By Armando Chávez
Murders, kidnappings and threats traumatize local population and spurs more emigration to the United States.
The robberies, extortion and murders in Ciudad Juárez, the most violent city along the Mexico-US border, have left its population and the local economy in check. Almost 300,000 people have emigrated from the city over the past three years, mostly to El Paso, Texas, just over the border.
The 1.2 million people of Ciudad Juárez, in the northern Chihuahua state, have faced more violence since President Felipe Calderón declared a military offensive on drug-trafficking, shortly after taking office in December 2006.
Dozens of shops and restaurants have closed after owners received kidnapping or death threats, or were victims of extortion, when the owners refused to pay bribes to organized crime syndicates. Many discos and bars closed their doors, after they were set ablaze or were abandoned by their owners.
Since 2008, 273,000 people have left the city because of the violence and unemployment, according to a study by the Social Research Center at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez. Some 135,000 have emigrated to El Paso under the dual US-Mexican citizenship that they hold.
Ciudad Juárez is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and is a short trip from El Paso, considered one of the safest cities in the United States. But a heavily-guarded border wall separates the two.
Up until 2006, Ciudad Juárez´s streets were the preferred destination for US and international students studying just over the border. Each week they would head south, for shopping and partying in late-night bars, where the drinking age is 18, and not 21, like in the United States.
Starting in 2007, however, things changed. Murders in Ciudad Juárez reached 7,319 by the end of 2010, and 93 percent of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 44.
In 2010 alone, there were 3,100 reported murders here, compared with just five in El Paso, which has a population of 2.3 million.
Mexico´s government blames gangs working for the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels. Ciudad Juárez is right on a drug-route toward the United States, whose urban fringes and highways are just a five-minute walk.
“There is extreme fear to leave at night. To go shop in the market is playing with your life,” said Maribel Limongi, a Ciudad Juárez resident who has fled for the United States. There is an average of nine murders a day here and four people a day are wounded by firearms, according to local press reports.
Women for many years were at the center of the city´s violent reputation, since they were the victims of an epidemic of gender- and organized crime-based killings with 285 murders and 300 disappearances between 1993 and 2002, says the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 2010 alone, 306 women were killed, the Chihuahua state attorney general said, including minors and senior citizens. Many were housewives, police and factory workers.
A study by the university´s Social Research Center showed that 91 percent of residents in the city felt little or no confidence in public safety forces and disapproved of the federal government, lawmakers and political parties.
Some residents blamed the government´s decision to task the armed forces with fighting the violence only made the problem worse, saying they committed arbitrary murders and extortion.
The population feels “caught in a crossfire” between security forces and drug traffickers, Limongi said.
The anti-crime offensive Calderón launched in December 2006 has been questioned by human rights groups, political analysts and politicians, who argue the plan violates the civil population´s guarantees to fundamental rights and that it has only propagated more violence.
“The government lacks an integral plan to address the factors that exacerbate the situation, among them, failures in the federal police and the likely infiltration of the mafia among their ranks,” said Martín Barrón, an expert at the National Criminal Sciences Institute.
Public security secretary for Ciudad Juárez, Julián Leyzaola Pérez, recently estimated that at least one-fourth of the police officers in the city have some tie to organized crime and he plans to weed out those agents and monitor other possible suspects.
Barrón says that some living on US soil are contracted for some criminal acts by the Mexican drug traffickers. Police Lt. Gomecindo López, of the Special Operations Bureau of the El Paso County Sheriff´s Office, told US lawmakers last year that Mexican drug traffickers and hit men are living on US soil, but cross into Ciudad Juárez and commit crime on Mexican soil.
Crimes are committed in broad daylight. Bullet-riddled bodies have shown up on sidewalks, inside cars, hanging from bridges, inscribed with threatening inscriptions from rival drug cartels.
Barrón says the country needs social policy that addresses unemployment, poor health care and education, some of the reasons that created a population at-risk for joining these criminal gangs.
According to the state university, half of those interviewed in its survey said they had been the victim of a robbery, 23 percent had been assaulted and more than one-third said they had some relative who had been a victim of a crime.
Ninety-three percent of residents said they felt insecure, and 42 percent said they wanted to emigrate.
Limongi, whose mother is Spanish, said that some are leaving Ciudad Juárez, for other Mexican cities and Europe, and a number of residents with Spanish ancestry are seeking their European citizenship.
Many residents resist running away. There is no way to sell or rent their homes. But abandoning the city means loosing property and investment. Gradually, the city is becoming a ghost town. Residents bar up their homes, the touristic area is closed and gunshots are heard at night.
Housing Ministry figures show that more than 90 percent of the 24,700 abandoned homes in the Chihuahua state are in this city, where there are empty apartment buildings, deserted streets and looting of doors, windows and piping.
Official figures say that 35,000 Mexicans have been killed since the policy was instated, among them 15,273 in 2010, more than double those in 2009.