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Mexico plan to save violent border city is lacking

In a dusty hillside slum, one of Ciudad Juarez's most dangerous, an immaculately refurbished park spreads for two blocks, interrupting the concrete shacks with a brand new covered amphitheater, Astroturf soccer field and playground exercise toys designed to fight childhood obesity.

"Todos Somos Juarez" — "We're all Juarez" — is plastered across the maze of slides and swing sets, the name of the Mexican federal government's unprecedented 3.4-billion-peso ($274 million) program to increase education, jobs and safety in the violence-plagued border city, considered one of the world's most dangerous.

Shortly after the park was inaugurated in September, a dead body was dumped on the basketball court.

"It's nice to have a park," said Teresa Almada, director of Casa de Promocion Juvenil, which runs the youth center there. "But the issue is, how can people enjoy the park if the bullets are still flying?"

Such are the precarious successes of Todos Somos Juarez, a program promoted at every turn by President Felipe Calderon to newly elected Mayor Hector Murguia as proof that Mexico is fighting a vicious drug war with more than guns and troops. Investments designed to counter the poverty and disenchantment that supply cartels with foot soldiers are injected throughout the city: parks and new high schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods, new hospitals and clinics and more police patrols in commercial districts to stop the extortion that has devastated Juarez's local economy.

The task is enormous. Before violence started to escalate in 2008, the result of a war between two cartels to control the city's lucrative drug trade, Juarez suffered for decades from lack of investment from the state and federal governments. For every high school built under Todos Somos Juarez, the city is short another. Residents distrust government authorities, who in the past seemed to be working for the crime organizations they were supposed to be fighting.

Now the drug war has caused thousands to flee. The stepped-up patrols came after the city's once-thriving commercial strips had been reduced to rows of decrepit, boarded-up buildings. Even with new medical facilities, doctors have closed private practices and staged walkouts to protest kidnappings.

Since Calderon personally launched Todos Somos Juarez in February, forming community round tables of academics, civic groups and business leaders to vet projects and track their progress, the city has experienced its most violent year — topping 3,000 murders by mid-December.

"We're very skeptical," said Dr. Leticia Chavarria, a member of the Citizens Medical Committee who sits on the security round table. "In the months since President Calderon came and formed the working groups ... crime went up, despite thousands of police in the city."

Calderon counters that social and economic development don't produce results overnight. His government has studied Colombia and Palermo, Italy, other places infamous for their dominance by organized crime, and both turned around over periods of years.

"If we're building five high schools or three more universities, don't tell me it's not working when classes just started a month ago," Calderon said in an October interview with The Associated Press. "We need to have several generations with educational opportunities. We need to reintegrate these new generations of students into the productive structure of Juarez. It is long-term work."

Todos Somos Juarez was launched after a tragedy that seemed to push Juarez citizens to the brink: Fifteen young people, mostly high school students, were massacred last January at a party in what's believed to be a case of mistaken identity. Calderon arrived after the killings to a furious community, whose deep-seated mistrust was only exacerbated when the president initially called the victims gang members.

Ask Juarenses, as residents are called, about the state of their city and it's as if they've all been handed the same script: The border city across from El Paso, Texas, historically has been a job-generating boomtown that provided opportunities for Mexicans from all over the country. But it never received its fair share of the taxes those jobs generated.

"A lot of federal governments and some state governments didn't want to help Juarez," Murguia told the AP. "Still, it kept growing on its own dynamic. But we lacked everything: paved roads, electricity, community centers, clinics, libraries, teachers, parks."

As in many parts of Mexico, drug trafficking was an accepted part of the economy as long as things stayed relatively quiet. That started to change with the border clampdown after Sept. 11, 2001, that pushed drugs intended for the U.S. into the local streets.

There are now an estimated 100,000 drug addicts in a city of 1.4 million, where visibly stoned young men hang out on street corners and shootouts occur at midday.

