Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Business on the bloody border

Friday, November 25, 2011 |

Desperate measures to keep businesses alive in the world’s most dangerous city




Published by The Economist

A STEEL fence is all that separates El Paso, in west Texas, from Ciudad Juárez, in northern Mexico, and it has never stopped business flowing across the border. Drinks, dentistry and divorces have been served up to bargain-seeking gringos for decades. But since fighting erupted among local drug-traffickers in 2007, Juárez has seen more violence than anywhere on Earth, battlefields aside. The murder rate last year was over 200 per 100,000 people, more than ten times the national average and 200 times the rate in El Paso. In a once-busy tourist area close to the border, well over half the shops are boarded up.

Visitors “think Mexico is a country at war,” says one dentist with a practice close to the frontier. Since the violence ratcheted up, three-quarters of his mainly American patients have decided that crossing the border for half-price drilling is not worth the risk. It does not help that since September 11th 2001 crossing the border can take up to two hours, rather than a few minutes. Most gringo-oriented businesses have struggled: a few blocks away Club 21, a betting shop, has closed, as has the Montana restaurant, which once served toothsome steaks. A hotel lies half-built; the rumour is that its backer was a drug lord who was killed earlier this year.

Alongside lower demand, businesses face new costs from extortion, which has flourished as small-time crooks have taken advantage of the mayhem. The maquila factories in the suburbs, which make car parts and various gadgets for the American market, are safe because they handle little cash and have off-site bosses. Smaller shops, where the owner sits behind a till full of pesos, are more vulnerable.

José Luis, the manager of a souvenir shop selling masks, statues and other handicrafts, says his family shut two similar stores in 2009 rather than pay protection money. The gangsters’ piso, or floor-rent, apparently varies from 500 pesos ($35) to $1,000 a week. Businessmen who can’t afford to pay the piso or to employ bodyguards have in some cases shut up shop to work anonymously from home.

To protect entrepreneurs and reassure visitors, the city government created a heavily policed “green zone” for businesses in December 2010, which completed a trial period last month. Under the plan, 120 federal police kept a 24-hour guard on a small commercial area close to the border. Checkpoints were positioned every 500m to inspect cars and keep an eye on racketeers. The crackdown cut extortion by more than 90%, says Juan Benavente, the state’s undersecretary of economy, who delightedly reports that two new restaurants opened in the green zone last week.

Shopkeepers say extortion has by no means disappeared, and that much goes unreported. But things have got better, according to Guillermo Soria, of Juárez’s chamber of commerce. Before, “you would stop at traffic lights at 11pm and be the only car there. Now there is more traffic, more movement.” People are selling cigarettes at road junctions again; some restaurants even have queues at the weekend. Businesses can report extortion via the chamber of commerce, which passes the information to contacts in the not-always-trustworthy police.

Despite its apparent success the green zone was scrapped last month, ostensibly because its mission had been accomplished. Officials admit that the police were in fact called away partly to help at October’s Pan American games in Guadalajara. Since then officers have been moved to Monterrey, which has a growing security problem of its own (see article). As night falls, a single federal police lorry creeps along the southern edge of the former green zone. The loss of protection is palpable: on November 12th a body was found outside a defunct nightclub called Vértigo in the formerly secure area.

Yet some wonder if the green zone, with its hints of Baghdad, did as much to dissuade visitors as tempt them in. One shopkeeper, who had a checkpoint positioned outside his store, says it was hardly a “red carpet” to welcome visitors. With Juárez’s murder rate down by a third this year, the problem will be increasingly one of perception, Mr Benavente hopes, though things remain fairly dire.

There are plans to launch a tourist-police force next year, with English-speaking officers to give a friendlier impression than armed checkpoints. Mr Soria laments that many executives are still forbidden from visiting Juárez by their fearful bosses (or spouses). A pitch this month to host an annual jamboree for 1,000 lawyers will be a test of whether the new, slightly safer Juárez can attract business. Until it does, criminal enterprises will make life difficult for legitimate ones.

