Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – In the early 1970s, Richard Wright, a native of El Paso, Texas, began crossing the then porous US-Mexico border into the northern Mexican community of Ciudad Juarez – a place once deeply connected to his home city and yet simultaneously worlds apart.
“I was 15 when I first started coming over,” says Wright, while walking along the elevated Santa Fe international bridge that crosses from El Paso over the Rio Grande – a shallow trickle of water, marking the boundary between the two countries – and into Juarez.
Juarez had a reputation for being the town where you could do anything and anything could happen.
“We [high school friends] used to come over at night with our Ray-Bans because we knew the sun would be up when we crossed back over,” says the 60-year-old, who spent decades visiting Juarez before passports or security checks were required. Wright has witnessed the city’s evolution.
“Back then, it was like Vegas,” says Wright, standing just across the border at the head of Avenida Juarez. In the 1970s and 1980s, the street was bathed in neon lights from the numerous 24-hour bars, nightclubs, cabarets and restaurants that first arose during 1920s prohibition era and continued to service the throngs of people who came across the border to partake in the vibrant nightlife.
“Juarez had a reputation for being the town where you could do anything and anything could happen,” says Wright, a tall man with a loud, boisterous laugh who wears a big straw hat.
Wright describes a city that was filled with life until the 1990s, with “music on every street corner … like walking through a mall at Christmas time”, as thousands of people from El Paso would flock to the sister city of Juarez to shop, eat lunch and return home with ease.
“People used to say Juarez was the better half of El Paso,” he says.
Hard hit by violence
Today, that version of Juarez has faded. Cross-border tourism was stifled by the ever-increasing militarisation of the US-Mexico border after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and then all but erased by the violence that occurred between 2008 to 2012.
During that period, Juarez became a place defined by images of burned-out buildings, publicly displayed bodies of people who had been executed, and eerily empty streets – it was a city under siege.
“After 9/11 nobody would cross over,” says Sergio Pena Jr, owner of the famous Kentucky Club lying just across the bridge on Juarez Avenue.
“Then, when we were hit with the cartel violence, that is when the majority of businesses shut down,” adds Pena, who has owned the bar for 23 years.
The drug violence, while increasing throughout the 1990s, intensified in 2008 as fighting between the rival Sinaloa and Juarez cartels increased as each group attempted to gain control of the lucrative border city.
According to some, this violence was exacerbated when in 2008 the then-president, Felipe Calderon, sent in 7,000 troops and 3,000 federal police, a national force that operated in Juarez during the city’s most violent years.
“Every person in Juarez that I have interviewed says unequivocally that the violence was linked to the entrance of the army,” says Alice Driver, author of More Or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (2015), a book about the murder of women in Juarez.
“The dates they came and left coincide directly with … [the] beginning and the ends of violence,” says Driver, explaining that the army and federal police were at times found complicit in collusion with cartels and also implicated in widespread human rights abuses .
‘Violence was the everyday reality’
Others doubt whether the army was the sole party to blame.
“They’re supposed to take the fight to drug trafficking groups,” says Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, a non-profit foundation reporting on organised crime.
“I think that causality is problematic,” says Dudley, explaining that the increase in federal troops necessarily set the stage for violent confrontations between the two.
As Ricardo Chavez Aldama, a journalist from Juarez, notes: “There were murders, executions, and evidence of torture everywhere.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera from his home in El Paso, the city he and his family fled to in 2008 after receiving death threats for his work covering the drug war, he adds: “Violence was the everyday reality in Juarez.”
“Those were the darkest days in the history of our town,” says Antonio Rojas, owner of the El Recreo, the second oldest bar in Juarez. “Back then the city was empty at six [pm]. It was like a ghost town.”
In recent years, however, things have begun to change. On a recent Saturday in March, the streets of downtown Juarez were packed with people. Plaza De Armas was filled with families and dozens of older couples danced in the street to a live street band playing Selena covers.
“In 2008, these streets were empty,” says Wright, speaking to Al Jazeera outside Kentucky Club the previous day. The bar was filled with patrons: wealthy Juarenses [residents of Juarez], Mexican Americans from El Paso and a university student named Nick who brought his visiting parents from Atlanta over for a drink.
