Speaking Monday at the University of Texas, Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said his city is no longer a crossing point for large shipments of drugs because of a troop buildup.
Jose Reyes Ferriz had no idea what he was getting into when he was elected mayor of Juárez in 2007. A few months after winning, his city plunged into the most brutal drug war Mexico has ever known.
Entering its third year, Juárez's bloody conflict has seen nearly 5,000 murders, dozens of businesses torched by extortionists and residents worried that neither a rebuilt police force nor thousands of Mexican soldiers can protect them from the violence.
Ferriz offered a glimpse behind those grim headlines Monday, speaking to an overflow crowd at the University of Texas in a talk sponsored by the school's Latin American studies program.
The visit featured an unusual amount of security for a university talk: two police officers checking bags as people entered. Ferriz has faced numerous death threats, the latest found next to a severed pig's head a few weeks ago after he fired several corrupt Juárez police officers.
While it's often characterized as a fight between powerful drug cartels, Ferriz said the current violence is the result of battles between the city's three main street gangs, who are fighting for control of the city's drug trade.
Protesters, including Roberto Flotte, second from left, and Liliana Cardona, standing with sign, called for an end to the violence in Juárez. 'We're just tired, fed-up,' UT student Aura Valdez said. 'They bring in the military, they bring police, but they just increase the violence.
The mayor said the city's own drug consumption — it has the highest drug use rate in Mexico — has created a lucrative local market.
The major cartels have largely stopped battling over Juárez, he said, and no longer use it as crossing point for large shipments of drugs because of massive buildups of federal and local troops and police.
But that has only made the city more violent, sparking about 2,600 killings in 2009.
"The route is no longer in use," Ferriz said in an interview.
"So the money that used to come in has stopped, and the criminal gangs are now fighting to control the local sale of drugs."
Ferriz said the Aztecas, Mexicles and Artist Assassins gangs include large numbers of criminal illegal immigrants deported from American prisons and are fueled by record unemployment rates and hard times in the city's maquiladoras.
Ferriz recently convinced American officials to temporarily halt criminal deportations through Juárez, a practice he said aggravated the city's violence. Those deportees are now being sent through other border crossing points.
Ferriz's talk drew a number of UT students from Juárez, many of whom carried protest signs calling for an end to the city's violence.
"We're just tired, fed-up," third-year student Aura Valdez said. "They bring in the military, they bring police, but they just increase the violence."
Ferriz also faced criticism over claims of rampant human-rights abuses by the Mexican military in Juárez.
Although violence has steadily increased during Ferriz's three years in office, he said the city has made strides in building a competent, trustworthy police department.
Ferriz has purged much of Juárez's police force, recruiting and training about 2,000 officers over the last two years.
"The road is clear — you need an efficient police department that you can trust," he said. "Juárez cannot allow the police to become corrupt again."
Ferriz took a less hopeful tone when asked about the drug war in general.
"Our definition of success is having (drug violence and smuggling) move someplace else," he said.
"It's not a good definition of success, but it's the only one we have as long as the United States is the biggest consumer of drugs."