JUAREZ, Mexico — The dance floor at one of several new nightclubs in this border city torn by the drug wars was packed with sharply dressed 20-somethings on a recent Friday night.
Bass beats pumped. Lights strobed. Ice clinked in cocktail glasses. No one seemed to care that the clock had just ticked 1 a.m. in a city so violent its nickname is the “murder capital of the world.”
“That’s because the crime level has gone down here like 75 percent,” shouted Jose Fernandez, his eyes scanning the crowd at Quinto Elemento, a swanky club one mile south of the border with Texas.
“People feel safe, and they’re coming back out like old times,” he said. “We’ve got people coming here from El Paso, Las Cruces and even some from as far away as Albuquerque just for the night life.”
The trend may be as good a window as any into Juarez’s cautious struggle to regain a slice of normality after the gangland bloodbath that killed more than 6,000 of the city’s 1.5 million residents between 2008 and 2010.
The city is a strategic crossing point for illegal narcotics entering the United States. As Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-supported crackdown on drug-smuggling cartels reached its peak, so did the murder rate.
There were 2,101 killings tied to organized crime in Juarez during 2010, according to a recent report by the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute. Fewer people were killed in all of Afghanistan in that year. The Juarez homicide rate was 16 times higher than that of Washington, D.C.
Now the numbers appear to be changing. Organized-crime killings dropped more than 30 percent in Juarez during the first nine months of last year. February 2012 was the least violent in more than two years, according to statistics presented to The Washington Times by Mesa de Seguridad, a group of business leaders in Juarez.
“This city was dying two years ago. It was like a ghost town,” said Jorge Contreras Fornelli, a furniture dealer and member of the group. “People moved to El Paso, but now they’re returning. A lot are coming back.”
“Compared to two years ago, it’s a city full of life.”
Clash of cartels
Analysts say the drop in killings most likely resulted from a shift in power between the major criminal organizations controlling Juarez’s drug trade.
“If you want to understand the violence anywhere in Mexico, you first have to look at what are the dynamics between the different drug cartels operating in a particular area,” said David Shirk, who heads the Trans-Border Institute.
Such dynamics had pitted the notoriously powerful Sinaloa cartel against the more local and fractured Juarez Cartel throughout the late part of the last decade.
As violence between the cartels mounted, so did government attempts to combat it. The Calderon administration dispatched thousands of Mexican soldiers to Juarez in 2007. By 2010, house-to-house sweeps and random vehicle searches had become a part of daily life in the city.