Violent Ciudad Juarez extends a welcome

Dip in crime rate gives city reason to party, make pitch to investors

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The city notorious as the most dangerous in the hemisphere is throwing a party to tell the world that life here is getting better.

Borrowing an idea from Tijuana, another violence-plagued border city, Ciudad Juarez on Thursday opened a 16-day festival of concerts, ballet and speeches by figures such as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Organizers want to catch the world’s eye at a moment when the fearsome local crime rate is plunging, down about 50 percent over the last six months.

“We want to show the world it’s not true what people say, that this is a hamlet of terror … that this is a ‘Mad Max’ place,” said spokesman Sergio Armendariz, spokesman for the event known as Juarez Competitiva - “Competitive Juarez.”

Organizers also hope the event will help attract as many as 45 investment projects totaling as much as $10 billion, said the president of Juarez Competitiva, Carlos Chavira during a visit to Washington, D.C., to promote the event.

“It may seem like a lot, but it’s doable in a city with 200,000 industry-related jobs,” Mr. Chavira added.

City officials know it will take time to convince outsiders that Juarez is safe. In a recent press conference, officials announced that none of the big-name guests would have to stay in Juarez after dark; they can drive back across the border and sleep in El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the U.S.

Even the guest list of visiting CEOs is being kept secret because of “the distrust our country engenders, the fear that Ciudad Juarez provokes,” said Jose Luis Armendariz, president of the area’s association of assembly-for-export plants and no relation to the spokesman.

But he said the mere fact they are visiting at all is a step in the right direction.

“Let’s open the door, show the house and from there I think we will gain their trust,” he said. Getting rid of the stigma associated with the city “is the purpose of the event.”

Drug gangs brought that stigma by using the city of 1.3 million as a stage for their battle to control a major route for contraband across the border. Nearly 8,900 people have been killed in drug violence in the city since 2008, when the battle heated up between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels.

The same close border also has made Juarez a manufacturing hub for companies that ship goods to the world’s largest market.

Few companies closed because of the violence, but many top managers moved to El Paso, managing largely by videoconference and holding important meetings on the northern side of the frontier.

Some in Juarez are skeptical of the festival.

Willivaldo Delgadillo, a writer and human rights activist, said any attempt to show the peaceful side of the city is doomed from the moment guests refuse to sleep here. He also criticized plans to draw more investment in assembly plants that he said offer “low-paying jobs but no careers or a future to the youth.”

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