A Report from Juarez, Mexico, the Bleeding Front Line in the War on Drugs

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Juárez was a bustling city of 1.3 million that was the fourth economic power in Mexico. It saw a boom of U.S. manufacturing factories called maquiladoras that paid Mexican workers low wages, about $4 a day, after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

But now Juárez is emptying out, and up to 100,000 people are estimated to have fled.

"A lot of my friends and all of my relatives have moved to El Paso," said one woman, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "I have two nephews who are doctors in Juárez. They still have their business over there, but they boarded it up. One of them was assaulted three times in his office. The last time it was people with guns."

It's hard to find any local government presence; the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, runs his administration mostly from El Paso, residents say. He is a vehement supporter of the military presence in his city. In early March, a pig's head with a note reading "you're next," was found outside his Juárez residence.

"The army will remain in Juárez for the time being," he said at a news conference March 27. "It has done an excellent job and has controlled the delinquency rate, the robbery of banks and car thefts."

At this point, bank robberies and auto theft seem minor in a city where children can walk out the door any given day and see a bleeding body outside their homes. But it is the apparent policy the Mexican government, quite different from prior administrations, is intent on following for the near future.

"The White House thought the violence and corruption was a Mexican problem that wouldn't affect the United States," Chabat said. "And Mexico thought the consumption of drugs was a U.S. problem...Time has proven that both perceptions are erroneous, and whether we like it or not, the phenomenon of drug trafficking must be confronted by both governments. If we don't, the chaos will overpower both nations."

It's certainly overpowering Juárez, rapidly becoming a dilapidated, lawless city where only those who don't have other options stay. Many of the poor who came in droves during the maquiladora boom are returning to the southern states where they came from. The Juárez business group called Coparmex estimates about 40 of the 300 or so factories have shut down in the past two years, costing thousands of jobs.

The Juárez Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, estimates 10,000 businesses have been forced to close. Many owners can't pay or refuse to pay the bribes that gangs demand for protection. Dozens of businessmen have been kidnapped for ransom and countless businesses have been torched, leaving central shopping centers empty and boarded up. The once-popular discotheque Broncos and Cowgirls was burned down a few months ago by extortionists, and the surrounding shopping mall in Plaza las Americas has few cars in its parking lots.

In the Plaza de las Armas, the once-bustling plaza that thrived selling blankets and silver to American tourists, has disappeared. Although locals still go there to sell hot dogs or get their shoes shined for a semblance of normalcy, it empties out in the afternoon after people return from work.

"There are less people in the plazas, in all public areas, hotels, dance halls, shops. A lot of people are imprisoned in their homes," said the Reverend Carlos Reza, 32, a priest in the city's main cathedral. Reza tells his flock in sermons that what is happening in Juárez is similar to the persecutions of early Christians and Israelites, meaning this too shall pass.

High unemployment and lack of education among those 18 to 25 years of age—the age group that comprises around 40 percent of the population in Juárez—has clearly fed criminal activity and crimes of opportunity, but so have low wages of about $5 a day, a rate that has gone up only about $1 since NAFTA went into effect, fueling an underground drug economy that's attractive to the young and poor with no other options to make a living.

"We have watched with mounting distress as the narcos become more powerful. They are lawless. They are terrorists. They control the Mexican side of the border," said Alejandro Junco, owner of Grupo Reforma, the largest newspaper company in Latin America, speaking at World Affairs Council luncheon in San Antonio on March 25.

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Susana Hayward