In 2008, the fight between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels broke out over the lucrative transport routes into the U.S., as well as the local market, causing violence to spike and parts of the city to empty. Estimates of how many people have left exceed 200,000. Unemployment in Juarez is 7 percent, compared to 5.4 percent nationally, according to local economist Miguel Angel Calderon.

Against that backdrop, Todos Somos Juarez was launched as a joint federal, state and local effort to reduce violence and boost the quality of life with 160 "concrete actions," everything from secure police radios to increasing credit for local businesses to giving middle-schoolers classes on respecting the law.

Even its critics say there have been successes. Besides five new high schools and a new middle school, the government has given thousands of scholarships to keep students in school and has extended the school day to 5 p.m. in 32 schools, keeping kids off the streets and giving working parents more flexibility.

More than 150,000 poor people have been added to public health insurance rolls, the general hospital has 34 more beds and the women's hospital finally saw the completion of its final two floors after years of being partially finished.

Residents see other intended improvements as too little too late.

Todos Somos Juarez committed 3.29 million pesos ($267,000) to support community organizations helping addicts and promised to install panic buttons at 65 rehab centers, silent alarms summoning police in an emergency. But enrollment already is way down in many centers, where rival gangs have launched attacks that have killed dozens.

Oscar Chavarria, a recovering addict and manager of the National Association of Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery, said his center has received 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of beans and five boxes of powdered milk from Todos Somos Juarez and is expecting a donation of blankets. But there are only 35 people in a facility that can hold 120.

"People are afraid," Chavarria said.

Todos Somos Juarez promised nine crime-free "security corridors" that would be safe for passing 24 hours a day, but has only named three to date — after more than 6,000 city businesses closed in 2010, according to Mexican Interior Ministry figures.

In one zone, Gomez Morin, a long stretch of commercial boulevard that includes major chains such as Starbucks and Chili's, there are dozens of shuttered or burned-out storefronts. One row of businesses, a money exchange and pawnshop next door to a liquor store, depends not on the program's heightened police patrols but on private security guards after the money exchange shop was held up and torched last year.

Private security guard Alejandro Garcia Veloz, 31, said the police drive by but only stopped once to see if he had a permit for the Taser he carries. His cousin, the state investigator who coordinated cases of auto theft, was executed the night before.

"I haven't seen any changes," Garcia said.

In another downtown area, new federal police patrols have cut extortion and assaults on business owners to nearly zero. But of 120 businesses there, 88 have closed in the past two years.

At one of the few remaining watering holes, the San Martin Cantina, college students Carlos Salazar and Luis Enciso celebrated the end of finals with beer and fried pork rinds doused with hot sauce.

The police contingent outside didn't give them a sense of security. Enciso, 22, said he was stopped at an alcohol checkpoint and charged 1,500 pesos ($122) to be set free after he passed the Breathalyzer.

"The abuse by the police continues," Aldama said.

Community members on the Todos Somos Juarez round tables say the social investments won't make a difference as long as the crime and impunity continue. Less than 5 percent of crimes in Juarez are investigated. Twenty doctors have been kidnapped since 2008 and three have been murdered just in the past year — one in a car bomb attack and another even after his family paid a ransom to his kidnappers. There have been no arrests in any of the cases.

Abelardo Escobar, Mexico's agrarian reform minister who directs Todos Somos Juarez from Mexico City, says the program delivered more investigators as promised but Juarez still needs better vetting of police officers.

The program equipped the city's psychiatric hospital, but was unable to hire psychologists for mental health services. "Nobody wanted to participate," he said.

Government officials asserted that homicides dropped by nearly half from October to November — just before the city experienced its 3,000th homicide in 2010.

In the impoverished Plutarco Elias Calles Alta, Monica Ramos Escobedo looks out from her tattered stucco bungalow over the new park, which she said is a nice change from the trash-filled arroyo that it replaced.

Like many homes in the surrounding area, hers has a new addition, a bedroom and a half bath built by the federal government.

"I feel like they've helped us a lot," said the 33-year-old mother of four, as her 13-year-old played in the elliptical exerciser in the park across the street.

But her new addition already leaks.


Associated Press Writer Olivia Torres contributed to this report.