CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — José Alfredo sells knickknacks in a market not far from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in downtown Ciudad Juarez, just opposite the border from El Paso, Texas.
He doesn’t think much of Pope Francis’ visit.
“It’s one day of difference, not much else,” he said in an interview with The Tidings. “More people are here, but that’s about it.”
A few years ago, Juarez was known as the murder capital of the world. In 2010, 3,622 people were murdered in the city of 1.5 million. In 2014, it was down to 434.
“Nothing has changed, it’s just the people are keeping quiet about it,” Alfredo said. He doesn’t trust the change. Many of his friends were killed.
“That’s why I’m here selling little shoes,” Alfredo said, gesturing to the sandals among the keepsakes in the shop where he works. He crooks his neck and points to scars on the back of his head.
“They left me out there to die,” he said, claiming a drug cartel mistook him for someone else. “They left me out there in the desert. They didn’t think I would get up, but yes, I did. I got back up.”
Pope Francis made the last stop of his papal visit to Mexico in this border town, where hundreds of women have disappeared and where carjacking and extortion have decreased, but are still commonplace.
The pope’s visit to Juarez was consistent to a message central to his pontificate, as he has called for the Church to be in solidarity with those on the peripheries of society. Throughout his journey through Mexico, Pope Francis met with those often forgotten by society, including young people, immigrants, the indigenous and the incarcerated.
“To me his visit symbolizes peace, to return to the faith through people of light,” said Esperanza Gonzalez who, along with hundreds of other volunteers, lined the streets of Juarez at 6 a.m. They prepared to hold the line as the Holy Father passed in his popemobile.
“I hope the visit purifies a bit of the bad things that happened here in Ciudad Juarez,” said Gonzalez, who’s lived in the city since the 1950s. She described the city as being safe, clean and full of working people in the past, before the troubles.
The beginning of the crisis
The disappearance and murders of young women began in the 1990s. Gangs with connections to the Juarez cartel kidnapped these women and coerced them into lives of prostitution.
Once the gangs had made their use of the women, they would kill them and dump their bodies. Authorities have found bodies of young women in the Arroyo del Navajo, a creek 80 miles outside of Juarez.
The United States tightened up border security after 9/11 and it became harder for the cartel to smuggle drugs. With their stockpiles, the gangs turned to the population of Juarez and fostered addiction among the community.
“Without work, without opportunities, we saw a spike in addictions — to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine,” explained Carlos Alberto Coria, a correspondent with Grupo Imagen Multimedia, a Mexican media conglomerate. “Young people didn’t have work, so it was easy for the cartel to recruit them to sell drugs.”
Many young people grew up without parents or with parents that worked all day in maquiladoras — Mexican factories that are often owned by foreign companies that export goods abroad.
These factories didn’t provide childcare, so parents often left their children on the streets to fend for themselves, easy prey for gangs. There are few parks in Juarez and not many trees.
“There was an explosion of problems, and the criminal factions exploited that to take power over the region,” Coria said. “Entire families became involved in crime.”
Warring cartels from Sinaloa and Juarez escalated violence in the city in 2008. President Felipe Calderon sent military to help, but many report that things just got worse.
“There was supposed to be a code between rival crime gangs,” Coria said. “Only those who were guilty of some offense — either they had stolen drugs from someone else or sold drugs where they weren’t supposed to, or killed someone — they would kill each other, but not the innocent.”
But that code didn’t hold. Coria, who covered the violence in Juarez, told about the massacre of 14 who were murdered at a child’s birthday party Oct. 22, 2010.
A drug dealer attended and a rival cartel found out. The gunmen opened fire at the party despite the drug dealer having fled.
Slowly, things have improved. Homicides dropped from 1,900 in 2011 to 730 in 2012, to 530 in 2013. In 2012, President Enrique Pe√±a Nieto began serving his six-year term as president.
The Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, claimed victory in the territorial war for trafficking power through Juarez. The end of this war perhaps had the greatest impact on the decrease in violence.
The community, local businesses and government also began to work together. They cracked down on corruption and began implementing policies for a safer city, relying heavily on community support.
“I can’t say everything is resolved, but the numbers are back to where they were in 2007, before the crisis,” said Chihuahua Governor César Horacio Duarte Jaquez during a presentation for foreign journalists Feb. 16 in Juarez.
“We have to recognize that Juarez has changed,” he said. “There are wounds that need healing, there are victims, and there are many who don’t believe anything has changed.”
Prophets in society
The Holy Father made his first stop Feb. 17 in Juarez to meet with inmates at the Center for Social Adjustment No. 3.
“We have already lost many decades thinking and believing that everything will be resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating and ridding ourselves of problems, believing that these policies really solve problems,” Pope Francis said in his remarks.
“We have forgotten to focus on what must truly be our concern — people’s lives; their lives, those of their families, and those who have suffered because of this cycle of violence,” he added.
To many, the pope’s visit to this detention center exemplifies how much things have changed. The center used to be run by gangs, and girls kidnapped in Downtown Juarez were sold as prostitutes to inmates.
Los Aztecas, a gang affiliated with the Juarez cartel, and Los Mexicles, affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel, waged deadly battles behind bars.
“The problem of security is not resolved only by incarcerating,” the Holy Father said. “Rather, it calls us to intervene by confronting the structural and cultural causes of insecurity that impact the entire social framework.”
He challenged inmates to work to change circumstances that “create the most exclusion,” reminding them of “divine mercy which makes all things new.”
“Speak with your loved ones, tell them of your experiences, help them to put an end to this cycle of violence and exclusion,” he said. “The one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say ‘has experienced hell,’ can become a prophet in society. Work so that this society which uses people and discards them will not go on claiming victims.”
Uriel Soto Martinez has been selling fruits and vegetables in Downtown Juarez for more than 20 years. He does well enough to support his family and those of his two employees. The produce comes from other Mexican states — not much grows in the desert surrounding Juarez.
“We hope the pope’s visit brings many blessings,” he said, “so that Juarez can live without all those killings and all that. You know, it used to be you couldn’t even go out on the street on the weekends.”
While the murder rate has dropped significantly, Juarez still rivals Detroit’s and New Orleans’ homicide statistics. The drug problem remains and with it, robbery.
Gangs kidnapped many of the women who disappeared in Juarez as they made the long journey back to town after a day’s work at the maquiladoras. No security was provided for the women, who often walked miles along dark streets with no street lamps.
The community and local business are beginning to address these safety concerns, but the culture is still one that tolerates prostitution.
A local newspaper, El P.M., lists prostitutes’ numbers and addresses in the back pages despite prostitution being illegal.
“There’s always a relationship between the government and the press, and the government permits it,” Coria said. “The government has let it be because it’s the press, but that has to change. And we in the press need to understand that we are part of the problem.”
Jesus Goga stood in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, selling Pope Francis hats, T-shirts and pennants. A group of matachine dancers performed nearby, the day before the pope arrived.
Goga, who makes his living selling small, seasonal items, said he’d sold nearly all his stock already.
“Everything is normal. Everyone is peaceful,” he said of Juarez. “The problems are between bad people, and there are far more good people here.”