Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – Fifty-two-year-old Raul Rivera is the owner of Quick restaurant in Ciudad Juarez, a humble place with historic Mexican memorabilia on the walls and fried chicken on the plates. He is a stout man with a furrowed face and a firm handshake. But his voice takes on a nervous tone when his eyes turn towards the door that leads to the dark street outside.
“Did you make sure it’s shut?” he asks, before barking an order at one of his employees to check again.
Rivera’s story starts in January 2008, the same year that President Felipe Calderon of the PAN party initiated Operation Chihuahua, deploying thousands of troops on to the streets of Juarez to combat the growing violence of the drug cartels.
“We started to get phone calls from the different cartels fighting over ‘la plaza’. At first, we didn’t believe it to be true,” he recalls.
But it didn’t take long to convince him they were, indeed, serious. One morning in February 2008, Rivera’s small restaurant was set alight. By a stroke of luck, only part of the building burned to the ground. Still, it left him with reparation costs of more than $15,000.
He re-opened the restaurant six weeks later, hoping that his share of trouble had passed. Then, on July 4 that year, he was kidnapped on his way to work.
“They held the gun to my head, put me in a truck and threatened to kill me,” he says. “They told me that they had my grave ready and prepared.”
His family negotiated a ransom fee of $50,000, most of which they had to take in loans. Rivera was set free after 48 hours.
“It was very traumatic for my kids,” he says, then adds: “They leave you bankrupt.”
But his plight is hardly unique in a city that a few years ago was dubbed “the kidnapping capital of the world”.
In his family alone, an uncle and two cousins have been kidnapped. And on the block where his restaurant is located, six business owners have been taken for ransom. In total, 60 of Rivera’s friends and acquaintances were abducted. Two of them were killed, even after a fee was negotiated.
‘Those who could, left the city running’
Because of his elderly parents, Rivera never fled Juarez. However, as many as 450,000 people, a third of the city’s population, did just that over the course of four years, when the violence between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels, and the two different branches of the police and military tasked with combating them, was at its peak.
In a full-out war that grew more expensive by the day, the cartels had to look for alternative forms of income. Corrupt soldiers and police also helped to suck the life out of the city, seemingly extorting, kidnapping and killing at will.
With up to 10 kidnappings a day and the constant threat of violence, the city’s businesses paid the price. In 2009 alone, around 60 were burned to the ground by organised crime groups. Several of the burned-out shells remain visible in the city today.
“The people that could, left the city running,” says Alejandro Ramirez Ruiz, the president of CANACO, the chamber of commerce and tourism in Juarez. “It had fatal consequences for the economy. Around 12,000 businesses, of any size and in every sector, had to close and fled in fear to the US or other parts of Mexico. That accounts for half of the existing businesses at the time.”
And it wasn’t only shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs that were targeted. Churches that didn’t pay “la quota” were also torched.
With more than 3,000 killings in a year, morgues and funeral homes were among the few businesses that actually made money. But even that didn’t come without a price. Knowing themselves to be largely responsible for their good business, the cartels felt entitled to a cut; they became prime targets for extortion.
In 2009, six mortuaries were set on fire for not paying up.
“It provoked a state of terror and psychosis among people. The only way of conducting business was to pay ‘la quota’,” says Ruiz.
A mafia peace
This year, the homicide rate is about 300 murders, which is just a tenth of its peak in 2010. The reasons behind this sharp decline remain somewhat unclear. While the official version attributes it to a more aggressive detention policy and a successful “cleansing” of the corrupt elements within the local police force, others suggest it could be because the Sinaloa cartel managed to defeat its rivals, helped by a willingness within the local government to restore a sort of “mafia peace”.
But, whatever the cause, Juarez today is beginning to look like a very different place from what it was just a few years ago. Thousands of people have returned to the city, new restaurants are opening and nightlife is thriving. A typical Wednesday night in Juarez might now see a local rock band playing for a full house in the sort of generic Irish bar you could find anywhere in the world.
Oscar Herrera, a chef and Juarez native who decided to take his family over the border to El Paso after one of his restaurants was set on fire in the state capital of Chihuahua, has returned and is opening a restaurant serving contemporary cuisine in a large property just outside the city. “Life was tough over there, and it was hard to make money,” he says of his stay in Texas.
Herrera is enthusiastic about Juarez’s apparent transformation.
“There is such an amazing energy in Juarez now. The Juarenses are getting accustomed to tastes, music and culture that were unheard of a few years ago,” he says.
Medical tourism in Mexico
The authorities are trying to clean up the city’s reputation so that it is no longer seen as a lawless gangland.
In September, Narcocorridos, a popular genre of Mexican country music that portrays cartel bosses as heroes, was banned from being played at large public events. And a new tourist campaign, with the slogan “Juarez te espera” (Juarez awaits you), portrays the city’s “warm people” as the main draw for visitors.
And even though the economy is not back to where it was when people from all over Mexico arrived in the city looking for work, the 40,000 new businesses that opened in 2014 suggest a degree of economic optimism.
The city’s mayor, Enrique Serrano Escobar, feels confident.
“Where other cities struggle with their economies, we have to take measures to control it,” he told Al Jazeera at an event in the town hall to commemorate the Mexican Revolution.
At the CANACO offices, Alejandro Ramírez Ruiz confirms that foreign investment is beginning to trickle back into the city and that, although still few in number, American tourists are starting to visit for shopping trips.
“We offer a lot in the sphere of medical tourism,” he says. “You could have anything from dental treatments to plastic surgery here for a fraction of the price across the border.”
But he remains cautious about the future and says he still hears stories of business owners having to pay “la quota”.
“Being a border city with the biggest consumer of drugs as your neighbour, narcotrafico will always … [continue] in some way in Juarez,” he says. “As there are no guarantees [that] the violence won’t come back, the sense of peace here is very fragile.”
Flashbacks and PTSD
“The last people I know that paid extortions were six months ago,” Raul Rivera says, who paid a weekly fee from the time of his kidnapping until mid-2012.
There would be several groups coming to collect “la quota” from his restaurant, he says.
“There are times when I get flashbacks, and it all comes back to me. We still have to take precautions, like everyone working here leaving at the same time at the end of the shift,” he says.
And even though the toughest times seem to be in the past, death and violence never seem too far away. Rivera recounts how one lunchtime in July this year, as his customers enjoyed their grilled chicken and hamburgers, two gunshots were heard in the avenue outside the restaurant. A man Rivera assumed to be a gang member stumbled through the door, bleeding heavily from a wound in his stomach. Another man followed him inside, shooting him another four times and leaving him to bleed to death by the toy vending machine.
Rivera wasn’t in the restaurant at the time, which is fortunate as he had already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the kidnapping.
“I don’t want to think of how I would react if I was,” he says, his voice trembling just a little at the thought of it.