Ciudad Juarez seeks image makeover

It’s a city plagued by drugs and violence but now officials in Ciudad Juarez are trying to clean up its image.

An outdoor rock concert kicked off a big public relations push by the city of Juarez to clean up its crime-tarnished image. Called “Competitiva Juarez”, the city-sponsored two-week-long series of business, cultural and trade events is meant to promote a city notorious for sky-high rates of murder and drug fuelled crime.

Mexican President Felipe Calderone spoke at the opening conference. Former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will also make speeches.

“Juarez Competitiva is one of the most importantant initiatives in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico to retake the community, to work together, to go forward from the problems we have and to improve the image of our city,” says Competitiva Juarez co-ordinator Carlos Chavira.

Chavira says Juarez’s reputation as a battleground infested by drug cartels and corrupt officials is really a bad rap.

“We have international fame for things we don’t do, crimes we don’t commit,” Chavira added. “We’re not saying we haven’t got problems but our problems are ones that are common in cities of our size. Maybe a little bit higher in the last couple of years.”

It is true that violence has declined in recent months. But Juarez is still a very dangerous place.

As Al Jazeera’s crew drove through the streets, a call came in over the radio. Police were reporting a triple homicide in a barrio, or neighbourhood, outside the city centre.

We came to the place just as police were unfurling yellow crime scene tape. It was broad daylight, a little after noon. Two men and a woman had been shot dead. Their bodies were left out in plain view, in the middle of the street.

The state of Chihuahua where Juarez is located still has the highest murder rate in Mexico.

Critics say a better public image isn’t enough. Hernan Ortiz, head of a local civil society group called Citzens for Better Public Administration, half smiled when asked about Competitiva Juarez.

“They are selling a product, and the product is Ciudad Juarez. And they have the right to do it. Maybe Juarez is a good place to do business. But we still have the murders, we still have a high level of crime, we still have businesses closing.

“We still have a lot of houses empty because people are leaving,” Ortiz said. “The problem of the the violence in Ciudad Juarez is the impunity. We have a government that doesnts prosecute the criminals.”

Josefina Leyva, the owner of a small grocery store, knows all about Juarez’s culture of fear and impunity. She’s a short, sturdy woman with grey hair tied back in a long braid.

While we talked, her chidren and grandchildren hung around the shop, because its too dangerous to walk around outside, she said.

“All of the other shops around here are closed because they were extorted,” Leyva said “And when they don’t pay the protection money their businesses are burnt down.”

Last year, gangsters confronted her husband, extorting money. He didnt pay. The thugs came back.

“They killed my husband here,” Leyva said, tears starting into her eyes. “My husband had bad legs, when they ordered him to get on the ground he couldn’t do it because his legs are bad. So they shot him here in the neck.”

Now, Leyva pays the criminals who killed her husband a third of her weekly income in protection money.

Most people in Juarez are afraid to talk to journalists about such things, but Leyva says she doesn’t care anymore. It will take more than a PR campaign to help people like her.