- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 4, 2011

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.

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.

Business got so slow that his extortionists recently reduced his weekly payment to 2,500 pesos, about $205.

Every week, the wholesaler receives a call in which a distorted voice provides a bank-account number where money can be deposited but not withdrawn. He takes cash to indicated bank branches and makes deposits.

The wholesaler’s son-in-law was kidnapped early in 2009 — the family put $230,000 on a debit card and exchanged it for his safe return. His store also was burglarized previously.

Since he began paying for protection, all crime around him has ceased and police even have stopped harassing his customers for parking illegally in front of his business.

“At first, I used to say, ‘This will pass,’ but now I’m resigned that there’s no solution,” said the wholesaler, who has applied for U.S. residency to move to El Paso.

Mr. Murguia said extortion payments are so common that they’ve become known as “cobras del piso” or “floor charges” for doing business in Juarez — but there’s no measure of how much payoffs cost businesses citywide per year because few admit to paying them.

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