Juarez Ciudad dies as its residents flee

Gang violence, extortion, corruption empty once-popular border town

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Juarez Chamber of Commerce President Daniel Murguia said Mexican Interior Ministry figures show that at least 6,000 city businesses closed in 2010. No data are available on those shuttered amid violence in 2009 and 2008 or on scores of businesses targeted by arsonists.

Kathy Dodson, El Paso’s economic director, said the number of fees paid for new city business permits has not increased dramatically, but Jose Luis Mauricio, president of a group of new Mexican business owners in El Paso, said membership has grown from nine in February to about 280.

“Maybe it’s a bit sad for Juarez, but these are business owners who are moving here because they have no choice,” said Mr. Mauricio, who leads weekly breakfasts for Mexican expatriates looking to set up businesses in El Paso.

Many of those who have not left want to go, including Marta Elena Ramirez. She owns Restaurant Dona Chole, specializing in menudo, a clear soup made with beef stomach. Her cafeteria-style eatery is on the second floor of an indoor market of Mexican handicrafts.

Ms. Ramirez said sales are down 50 percent since 2007, when Americans used to head south for drinking and clubbing or to stock up on Mexican knickknacks. Now they are afraid to come.

Though she has held U.S. residency for 18 years, Ms. Ramirez lives in Juarez and never considered moving — until now.

She has stopped paying rent on her restaurant and is looking for investors to help her start a street food cart in El Paso.

“I’ve always been a fighter, and this is my Juarez. I’ve always said, ‘No matter what happens, Juarez is mine,’” the 65-year-old said. “But too much has happened.”

As commerce in the city dries up, even Juarez residents who do not move north cross into El Paso more frequently for services no longer available in their neighborhoods and spend $220 million a year in El Paso, Mr. Murguia said.

“Here it’s a problem of opportunity, not just violence,” he said. “There are no jobs, and that means there are more people who are becoming hit men and criminals.”

Even for those not tied to drug trafficking, staying in Juarez means paying off extortionists.

Among their victims is a 43-year-old food wholesaler near the city’s center who provides bulk dog food, beer and other goods that smaller stores use to stock their shelves.

In September 2009, associates from La Linea, enforcers for the Juarez Cartel comprising hit men and corrupt police and soldiers, visited his store and said he would be required to pay 4,000 pesos — about $330 — a week “for protection.”

“They came to see me in a very friendly way,” said the business owner, who asked that his name and key details be omitted so he could not be identified. “Everyone is paying. Those who aren’t paying are out of business, even dead.”

As recently as 2008, he had 500 wholesale customers; now he’s down to 200. Two store owners who used to do business with him have been gunned down in their shops over the past year, and a third was fatally shot in his kitchen.

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