The murder rate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico has dropped to a fraction of the high of 3,100 in 2010, bringing a sense of peace to the city's streets. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico - Héctor Murguía is wearing a satisfied smile that has nothing to do with the steaming cup of soup sitting before him or the comfortable office that he occupies as this city's chief executive.
Just hours before, the mayor's reinvigorated police force notched another important victory in the long, bloody campaign to restore order to what had become one of the most violent places on the face of the globe.
Jesus Rodrigo Fierro-Ramirez, a former Mexican state policeman-turned-brutal enforcer for the Sinaloa drug cartel, was killed in a nighttime raid of a cartel safe-house on the outskirts of town. Ramirez, the mayor said, was armed with grenades and a cache of high-powered rifles similar to those responsible for so many of the 10,000 deaths here in just the past four years - all casualties of a drug war that pushed this once-bustling border city to the brink of ruin.
"This was a city of ghosts," Murguía said last week, motioning to a remarkable scene two floors below where streams of pedestrians and heavy commuter traffic have replaced Mexican soldiers and armored military vehicles that helped enforce marshal law on this bleak landscape just 18 months ago.
"Now, it is a completely different city."
Indeed, what has happened in Ciudad Juárez, or Juárez as it is commonly called, and Tijuana to the west - two flash points in the long siege of border violence in Mexico - is offering a glimmer of hope for a vast region that many had left for dead like so many thousands of Mexican murder victims.
Since 2011, the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute has tracked a "notable and important" leveling in the grinding cycle of killing throughout Mexico. In a study of homicides provided to USA TODAY, institute researchers found that organized-crime-related murder dropped 21% in 2012 - the first time those numbers fell since the drug wars escalated in 2007. That trend was especially pronounced in Mexico's six border states, which saw a 32% drop in organized-crime killings.
The declines come as President Obama and Congress attempt to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, with the security of America's southwestern border with Mexico being a critical component in the complicated negotiations. A 2011 USA TODAY report found that cartel violence was not spilling over onto U.S. soil, and now, data from the University of San Diego and U.S. intelligence assessments indicate that the Mexican side is seeing a sustained drop in violence.
"We have seen a real change," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an interview last week with USA TODAY, adding that the security improvements are "not a finished product."
White House "drug czar" Gil Kerlikowske said the calming of Mexico's border drug wars "can be long lasting."
"I think there is a lot of reason for hope," he said recently.
While proposals from Obama and a bipartisan group of senators would provide a pathway to U.S. citizenship to some of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants, the Senate proposal would require that further border security benchmarks are reached before giving them that right.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said he won't support a plan without such benchmarks. And many leaders in border states, including Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, have long insisted that the border remains too porous, leaving Americans living nearby vulnerable to dangerous immigrants crossing through their lands.
"Our border is not secure and the federal government has a long way to go," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement directed at Napolitano as she embarked on a tour of the U.S. border this week.
But an accompanying concern along the vast U.S.-Mexico border is that checkpoints have become commerce-choking bottlenecks. As efforts to control illegal immigration have ramped up, business activity that could help people on both sides of the border has been stifled by grueling lines and hours-long waits.
The 19,000 Border Patrol agents manning the southwestern border is more than double what it was in 2000. So perhaps it's time, some argue, for the federal government to make it easier for people legally entering through the border's land ports, where they can wait two to four hours to cross into the U.S. to shop, work and visit each day.
"Our borders are the cash registers of our economy," said Stephen Williams, a San Diego commercial real estate developer whose companies have bought and developed more than $2 billion in real estate in Mexico and Southern California. "We've got the world's largest border crossing, and only the federal government can screw it up by charging everybody two hours of time to stand in line. Our government is chasing fewer and fewer bad guys and making it very difficult for the good guys."
Much of the decline on the border is due to ebbs in the searing drug wars that left local cartels in Juárez and Tijuana - weakened by casualties and high-level captures - unable to continue to challenge the more powerful Sinaloa cartel and affiliated groups for control of the region's lucrative drug routes into the USA.
Federal law enforcement officials, including Napolitano, also credit the efforts of the Mexican military and police for helping to bring more order to the region. Even so, because of the proximity of Tijuana and Juárez to San Diego and El Paso, respectively, and major transportation corridors, one senior U.S. law enforcement official said the area "will always be a rich area of operation for the cartels."
The official, who is regularly briefed on border security matters, but is not authorized to comment publicly, said it unclear whether other groups could emerge to challenge the Sinaloa cartel, prompting new spasms of killing in both cities. The official said the increased levels of security forces in Mexican border cities and on the U.S. side were "crucial" to maintaining order.
The decision by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón to take the fight to the drug cartels contributed to the escalating violence but is now being viewed as an important part of the solution.
Tijuana saw the first major reduction in crime around 2009, when Public Safety Director Julian Leyzaola Perez began coordinating more with the country's military to attack cartel violence and cleaned up the city's police force that many believed was working closely with the cartels.
The murder rate in Tijuana has dropped from 41 people per 100,000 in 2008 to 21 last year, according to the San Diego study. Mayor Carlos Bustamante's office said kidnappings - a major revenue generator for the cartels that also produced a sense of daily panic for city residents - have fallen 74% since 2010.
Bustamante said his administration - in office for over two years - has received more than 100 reports from police officers who were offered bribes. That was unheard of during the height of the violence, he said, and indicates a renewed sense of trust in the city's law enforcement.
"Part of the success has been the people now call us and trust us," Bustamante said. "That's why we've had such success with the narco guys. People are calling, 'We think there's something suspicious here,' and now the soldiers and the police go."
