By Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera
El Paso Times
Alejandro Seade, president of the National Chamber of Commerce in Juarez, said the economy has begun to see the first glimpses of recovery, pointing to a successful Christmas shopping season, busier restaurants and a night scene that many hope will make a comeback this year.
You can feel it all around you.
You can see it on the streets, in restaurants and in nightclubs.
Change -- real or perceived -- is noticeable to this city of 1.3 million.
For Braulio Rivera, the violence that has gripped this city is as bad and gruesome today as it was two years ago when he moved to Juárez from his home state of Veracruz to teach at an elementary school.
But on Wednesday, Rivera defied the No. 1 safety rule many residents of Juárez have followed: Don't go out after dark.
He decided to visit the city's famous Borunda Park for the first time.
"People feel safer, with more confidence of going out to the street," he said, with a cup of corn covered in butter, cheese and chili powder in his hand.
"Things have improved a bit. There are fewer robberies, fewer car thefts, fewer extortions."
The number of people at Borunda Park that evening paled compared with its glory days, when hundreds of residents packed the place each evening to buy hot dogs and aguas frescas and take their children on the mechanical rides.
To some, the modest turnouts at the park recently are an encouraging sign.
And while it is difficult to find agreement among government officials, activists and analysts about improvements in Juárez during 2011, a simple look at the city's most busy streets leaves one thing clear: Juárez is not a ghost town anymore.
No one claims that Juárez has regained the vibrancy that existed before the violence began in 2008, but just how much the city's safety has improved is a matter of much debate. There is still fear in the city.
Government officials repeatedly refer to major crime statistics documented by Chihuahua state's prosecutor's office that show homicides dropped in 2010. They offered two totals for the number of homicides -- 2,360 or 3,804. In 2011, there were 1,541 homicides.
Authorities also refer to a 17 percent decline in vehicle theft, which officials in Juárez often use as a barometer of crime in the city because of its high citizen report rate.
"We're not ringing the bells yet," said Juárez city manager Héctor Arcelús Pérez, repeating a phrase that has become common among Juárez officials to cautiously underscore safety improvements while acknowledging that work still needs to be done.
"What I can tell you is that we ended the year much better than in 2010 and better than in 2009. We know there are many things to correct and change. However, the numbers are there and they show violence has gone down considerably," he said.
Officials say things in Juarez have improved, pointing to a statistical drop in homicides and vehicle theft, but how safe the city is remains a matter of debate for many.
Alejandro Seade, president of the National Chamber of Commerce in Juárez, said the economy has already started to see its first glimpses of recovery, pointing to a successful Christmas shopping season, busier restaurants and a night scene that is beginning to make a comeback.
Restaurants such as Applebee's, Sanborn's, Taqueria Toro Loco and El Recreo had customers -- not like in the past, but there was activity.
"Juárez looked like a deserted city two years ago," Seade said. Now it's a different environment."
Arcelús and Seade attributed safety improvements to the recent work of the municipal police under the leadership of Police Chief Julián Leyzaola, a retired lieutenant colonel credited with cleaning up Tijuana in his previous job.
In the summer, Leyzaola launched a plan dubbed "sectorization," which consisted of redrawing police districts in the city with the intent of improving patrolling in the city.
Government officials and analysts also said tougher prison sentences have deterred crime. Last year, the first life sentences for high-impact crimes were imposed after Chihuahuan legislators passed changes to the state's penal code in 2010. The crimes include extortion, kidnapping, multiple homicides, homicides of law enforcers and journalists, and homicides linked to organized crime.
According to statistics released this week by Mexico's attorney general's office, Juárez reported the most homicides in the country between January and September of last year, ahead of other cities including Monterrey, Culiacán and Tijuana.
A recent analysis of crime statistics conducted by the Mexican national daily Reforma showed that Juárez was one of 14 cities that had the most kidnappings and extortions in the country between January and August last year.
And this week, a report issued by the Mexico City-based Citizen Council for Public Safety and Penal Justice ranked Juárez as the second-most-violent city in the world -- behind the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula -- after being at the top of the list for three years in a row.
"The number of homicide rate was cut in half to 148 for every 100,000 inhabitants, but it's still very high," said José Antonio Ortega Sánchez, president of the Citizen Council. "Despite the efforts of the authorities, it is not enough to take (Juárez off the list), and it continues holding on to second place."
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, Juárez ombudsman for Chihuahua's State Commission on Human Rights and a member of the Citizens' Security Worktable, said he wasn't impressed by the decrease in the city's crime rate.
For him, crime statistics showed that homicides, kidnappings and extortions had stopped growing, but the data didn't suggest they had significantly started to go down.
"We believe that what has happened since November 2010 is a process of (crime) remaining the same, not of decrease," he said.
De la Rosa also was skeptical about attributing every improvement in safety to government actions, saying there were cartel dynamics ignored by the public that were difficult to quantify.
Michael Weber, a law enforcement trainer from California on cartel activity along the Southwest, said fighting between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartel has toned down in part because of the losses the Juárez cartel has suffered. Important arrests such as the July capture of José Antonio Acosta Hernández, alias El Diego, former leader of the Juárez cartel's enforcement arm La Línea, have further weakened the organization.
And while de la Rosa acknowledged that Leyzaola has proved to be a knowledgeable and effective strategist, he asserted that the municipal police have become a key driver of human-rights abuses and violence under Leyzaola's command.
Independent of the different opinions about safety in Juárez, government officials, entrepreneurs and analysts agreed that the perception of safety has improved. Nevertheless, it will take some time for that vision to spread.
Arcelús said Juárez was close to returning to its former glory days but acknowledged there are important and difficult landmarks still to be reached -- such as being able to attract U.S. visitors again.
"It's a complicated topic. Juárez still hasn't recovered the kind of tourism that existed in prior times. Most people who come from the U.S. are for medical visits and things like that, but they're very few who come to have fun, eat or buy groceries like in the past. I think it's a topic that must be revised between the two countries," Arcelús said.
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Consulate in Juárez said the stance on safety in Juárez has not changed since the U.S. Department of State issued its latest travel warning on April 22, 2011.
The warning says safety in Juárez is "of special concern" and cautions U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel to the city.
An even more complicated concern is whether people who moved out of Juárez will ever return.
José Luis Mauricio, former president of La Red, an association of Juárez businesspeople based in El Paso, said that many of those who have moved to El Paso have begun new lives and that it would be difficult for them to return to Juárez.
Many of them miss Juárez, Mauricio said.
He added that has not dismissed the possibility that El Paso has become a "dorm city" for many of them.
"I think that it will be difficult for those who are already here to return to Juárez," he said, "but they will go back to participate actively in the economy."