On a cold, luminous morning in February, our small band of cohorts from across the US and Mexico piled into a plain white van at Casa de Vedas in El Paso and headed for the Juarez bridge. In a few minutes, the van stopped and we emerged with backpacks and luggage in tow. We made the trek up the incline, as the bridge took us high above the Rio Grande, leaving El Paso behind and descending into another world.
A similar van waited for us on the other side.
We were activists, pastors, writers and students eager for three full days of exploration, discussion and discovery. A heavy schedule offered meetings with city officials, priests, university professors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) replete with activists, social workers and their charges.
We quickly learned that Ciudad Juarez is a place of extreme contradictions. A dusty, bumpy road can quickly emerge from a solidly paved street without warning. While the mantra of its citizens is no accountability, the police chief claims that 98 percent of people charged with a crime are prosecuted. And although the crime rate has dropped precipitously since 2010, an estimated 82 women and girls were murdered in 2012 and 115 remain missing.
Still, comments from sociologists and activists can have a decidedly familiar ring, mirroring those of their counterparts in the US. Poverty breeds willing recruits for the drug trade. The children have a fatalistic outlook on life, and fear and apathy keep people from being more proactive.
City destroyed by criminal activity
The idea that a city could be destroyed by criminal activity in the 21st century is practically incomprehensible. But hearing the stories of survivors gives one a glimpse into the breadth and depth of the violence. Their stories are unforgettable, deeply moving and - recounted firsthand or from close encounters - are emotionally taxing and difficult hear.
A journalist told of attending the funeral of a little girl where the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday played, even as people were shot and killed in front of the church during the funeral march. Another journalist told of the deaths of two of her colleagues; there were 19 attacks on journalists last year by Juarez police. She called journalists "warriors of information".
A 17-year-old girl was raped and killed by four men, despite her repeated calls for emergency assistance, saying, "They're following me!"
Gunmen attacked a house filled with family and neighbourhood children, killing 16. Three years later, the only identified suspect remains under house arrest. As mothers of those victims shared their stories, there was scarcely a dry eye among us as we filed out of the small, neat house located just blocks away from the scene of the massacre.
Amazingly, in the midst of their most challenging circumstances, the brave and proud women of Ciudad Juarez are forging ahead, standing as a testament to the indomitable human spirit.
Meeting the Juarez Cartel
Maria Elana Rodriguez founded En Companeros 26 years ago and still leads the organisation, which offers harm reduction strategies to address drug addiction and reduce HIV/AIDS. Tijuana leads the state of Chihuahua in the rate of IV drug use. Juarez is second.
According to Reynaldo, a self-styled lawyer on staff, drug use is booming in the factories and drug users are targeted by police and suffer from stigmatisation. Under President Calderon, human rights violations against this demographic skyrocketed.
The group combats violence against women in street work and offers nursing, pain management, syringe exchange and referrals. Although there is a national health ordinance in support of syringe exchange and harm reduction, the ordinance is regularly violated by police. The group has received repeated threats from the police chief who opposes syringe exchange. And still they press on.
Women as leaders and visionaries
Grupo de Articulacion, a network of NGOs, was founded in 2009, the year before Juarez was destroyed. The group catalogues the stories of victims to construct a history of the unprecedented violence. A Victim's Law went into effect in February, establishing victims' rights and state responsibility for reparations, but the law will only be beneficial if activists make it so.
And a case against former President Calderon is under consideration by the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal. Mexicans travelled from all parts of the country to offer evidence. The case has seven themes: drug war, femicide (the sexually motivated murder and mutilation of women), food rights, disinformation, environment and indigenous people. A verdict is expected in 2014.
Grupo de Jovenes, Youth House, provides after school, behavioural psychology, cultural arts and more to school-age children. Although violence has subsided, its impact continues for children without parents, children who live in fear, or those who have their hearts set on revenge.
It was a welcome relief to see a bright and cheerful complex with children running and playing outside, kicking a soccer ball, or working quietly inside in a classroom setting. This is a safe place to be a kid. The staff psychologist encourages older students to write their own rap lyrics as a means of self-expression.
As they begin to heal, their lyrics progress from violence and revenge to more thoughtful and constructive notions. The children are taught graffiti art as another form of self-expression, and as an alternative to tagging. Murals are not defaced by other groups in the neighbourhood.
If there is to be a brighter future, surely it will be ushered in by las mujeres - the strong, brave and committed women of Juarez. In these organisations and in many others, women play major roles as founders, leaders and visionaries.
The past may be bloody, but their heads are unbowed. They are responding in amazing ways to their circumstances by collaborating, strategising and working to meet the needs in their families, their communities and each other. They deserve our admiration, support and prayers.
Joy Strickland is founder and CEO of Mothers Against Teen Violence in Dallas, Texas, and author of Joy in the Morning - A Mother's Journey from Tragedy to Triumph. She is an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow at Texas Woman's University.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.