Ciudad Juarez Wants People to Bite the Bullet - and Party!

For years, Mexican border town Ciudad Juárez has been synonymous with drugs, violence and death. But tourism officials want it to now be synonymous with something else: art, beauty and culture.

And it’s throwing a party to show the world that life in one of the most dangerous cities in the hemisphere is actually getting better.

Borrowing an idea from Tijuana, another violence-plagued border city, Ciudad Juárez on Thursday was opening a 16-day festival of concerts, ballet and speeches by figures such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Organizers want to catch the world's eye at a moment when the fearsome local crime rate is plunging, down about 50 percent over the last six months.

"We want to show the world it's not true what people say, that this is a hamlet of terror ... that this is a 'Mad Max' place," said spokesman Sergio Armendariz, spokesman for the event known as Juárez Competitiva, "Competitive Juárez."

Organizers also hope the event will help attract as many as 45 investment projects totaling as much as $10 billion, said the president of Juárez Competitiva, Carlos Chavira during a visit to Washington, D.C. to promote the event.

"It may seem like a lot, but it's doable in a city with 200,000 industry-related jobs," Chavira added.

City officials know it will take time to convince outsiders that Juárez is safe. In a recent press conference, officials announced that none of the big-name guests would have to stay in Juárez after dark; they can drive back across the border and sleep in El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the U.S.

Even the guest list of visiting CEOs is being kept secret because of "the distrust our country engenders, the fear that Ciudad Juárez provokes," said José Luis Armendariz, president of the area's association of assembly-for-export plants and no relation to the spokesman.

But he said the mere fact they are visiting at all is a step in the right direction.

"Let's open the door, show the house and from there I think we will gain their trust," he said. Getting rid of the stigma associated with the city "is the purpose of the event."

Drug gangs brought that stigma by using the city of 1.3 million as a stage for their battle to control a major route for contraband across the border. Nearly 8,900 people have been killed in drug violence in the city since 2008, when the battle heated up between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels.

The same close border also has made Juárez a manufacturing hub for companies that ship goods to the world's largest market. Few companies closed because of the violence, but many top managers moved to El Paso, managing largely by video-conference and holding important meetings on the northern side of the frontier.

Some in Juárez are skeptical of the festival. Willivaldo Delgadillo, a writer and human rights activist, said any attempt to show the peaceful side of the city is doomed from the moment guests refuse to sleep here. He also criticized plans to draw more investment in assembly plants that he said offer "low-paying jobs but no careers or a future to the youth."

Juárez Competitiva is an almost play-by-play copy of Tijuana Innovadora, a festival in that border city to celebrate a similar decrease in violence in 2010.

"If what they did yielded results, we take it and try to improve it. This is inspired by Tijuana," said José Luis Armendariz.

But Juárez lacks some of Tijuana's advantages.

Tijuana Innovadora was held at a modern cultural center surrounded by upscale restaurants and shops in the tree-lined Rio Zone. That city has long had a vibrant arts scene and boasts several chefs who have gained celebrity for Mediterranean-infused Mexican cuisine. A new strip of trendy clubs is flourishing downtown.

While Tijuana spreads across balmy hills along the Pacific Ocean, Juárez is a desert city that fronts on a concrete-lined strip of the Rio Grande. Tijuana became famous for drawing Hollywood stars to drink, gamble and get divorced in the 1920s and 1930s. The grittier Juárez attracted less glamorous types to its clubs and cantinas.

Juárez is making efforts to catch up. Much of Juárez Competitiva will be held at a newly built center that eventually will become a modern children's museum. As the city tries to shake off its reputation for violence, it is planning a new baseball stadium and a remodeled horse racetrack to draw visitors. Locals say business is slowly picking up at restaurants and bars that were deserted at night six months ago.

One thing the two cities have in common is a spell with Police Chief Julian Leyzaola.

Ciudad Juárez Mayor Héctor Murguia this year hired Leyzaola, a retired army lieutenant colonel who was credited with helping pacify Tijuana by purging bad officers and building close ties with the military.

His presence has been accompanied by a declining murder rate. August saw the fewest homicides in Juárez in 26 months, and half the total for March, though 121 homicides for a month is still a frightening figure for many visitors.

Some say violence in both cities dropped because one of the warring cartels was weakened. In Tijuana, government attacks and arrests severely hurt the local Arellano Felix Cartel. In Juárez, the U.S. and Mexican governments have caught leaders of the La Línea and Barrio Azteca groups that work for the Juárez cartel.

Last year, Juárez had a murder rate about 230 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. The same rate for the U.S. was 4.8. For Mexico overall, it was 18.

Carjacking is down 50 percent from January and extortion and kidnappings are also trending down.

Leyzaola isn't shy about claiming some of the credit. Asked if he was repeating his success in Tijuana, Leyzaola grinned and said, "No, this is different. I've done in Juárez in six months what took me two years to do in Tijuana."

While Tijuana is calmer than it was a few years ago, when rival drug gangs terrified residents with daytime shootouts, beheadings and corpses hung from freeway bridges, drug-fueled killings are still common. That city of 1.5 million had 820 murders last year, compared to 664 in 2009. The pace has dropped sharply so far this year, with 382 through September.

But as workers hurried through final preparations for Juárez Competitiva this week, the dismembered remains of a man were scattered in a dozen places across the city. For Juárez, even progress means a projected toll of about 2,000 killings this year.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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