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.
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.”
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.
A struggle is also afoot to establish a legitimate local police force in Juarez.
Outright police involvement in drug trafficking appeared to reach its peak in 2008, when former Juarez public safety secretary Saulo Reyes, the highest-ranking local police officer, was arrested and extradited to El Paso.
Reyes, who served under Juarez Mayor Hector Murguis, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import more than 200 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
Mr. Murguia was elected mayor again in 2010 after a three-year hiatus and now appears intent on preventing a slide back toward the outright corruption that sullied his previous term.
In March 2011, he hired retired Mexican army officer Julian Leyzoala to take over the city’s public safety secretary post.
Prior to his arrival in Juarez, Mr. Leyzoala was credited with purging hundreds of corrupt cops from the city police force in Tijuana, where overall violent crime has also dropped in recent years.
Some think his presence in Juarez is beginning to yield similar results.
“There used to be zero confidence in the local cops here, and that’s changed with the new chief,” said Mr. Fornelli of the Mesa de Seguridad business group.
“He came in a year ago and found a force here that was totally demoralized. He began to work with them and give them more empowerment and to build up morale.”
“But it’s not a one-guy deal,” added Mr. Fornelli, who says the rise of local citizens groups such as his is contributing to an unprecedented era of civilian oversight of local and state law enforcement.
Appalled by the widespread judicial corruption in the region, Mesa de Seguridad began circulating petitions in 2008 calling for a new slate of state-level judicial authorities.
In addition to naming new officials, the Calderon administration responded by holding talks with the business group. A shining achievement of the talks has been the establishment of a voluntary 2 percent payroll tax on businesses in and around Juarez to help fund law enforcement programs.
Beginning later this year, the proceeds of the tax will be allocated directly back to the Mesa de Seguridad, which has been given exclusive authority over how the money is to be spent.
“It will about $4 million per year,” said Mr. Fornelli.
The value of empowering a ground-level citizens group may be immeasurable. But $4 million is a mere fraction of the estimated $45 billion the Calderon administration has spent on the drug war since 2006.
While U.S. authorities back the war verbally, U.S. funding has been relatively small.
Congress has allocated $1.6 billion to aid Mexico’s anti-crime effort since 2008 through a program known as the Merida Initiative. The figure pales in comparison to the some $7 billion spent by the United States in support a similar drug war that plagued Colombia before spreading to Mexico.
State Department officials say the first few years of the Merida Initiative focused on police training and the delivery of U.S. military hardware. They say the program is now shifting toward strengthening Mexico’s justice system.
Analysts say such a shift will be needed if a sustainable decrease in crime is to be achieved because more than 75 percent of crimes in Mexico go unreported and because fewer than 2 percent ever result in prison sentences.
The Calderon administration’s strategy, meanwhile, of spreading some 45,000 army troops across the nation is yielding varied results.
The homicide rate may have dropped in Juarez, but it increased threefold during 2010 in the northeast state of Nuevo Leon, home of the ultraviolent Los Zetas cartel, according to the Trans-Border Institute.
Authorities arrested the cartel’s reputed leader, Daniel Elizondo Jesus Ramirez, also known as “El Loco” or “the Crazy One,” on May 21, a week after 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies were discovered along a highway in Nuevo Leon.
“The whole strategy of the Calderon administration is that federal forces would be a stopgap and after a while the states would take over. However, that’s not quite happening,” said Alejandro Hope, a private security analyst in Mexico City who until recently served as a senior official within CISEN, Mexico’s equivalent of the CIA.
“Institutional development at the local level is not happening at the pace it should be happening,” Mr. Hope said during a conference hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in March in Washington.
“This is concerning because in some cases, some states are pretty much Mexico’s Afghanistan,” he said. “[Federal forces] cannot leave because they will leave a mess. But [if] the federal forces are there in an open-ended operation, then there will not be any incentive for local governments to take charge.”
‘No narco-money here’
Juarez is struggling to be an exception, even if that means charting an unprecedented path to peace.
“What’s happening here in Juarez is that people are taking matters into their own hands,” said Christina Cunningham Hidalgo, who heads the Juarez chapter of Mexico’s National Chamber of Restaurants. “We can’t rely on the government to bring about a recovery. Business people are working together to make things change and bring the city back.”
Ms. Cunningham Hidalgo points to the new strip of nightclubs in Juarez’s Pronaf neighborhood as an example.
She is the owner of one of the clubs, Kaos, which opened in December with an elevated DJ booth and a signature turquoise-colored bar lit from below to resemble a glowing sheath of ice.
The first few months of business were so strong that Quinto Elemento and a third club, Aura, soon opened next door.
Kaos is now expanding to feature a rooftop terrace.
“There’s no narco-money here in these clubs,” said Ms. Cunningham Hidalgo. “It’s all clean investments. We’re working on making things better. That’s the point.”
Later, as she drove past a pickup truck carrying heavily armed Mexican army soldiers in downtown Juarez, she reflected: “Things are improving, but to go the next step, to really bring the city back, the citizens now need to come forward.”