CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico | The mother of four raised a finger, pointing out abandoned and stripped concrete homes and counting how many families on her street have fled the Western Hemisphere’s deadliest city.
“One, two, three, four, here, and two more back there on the next block,” Laura Longoria said.
The 36-year-old ran a convenience store in her working-class neighborhood in south Juarez until the owners closed shop, fed up with the tribute they were forced to pay to drug gangsters to stay in business.
Her family vowed to stick it out, but then came the kidnapping of a teen from a stationery shop across the street.
After that, Ms. Longoria’s husband, Enrique Mondragon, requested a transfer from the bus company where he works.
“They asked, ‘Where to?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Anywhere.’”
No one knows how many residents have left the city of 1.4 million since a turf battle over border drug corridors unleashed an unprecedented wave of cartel murders and mayhem. Business leaders, citing government tax information, say the exodus could number 110,000, while a municipal group and local university say it’s closer to 230,000. Estimates by social organizations are even higher.
The tally is especially hard to track because Juarez is by nature transitory, attracting thousands who work in high-turnover jobs in manufacturing or use the city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, as a way station before they slip north illegally.
The toll is everywhere you look. Barely a week goes by when Mrs. Longoria and her husband don’t watch a neighbor move away. Then the vandals arrive, carrying off windowpanes, pipes, even light fixtures, until nothing’s left but a graffiti-covered shell, surrounded by yards strewn with rotting food or shredded tires. That could be what’s in store for Mrs. Longoria’s three-room home of poured concrete if her husband’s transfer comes through.
Long controlled by the Juarez Cartel, the city descended into a horrifying cycle of violence after Mexico’s most-wanted kingpin, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa Cartel tried to shoot their way to power here beginning in 2008.
President Felipe Calderon sent nearly 10,000 troops to restore order. Now the Mexican army and federal authorities are going door to door, conducting an emergency census to determine just how many residents have fled.
Many people, however, refuse to answer questions for fear authorities are simply collecting information about neighborhoods so they can begin extorting residents — just like the drug gangs. “Soon,” Mrs. Longoria said, “there won’t be many people left to count.”
While many Juarez residents fleeing the violence seek out more peaceful points in Mexico, others have streamed across the border into El Paso, population 740,000, where apartment vacancies are down and requests for new utility services in recently purchased or rented houses have spiked, according to Mayor John Cook.
Massacres, beheadings, YouTube videos featuring cartel torture sessions and even car bombs are becoming commonplace in Juarez, where more than 3,000 people were killed in 2010, according to the federal government, making it among the most dangerous places on earth.
El Paso, by contrast, has had three violent deaths — and one was a homicide-suicide.