Mexico's capital of death embraces a new life

  • Article by: DAMIEN CAVE , New York Times
  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 7:34 PM

With homicides far fewer and drug lords gone, young people are moving back.

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A crowd of young locals and visitors attend a Halloween party at Aura, a nightclub that offers bus service from El Paso, Texas, to their establishment in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Nov. 2, 2013. The border town once known as Mexico’s murder capital and a place of mass exodus, with roughly a third of the city’s population fleeing in just a few years, is rebounding as new businesses and young residents return to revive the city with cautious hope.

Photo: Katie Orlinsky, New York Times

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But now, led by young people such as Lujana, thousands are coming back. With violence down to a quarter of its peak, Ciudad Juárez, a perennial symbol of drug war devastation, is experiencing what many here describe as a boom.

New restaurants pop up weekly, a few with a hipster groove. Schools and homes in some neighborhoods are gradually filling again, while new nightclubs throb on weekends with wall-to-wall teenagers and 20-somethings who insist on reclaiming the freedom to work and play without being consumed by worry.

‘Drug dealers have receded’

“It’s a different city,” said Lujana, 31, who moved back a few months ago. “The drug dealers have receded; it’s not cool anymore to be a narco.”

This city has often been a bellwether in Mexico, from the immigrants heading north along the first Mexican railroads in the 1880s through the growth of factories and free trade a century later. Then came the killing, a three-year spree starting in 2008, and now a reprieve that other violent areas still long for, as this gritty city trades paralysis and grief for stubborn hope, unresolved trauma and rapid reinvention.

Critics fear that the changes are merely cosmetic, and there is still disagreement over what, exactly, has led to the drastic drop in violence. Some attribute it to an aggressive detention policy by the police; others say the worst killers have died or fled, or that the Sinaloa drug cartel has simply defeated its rivals, leaving a peace of sorts that could quickly be undone.

Whatever lesson the city holds for Mexico remains elusive, as the country’s struggle with lawlessness continues to evolve. Federal authorities are struggling for control in two Pacific states that are divided between vigilantes and gangs, while nationwide, prison breaks, grisly slayings and kidnappings still grab headlines.

Much of this city nonetheless looks and feels refreshed, a turnaround visible immediately upon arrival. Two years ago, billboards were sad affairs, old and fading as businesses closed or operated in the shadows to avoid extortion.

“Everyone had to stay hidden, like rats,” said Cristina Cunningham, president of the restaurant association here.

Now, bright new placards advertise dance studios, homes for sale and new restaurants on Boulevard Gomez Marin, where at least 15 eateries have recently opened. Posters promote events returning for the first time in years, like theater and the circus, and twice as many American tourists have come this year compared with last year, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

Young people with ideas

The nights here, surprisingly for anyone who has visited since 2008, no longer resemble a war zone with a sunset curfew. There is traffic after dark. Drivers make eye contact, and a half-hour wait for a restaurant table has become one of the many signs of revival.

“You can walk in the street now,” said Jesus Rodriguez, 25, clearly amazed. “You have to be alert, but you can do it.”

A full recovery, though, may not be where the city is heading.

Experts say Jurez, where the population tripled between 1970 and 2000, reaching 1.2 million, may never match its prior growth. Tourism is half what it was in 2007. Business groups, school administrators and returning residents estimate that only about 10 percent of those who left have returned.

But for many here, hope is just beginning to surge. Lujana said most of his friends and relatives have recently come rushing back, many with new ideas and a determination to make Jurez more prosperous, responsible and fun. “Young people here, now, we want a different culture,” Lujana said. “We want a different life.”

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