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8 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

Crime is crime if it is very attractive because there is little or no law enforcment then how can commerce survive?? Mexico ? Why do Mexicans resist CIVILIZATION? Its always been OK to screw Gringos but the criminal mentality had no boundries now it attacks all MEXICANS extortion,theft,kidnapping, the dumb assed Mx now look at what they have created!! It will take 20 yrs of intense Re-Education to get a generation or 2 of normal ethical citizens in Mexico, I hope it happens.

Anonymous said...

If they don't finish with the zetas and the linea this going to get worst. There's going to be people protecting those two groups but remember in Juarez how many women disapeared and the carillos was the boss. What does that tell you ? That he doesn't care for no one. If I was a boss I would of haved protected my people in Juarez

Anonymous said...

Very hilarious arguments by the two posts above...ignorant but humorous nonetheless.

Mexicans resist civilization LOL just like the Aztecs and the Mayas and the Incas resisted civiliazation from the Spaniards. Or to make my point more to your liking, just like the Native Americans from Cherokee to Lakota resisted civilization huh look it where that got them with you "Americans." So now you want Mexicans to get with the program for what reason? So you can enjoy the services of Mexico's top notch professionals who are forced to operate under third world economic conditions that your first world reality charges and arm and leg for, literally?

And for the other one. Do you know Juarez? In the last twenty years the population of this city skyrocketed and the vast majority of residents of this city have no loyalty to this place, since they consider to have their roots in other places. Comparitively speaking there are very few residents here who proudly consider Juarez their homeland through a chain of generations. So what do you get, a transitory point of residence where the only tradition is exploitation of anything and everything, that is the culture that has overidden traditional values here in Juarez, begining with American exploitation of the workforce to cut costs of American business and increase profits, everything else trickles down from there. Juarez lost about 500,000 resident in about three years that it took a generation to gain, what does that tell you...that these people had somewhere to escape to when this mess by cartel bosses who are not even from here started. The local Juarez cartel bosses and their structures where exterminated in the 90's and Foreing interests have ruled this city's underworld since then. The only local criminal structures that exist today pay homage to the greater cartel bosses that are warring for territorial supremacy throughout the nation.

Anonymous said...

You got that right, 10:17 PM. I would use the G word to describe those who wrote these comments. They have no idea what they are talking about. Maybe they should take a look at their own society which is unequaled for corruption. The whole US Congress is bought and paid for by large corporate interests, bailing out Wall Street and the banks, making sure the top 1% gets theirs. Of course the meth-addicted white trash population of the US could care less to notice such things except rant about Mexico.

Anonymous said...

10:17 and 10:58 are so right! And don't forget about all the decapitated bodies that keep turning up in the US. And all the mass graves and the murders of latino immigrants 50-75 at a time. And the SUV-loads of gangsters that went to the old man's rancho in Coahuila to take his ranch and murder him with 100s of rounds and RPGs - AND NOTHING WAS DONE ABOUT ANY OF IT.

The fact is that you can commit any crime in Mexico and you will not be held accountable. Any crime. Tell me I'm wrong.

"L"B said...

the same usury driven banker controlled CIA thugs who control the plaza in the USA are the ones behind los zetas..i have no proof ..just a feeling..once they destroy the local boy control of the market ..the police will be sic'd on them and they will be destroyed ...he the international banker/imf/drugs and vice boys will move in and mexico will boom, the crime business will be nice and orderly...the days of the wild wild west in Mexico are ending.....welcome to the new world order NORTH AMERICAN UNION..just wait and see

Anonymous said...

The Woodlands,Texas is a boom town high dollar homes selling to fleeing Mexican Professionals,business people,etc. Nobody wants Mexico to be the US just not a war zone where criminals have taken over the entire country and people are seeking asylum in fear for their lives and property.

Anonymous said...

lb man you are so off base. even if the entire american continent dropped their borders ( which will never fucking happen ) do you really think that would matter to any of the cartels/DTOs. If the crazy bastards dont respect borders now wtf do u think will happen when we get rid of them. A north american union would ramp up the violence in mexico AND the US. Poverty is what is behind the zetas, not the gringos on capital hill and wall street. I think u need to adjust your tin hat, i dont think its working very well.

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