“We were a bit worried … or sceptical,” says Nick’s parents on the patio of Kentucky Club. “We hear a lot of stories about Juarez from the media. So far, I think our worries were unfounded.”
Juarez seeks an image makeover
In the years since 2010 – that year, murders in Juarez topped 3,000 – violence has decreased dramatically.
In 2014, Wright, one of the few outsiders who continued to come to Juarez throughout the violence, began offering guided walking tours of the city.
“I wanted to show people that it’s not all that dangerous,” says Wright, who promotes the tours on his website El Chuqueno featuring news and commentary on El Paso and Juarez. “I wanted to show them they were afraid of nothing.”
The easing of the violence has clearly led to the return of life to downtown Juarez, if not the return of cross-border tourism.
“I used to come over every week,” says El Paso resident Angelica Ramirez, one of the thousands of casual tourists who would come to shop, visit the dentist or eat an inexpensive burrito – a dish locals claim was invented in Juarez. “Since the violence, it isn’t worth the risk,” she says.
In the hopes of increasing tourism, city officials in Juarez have embarked on a campaign to redefine the city’s image and spur investment in the once thriving downtown area. In 2015, the “Juarez is waiting for You” campaign was launched.
“The purpose of this campaign is to vindicate the city’s image abroad and demonstrate the levels of security and peace that we have reached,” said Mayor Enrique Serrano, during the campaign kick-off in early April of 2015, as reported by Mexico News Daily.
Questioning the narrative that peace has returned
The campaign follows an ongoing development project – the Historic Downtown Urban Development Master Plan – to improve the city’s image, restore historic buildings and revitalise the tourist and business district that were decimated by the violence.
“Juarez has gained a great achievement in the area of security,” Chihuahua Attorney General Jorge Gonzalez Nicolas told reporters during the presentation of the city’s crime statistics in 2015. “Juarez made it, despite having complex violence problems.”
While many welcome attempts to bring tourism and business back to Juarez, others question the celebratory narrative.
“We [are] having a hard time right now with all the violence and killing,” says Rojas, noting an increase in violence in 2016 – 90 murders in October made it the deadliest month since 2012 – that led some to fear a return to the earlier years when the murder rate was at its highest. “It was getting better and then the killing started again,” he says.
Some attribute the rise in violence to the recent arrival in Juarez of the rapidly growing Jalisco New Generation cartel which is competing with the established Juarez and Sinolan cartels. The entrance of the Mexican military in 2016 and again this year in response to escalating violence is, to some, an ominous sign that another cartel fight may be in the future. This month, the border city newspaper El Norte de Juarez closed, citing the ongoing violence against journalists including the recent murder of Miroslava Breach, 54, who wrote about organised crime for Norte as reasons for its closure. According to the Knight Centre for Journalism in the Americas, Mexico is the third deadliest country for journalists.
Juarez’s missing women
For many, the perception of Juarez as a “violent city” really began in the 1990s when hundreds of women were killed over the course of the decade.
Just a few blocks from the downtown area, the walls of a former guesthouse are covered with the faces of 50 or more missing young women and dozens of black painted crosses set onto a pink background with the words “Donde Estan?” – meaning “Where are they?” – written in large bold letters.
“The pink crosses originally marked the spot where someone disappeared or was killed,” says Driver, who in 1998 interviewed Guillermina Gonzalez, the creator of the symbol and founder of Voces Sin Eco (Voices without echo), a former support and advocacy group composed of family members of murdered women who mobilised against the attacks on women in the 1990s, a time when violence in Juarez began to steadily escalate along with the growth of cross-border drug trafficking.
“From 1993 onwards, Amado Carrillo Fuentes [of the Juarez Cartel], substantially increased the volume of cross-border drug trafficking. Homicides, including a substantial number of killings of women that were labelled ‘femicides,’ increased correspondingly,” Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of the Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches From the Streets of El Paso and Juarez (2009), wrote in Nacla.
“The crosses are both a remembrance of the victims but also a warning to other women,” says Driver, referring to the wall, which is a visual reminder of the violence that persists throughout Juarez today.
While many have celebrated the improved security situation in Juarez, others say that there is a long way to go.
“We need it to get better, truly better,” Rojas says. “When the violence stops, the drug violence, the violence against women, all of it, then, naturally, the tourism will follow.”