The Dallas Morning News
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – In 2009, the hit men didn't take a break, not even for holidays.
The trail of blood left by the gun-toting sicarios stains the entire city, but especially here in Barrio Azul, where families grieve for children lost.
"In this block alone, all the teens were either killed or disappeared," said Pedro Reyna Diaz, 46, whose two stepsons were among those swept up in the drug cartel warfare waged in this neglected neighborhood. "An entire generation was lost."
As the Mexican and U.S. governments prepare to shift their strategy in the drug war, from military and police support to a "softer" approach emphasizing jobs and education, neighborhoods like Barrio Azul are prime candidates for the new effort. The idea is to lessen the lucrative lure of drug cartels by creating jobs and educational opportunities in vulnerable areas, much like efforts in Afghanistan and Colombia.
It's in neighborhoods such as Barrio Azul where President Felipe Calderón's war could be won or lost.
"What struck me most after the short time I was in Juárez was not the threat of the violence, but what occurs if you lose a whole generation," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said after a tour of Juárez.
He and a senior Obama administration official both indicated in interviews that the U.S. and Mexico plan to focus less on a military response to drug violence and more on rooting out the problems that have left generations of Mexico's young vulnerable to unscrupulous cartel members.
Since January 2008, Ciudad Juárez has been a city on the brink – at the center of Mexico's war against violent drug cartels.
In two years, more than 4,200 people have been killed in this city of 1.5 million people across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Two of Mexico's most powerful cartels are battling for control of the city, a gateway for drugs going to the U.S. as well as a growing domestic drug market.
In 2009, the city's 173 slayings for every 100,000 residents made it, by some estimates, the murder capital of the Americas, if not the world. Baghdad had 48 violent deaths per 100,000 residents, according to the Citizens' Council for Public Security, a nongovernmental organization in Mexico City. Dallas had about 14.
Overall, more than 15,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence across Mexico since December 2006, when Calderón began deploying security forces to several troubled regions of the country, including 7,000 soldiers and 2,000 federal police in Juárez.
In the new year, the military is expected to gradually pull out and be replaced by a newly trained Juárez police force and federal agents. But few believe the violence will end.
"You hear it on the streets that capos would rather set the city on fire than give an inch to their rivals," said Alfredo Quijano, editor of the newspaper Norte de Ciudad Juárez. "And that's literally what they're doing, setting the city on fire, burning everything from vehicles to businesses, homes, to even people alive."
Slums such as Barrio Azul represent fertile ground for recruiting cartel foot soldiers. The neighborhood is a microcosm of the city's social ills, with poverty and rampant crime.
In recent years, cartels have recruited teens on the U.S. side as well, in cities including El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville. Kids grow up to become thugs, and many end up in cheap tin coffins.
In Barrio Azul, an area encompassing a couple of dozen run-down blocks, residents said in interviews that they attended as many as 30 neighborhood funerals in the past year, mostly for teens. One of them, Eduardo Villalobos, 16, was among nine young men and one woman gunned down at a rehab center known as Annex of Life.
"He had problems, but he was a good son trying to turn his life around," said his mother, Dionicia Villalobos Jácquez, 42. "He deserved a second chance at a job, at an education."
The year before, as cartel violence spiked, Villalobos' 19-year-old son, Alberto, was gunned down. She now keeps her three younger children at home.
"We'll keep losing kids unless we can provide them with jobs, an education, anything to keep them away from trafficking drugs or killing people," said Reyna, stepdad to the two Villalobos boys.
Desolation and despair
Today, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, freshly painted on the side of a Barrio Azul home, overlooks nearly deserted dirt streets.
The neighborhood is desolate, with stray dogs, piles of trash, and abandoned homes marked with graffiti. A young boy pretends he's a hit man, waving a toy gun
"It's all gone," Reyna said, "a whole life disappeared, as people died or fled."
Two blocks away, young kids play soccer on an unpaved street, stirring dust clouds as they kick the ball, someone's Christmas gift. Parents and siblings keep a close eye on them. Among them is Alma Nayeli Villegas, 18, watching from behind a white steel fence. Others warm themselves over open fires outdoors.
"The youth are the most vulnerable, easy prey," Villegas says as she watches her 13-year-old brother, Juan de Dios, a brown rosary dangling from his neck.
Is he religious?
"No, he just wants to believe in something," she says, "especially after what happened to our neighborhood this year. He wants to believe that someone or something will protect him from the evil."
Around the corner is Abarrotes Oralia, the only grocery store still open in the neighborhood. Owner Oralia Rocha, 56, says her competition – three stores and a tortilleria – disappeared after they failed to pay the $1,000 monthly extortion fee. She, too, shut down for three weeks and then reopened under an "arrangement" that she refuses to discuss for fear of reprisal.
Rocha says that aside from jobs and schools, what residents need most "is renewed faith in our community, in ourselves."
But thousands of people have fled neighborhoods like Barrio Azul for El Paso or other U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Albuquerque, N.M., and Dallas-Fort Worth. They include the family of Ricardo Bolivar, 42, who sells pirated CDs and DVDs near the international bridge.
A few months ago he sent his wife, Angelica, and four children to live in North Texas, joining their oldest son, 19-year-old Richie, who was born in Fort Worth. Bolivar hopes that Richie, as a U.S. citizen, can "fix our papers so we can all live in Texas."
"Mexico," he says, "is no longer a place for young kids."