By Nick Miroff
CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- At night in this border city, radio newscasts give a rundown of the day's homicides -- 15 one day, 12 the next -- a segment as regular as weather or sports. At least 291 people were killed last month, and more than 1,786 so far this year.
The runaway drug violence has brought 10,000 soldiers and federal police officers to Juarez, but the influx has not resulted in security or a decline in the death toll. That has forced Mexican leaders and their U.S. advisers to search for a new strategy to stop the killing in a city that once seemed like a model for U.S.-Mexico economic integration.
"We have to repair the social fabric here," said Abelardo Escobar, a cabinet member sent by Mexican President Felipe Calderón with a new rescue package for Juarez, a $270 million surge in social spending.
The money is paying for schools, hospital renovations, student breakfasts, a youth orchestra, anti-violence training and drug treatment centers. There are funds to promote physical fitness, build eco-friendly houses and support free concerts -- 160 projects in all.
The government calls the campaign "Todos Somos Juárez" -- "We are all Juarez."
"We need to build trust and a sense of belonging," Escobar said. "We need to give people hope again."
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement brought hundreds of thousands of migrants to Juarez, touted as a place where American industry and Mexican workers could meet halfway. Jobs were so plentiful that assembly plants sent buses to the poorest parts of southern Mexico to find recruits, promising a cash bonus to anyone willing to get on board.
The Mexican government laid tracts of inexpensive housing in the desert, but built few schools, parks or libraries for the new arrivals and their families. Today, in the city's northwest slums, there is one high school for 400,000 residents.
Escobar and others here say years of government neglect has produced a civic experiment gone awry, allowing organized crime to fill a moral and social vacuum in a place of rootless newcomers and frayed family structures.
Parts of Juarez, a city of 1.3 million, still convey the sense of almost-America it once promised. But just off the wide boulevards lined with Starbucks, Applebee's and strip malls, masked soldiers and federal police patrol the city's dusty, treeless streets, riding in the backs of Ford Lobo pickup trucks with automatic weapons and body armor.
Few believe the Todos Somos Juárez campaign can turn the city around anytime soon.
The Juarez and Sinaloa cartels are fighting each other for control of drug smuggling routes into the United States, and both are battling Mexican authorities. Last year, 2,754 people were killed in the city, and 2010 is on pace to be the deadliest year yet. Ninety-eight percent of murders go unsolved.
U.S. officials have pledged more aid for community and social development as part of the $1.6 billion anti-narcotics Merida Initiative. But the violence in Juarez is so bad that the large U.S. Consulate here has been shut since July 29, after a car bombing downtown two weeks earlier was followed by threats of more attacks.
Six months have passed since Calderón came to the city to announce the Todos Somos Juárez campaign, after gunmen massacred 14 people at a birthday party in a neighborhood of factory workers on the city's southeastern edge. Most of the dead were junior high and high school students.
Todos Somos Juárez is building a sports park there. It has helped Alonzo Encina get counseling after his 17-year-old son, an honors student, was slain that night.
But Encina was laid off this spring from the factory where he made car radiators, and he now sells posters of Mexican saints and wrestlers from the back of his pickup truck. "I live day to day," he said. "I feel half-dead. I'm trying to go on."
From his office, Juarez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz has a sweeping view of El Paso and the border crossings that feed into it. The two cities are split by tall fences and the cement-lined channel of the Rio Grande.
In El Paso, there has been one homicide so far this year.
In Juarez, someone is slain every three hours.
"Juarez is a tremendous city of opportunity," said Reyes Ferriz, ticking off the city's industrial output: auto parts, dishwashers, televisions, computers. "We have more manufacturing jobs than Detroit and Atlanta combined."
The violence hasn't soured investors on Juarez, the mayor insisted.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer that makes iPhones, Sony PlayStations, Dell computers and other Best Buy merchandise, has hired 10,000 employees in the city and plans to take on 70,000 more, he said.
When the global recession pushed Juarez's unemployment rate to 20 percent in 2008, the murder rate soared, the mayor said.
Many of the city's gang members and gunmen are the children of factory workers, he and others said, a "lost generation" that grew up in the streets while their parents were making car batteries and keyboards. A cartel foot soldier can make $160 a week carrying out assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings.
Assembly plant workers make about $60 a week, so Todos Somos Juárez will give them better child care, recreation opportunities and job training. More than 120,000 have already signed up for the city's new health-care plan.
But the raft of promises seem to be outpacing the government's ability to deliver.
On a recent afternoon, Daisy Campos, 22, stood with her 3-year-old daughter outside a downtown health clinic, deflecting the desert sun with a yellow umbrella topped with cat ears. She was glad to have insurance, but the wait to see a nurse was two, maybe three hours.
A day earlier, Campos quit her job at a fruit market after a group of men executed two of her co-workers, shooting one in the face right in front of her. "I don't want to live here anymore," Campos said. Her father is in Tennessee. Maybe she will go there, she said.
A promise pending
Todos Somos Juárez has pledged to build a high school in the trash-strewn hills on the city's western edge, among the scrap-wood shacks and creosote bush. It would be the neighborhood's first. Local officials laid the cornerstone several months ago and paved the street right up to the empty lot. But no one from the government has been back since, said José Luis Contreras, 26, who lives across the street and would like to go to school, if it's not too late for him.
Contreras and his 80-year-old grandmother run a small store. Three months ago, thieves put a gun to her head and stole everything off the shelves.
"Maybe it was just lies," Contreras said of the government's plan, watching dust swirl over the empty school site.
On the radio that night, the state governor called the Juarez program an election gimmick of his political rival, President Calderón's National Action Party.
No one is sure what will happen when the $270 million runs out.
Arturo Valenzuela, a trauma surgeon who stitches up the city's wounded -- killers and victims alike -- said the program should be expanded, and made permanent.
"I think Juarez is the most important city in the world right now," said Valenzuela, a community adviser to Todos Somos Juárez. "This is the place to see where our whole human endeavor is going. If we can fix it, we can fix any other place in Mexico."