Ciudad Juárez is an intimidating place. With around 2 million people living in or around her, she dwarfs neighboring El Paso, just across the U.S.-Mexico border. The landscape in June is nearly post-Apocalyptic — the dusty, sun-baked Chihuahuan Desert enveloping the barrios; the rocky, windswept cerro watching over each callecito; the winding, bone-dry Río Bravo like the shed skin of some monstrous rattlesnake, creating a no man’s land; and the 18-foot-high border fence just beyond that.
Juárez is also a city with a violent reputation. Being from Chicago, I thought I knew something about cities with violent reputations. But the Juarenses have known days that would make a Chicagoan stay indoors for weeks.
Two years ago, during a period the locals refer to simply as “La Violencia,” an average of 10 people were killed each day. A record 3,622 people were killed in 2010 alone; in comparison, Chicago recorded 506 murders last year, and the city has never surpassed 1,000 murders in its recorded history, despite the fact that Chicago’s population tops Juárez’s by over a million.
Luckily, Juárez seems to be returning to something like its old self these days — there were only 320 murders in 2007, and last year saw a mere 797.
This is the city my wife was born in, and I came here to finally shake hands with my father-in-law.
When we landed, my wife’s cousins joked with us about the past few years. “Don’t worry,” they said in Spanish. “They don’t kill there now — because they killed everybody.”
Most people would still consider Juárez a dangerous city, of course. People chain their steering wheels to deter would-be car thieves. Many houses are guarded by pit bulls, German shepherds or at least some type of dog, because an alarm is a dead giveaway to the rest of the neighborhood that you have things in your house worth stealing. Those who go out at night or to el centro are said to be asking for trouble.
Yet, in many respects, the mean streets of Juárez are much like the mean streets of Chicago — only a little hotter, a lot drier, and a lot poorer (I was told the average factory worker makes around $50 a week).
And unlike the mean streets of Chicago, you get the feeling in Juárez that the city is just coming out of a string of terrible years. Juárez has begun to surge. Nearly everywhere you look there’s a new building or shopping center going up. Many roads are under construction (as in men are actually at work), and there are expressways and bridges being built across the city. Billboards advertise the same luxury items many Americans find way too out of their price range. A 30-something Mexican couple walked past me pushing a stroller and speaking English with American accents.
Bob Cook of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation recently said that his non-profit has created nearly 30,000 jobs in Juárez over the past two years alone.
In the end, Juárez is both everything you think it is and something completely different. It’s old-school modern. It’s violent and sleepy. It’s torn down and shiny new.
Juárez is enduring, out there along a dried up riverbed, in the highlands of a vast desert. Its people are hardy people, with an ineradicable faith that, through a lot of hard days, things will get better.
This is the allure of Juárez, its swagger.
And I hope to be back soon to take it all in again.
[Photo: Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.]