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Then came a watershed moment. In August 2011, Mexican authorities arrested Jose Antonio Acosta-Hernandez, suspected of being the head of the Juarez cartel. The 34-year-old Mexican was quickly extradited to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and multiple counts of murder.

His capture set loose a wave of speculation over the extent to which U.S. and Mexican authorities may have targeted him as part of a deeper strategy to reduce tension between the warring cartels.

With the Sinaloa cartel suddenly the most dominant in Juarez, clashes began to subside.

“One implication is that the Sinaloa cartel now controls enough of the city to allow the violence to go down,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign-policy specialist at the Brookings Institution’s 21st Century Defense Initiative.

“The question is whether it’s just a common-sensical, minimize-violence strategy or something orchestrated to deliberately benefit one cartel over another, and we can’t know the answer to that,” added Mr. Shirk.

“I think we have to be wary,” he said, noting the existence of such a strategy might imply that “even the most upstanding law enforcement agents in Mexico may be actually agents of the bad guys.”

Economic crash

Some Juarez residents offer a less complicated explanation for the drop in crime.

“The jobs are coming back,” said Carlos Najera, a journalist with the Juarez-based Internet magazine La Red Noticias.

“Here in Juarez, security and the economy are inexorably linked,” he said. “The result of the economic slowdown in the United States was a jump in unemployment in Juarez that coincided with an explosion of crime.”

Basic manufacturing jobs linked to the U.S. auto industry compose the city’s largest employment sector. As the industry teetered on the edge of collapse in 2008, so did the Juarez job market.

“Over a matter of months in 2008, about 80,000 jobs were lost here,” said Mr. Najera. “Pretty quickly, you had a lot of kids on the street from unemployed families needing to make a few dollars a week. It didn’t take long for the cartels to figure out how to prey on these kids. They were an easy target because they needed cash.”

With an estimated 120,000 factory jobs lost by 2010, young men in some neighborhoods were accepting as little as 4,000 pesos, roughly $280, a month to work as “sicarios,” or low-level hit men, for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels.

Spurred by a Mexican government-funded jobs program, the past year has brought signs of a comeback to the city’s manufacturing sector. Mr. Calderon appeared personally at an employment fair in Juarez in February to tout the creation of 2,300 new manufacturing jobs.

Roughly 11,000 manufacturing jobs have returned to the city as of this month, according to the Maquila Portal, a Mexican manufacturing industry blog analyzing data compiled by the nation’s Social Security Institute.

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