expensive food. Americans also flocked to the city for "quickie divorces," and soldiers from Fort Bliss took leave of their sobriety in the city's bars, strip clubs and brothels. By the 1980s and 1990s, tourism might have been big business, but it was far from the high-end ventures that once lured American celebrities south. And the U.S. visitors weren't so much tourists but rather Mexican-American El Pasoans who lived crossborder lives.

"Like many El Paso teenagers in the 1980s, I spent many a weekend night on 'The Strip' in downtown Juarez," wrote El Paso native and CNN cameraman Gabe Ramirez. "It was sooo easy. Five dollars to park, a quick walk across the Paso Del Norte Bridge and you were on teenage Pleasure Island. Pumping music, dancing, cheap booze, good food, girls!"

Many wealthier Juarenses have long avoided the historic center, favoring more suburban and automobile-centric settings. Today, downtown businesses largely cater to the city's huge poor and working class population—which is itself scattered across colonias populares on the city's sprawling periphery.

"The rise of the maquiladora industry and this vast influx of extremely poor people into the city and the whole focus of the economy locally switched from tourism to maquilas," says Campbell. "Whatever glamour Juárez may have had certainly went down."

Today, the city is in a hurry to efface its prurient past, demolishing its huge red light district, la Mariscal, in recent years as the drug wars raged.

"The Mariscal doesn't exist anymore," says Velasquez, in a tone that might accurately be described as wistful. "There are no more strip clubs."

Campbell says that the la Mariscal could be a pretty ugly scene, but that the rush to sweep it into the dustbin of history also destroyed some of the city's most historic buildings—buildings which no doubt could have helped redevelop the downtown. The city could have opted for gentrification instead of destruction.

"People will say they were brothels or dens of inequity or whatever but they were also the oldest buildings in the city," says Campbell. "And they totally destroyed them."

It's unclear what will rise from Juárez's rubble.

The current redevelopment plan calls for the creation of a new park along the once infamous Ignacio Mariscal and Santos Degollado streets, which authorities, according to the El Paso Times, want to turn into "a place where families gather and enjoy artistic, sports and cultural events."

Padilla worries that redevelopment plans for la Mariscal and downtown are superficial, "exclusionary" and "moralistic," an effort to change the area's class character instead of "taking into account how to integrate the lower classes into a new proposal for the historic center."

Murders have declined but many of their underlying causes remain. Americans and Juarenses still possess huge appetites for narcotics. The city's maquiladora workers are still horribly paid, and the industry still dominates the city's economic and social reality. There is also concern that the Juárez cartel is once again gaining strength, and a ready pool of gang recruits can still be found among the city's youth.

But Americans needn't fear crossing over to sample a burrito or margarita. They are delicious, the service is gracious, and the prices are great. That a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer asked me 'what I was doing out so late in Mexico' when I returned one night after a few Kentucky Club margaritas, however, indicates that a lot of Americans still don't see it that way.

"What we need is this free open border as far as average people, and commerce, and culture, and entertainment," says Campbell. "That would strengthen Juárez. But that's not what we're getting. We're getting $800 million for more control of the border even though the border is totally controlled in Texas," referring to a controversial new border security measure signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott that will, among other things, send state troopers to patrol the border.

Tourists should consider giving Juárez another try. And politicians might consider giving border security hysterics a rest.

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