Once the security situation in Tijuana calmed, Leyzaola Perez was lured to Juárez to perform the same job.
Murguía, the Juárez mayor, said Leyzaola Perez has been using the same playbook there to quell violence, evidenced by his dismissal of 600 officers to wipe out persistent misconduct and corruption.
For the first time since 2007, murders in Juárez, a city of just more than 1 million, fell below 1,000 to 797, after reaching a high of 3,622 in 2010, according to Juárez officials and U.S. law enforcement data.
In addition to the steep drops in homicide, carjackings - a serious drag on the city's efforts to rebuild its tourist base - have declined dramatically, from a high of 2,550 in October 2010 to 210 this past October.
"I am very proud of the police now," Murguía said of the 2,600-officer force. "The most important thing is that the citizens feel safe," the mayor said. "I think we have that now."
Former Juárez mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, who presided during some of the bloodiest fighting and survived numerous attempts on his life, also senses that the changes are "for real."
"Confidence levels on the street are starting to go up," he said. "It has been a longtime coming."
But as police regain control of the cities and violence begins to dissipate, people throughout the border region face the next challenge: changing the perception of violence.
In 2011, California officials with redIT - a binational company that provides information technology services between the U.S. and Mexico - were planning an expansion into Tijuana. That meant more travel across the border for Managing Director Joe Alfrey.
"My wife wasn't real thrilled with the strategy," Alfrey said. "But I took her down there and ... now we go down all the time. We take the kids down there. What you see on the 10 o'clock news and what you experience are two totally different things."
Mexico is America's third-largest trade partner: The U.S. exported $200 billion worth of goods to Mexico in 2012 and imported $257 billion worth. The scope of the economic relationship can be seen in the sprawling factories, many owned by U.S. companies, spread throughout Tijuana.
Christina Luhn leads the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation's "Mega-Region" initiative. Luhn said the combination of a low-wage, highly skilled workforce in Tijuana and the innovative, highly educated leaders of U.S. companies in San Diego has created the ideal business climate. Tijuana has become a hub for manufacturing electronics, medical devices, solar panels, aerospace equipment, automotive parts and metallics.
"They've really invested in (the Mexican state of Baja California Norte) in education," Luhn said. "They offer a level of sophisticated manufacturing at a competitive price that allows companies in the U.S. to do a portion of their work there."
Being so close to the border also means that American companies end up supplying many of the Mexican manufacturing plants.
Kenn Morris, president of a financial analysis firm called the Crossborder Group, said there are no data measuring the economic impact of the two sides of the border, but said one medium-size factory in Tijuana can have up to 300 U.S. suppliers.
"Imagine how many jobs this creates for the U.S.," Morris said.
Mexicans also help support U.S. businesses by daily shopping trips to Walmarts, Targets and smaller stores throughout the region. Morris's group estimates that these trips generate $10 million to $14 million of business each day in U.S. stores.
The importance of the cross-border trade is so important that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is opening a municipal office in Tijuana. He and Bustamante, the Tijuana mayor, are also installing phone on their desks that ring directly to each other.
"Our future is tied together in so many ways - economically, environmentally," said Filner, who spent 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives serving Southern California before winning the mayoral election in November. "We live in a binational community, but we don't act like it."
Tijuana's economic growth ground to a halt during the worst years of cartel violence. Mario Garcia Carrasco, managing partner for the Mexican border branch of the professional services firm, Deloitte, said it was impossible to find a company looking to expand in the region. "All expansion plans were put on ice," he said.
Even companies already doing business in the Tijuana area were spooked by the stories of beheadings, kidnappings and mass graves that were appearing on the nightly news.
During the worst years of the drug wars, Eduardo Salcedo sat in his office overlooking a sprawling manufacturing plant in the Mexican border city and fended off worried calls from corporate officials in Vista, Calif.
The vice president overseeing DJ Orthopedic's Mexican manufacturing plant, where workers make many of the knee braces, walking boots and other medical devices used by ailing Americans, said his bosses were considering pulling out of Mexico and taking their operations elsewhere.
"They spoke of Costa Rica, Brazil, Tunis," Salcedo said.
But then the shocking acts of violence started fading away. Salcedo's superiors decided to remain in Tijuana, and even expanded the plant and moved their global distribution center there. Even so, Salcedo said newcomers remain wary.
"I'm no longer interested in convincing you that you're not going to get murdered here," Salcedo said. "I want to show you much more important things."
Williams, the San Diego real estate developer, sits on the 65-member board of directors for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and described the difficulties this way: "If I hosted a dinner next week in Tijuana, free of charge, I'm not sure I could get five board members to go down there."
For those they persuade to cross the border, Vicente Roche said it's an almost immediate change of heart. Roche oversees the Mexican border region for Jones Lang Lasalle, an international real estate company, and said that after one day of showing clients around, they've already realized the difference between what they see and read on the news and the reality on the ground.
"Very quickly, you see them get acclimated," said Roche, an American who has worked in Mexico for two decades. "By the time you're having dinner after the first day ... they see that this is absolutely not the image that they've portrayed of gunbattles, or a mini-Iraq or Afghanistan."
A new current in Juárez
It's the middle of the afternoon on a recent Thursday in Juárez and there is a new normal to the pace of life in a place where life had become so expendable.
Restaurants, bars, furniture makers and other businesses - whose owners were once prime targets for extortion and kidnapping by cartel enforcers - are opening again amid the blight.
Diners are lingering over long lunches at the newly re-opened Montana steakhouse.
The local Home Depot parking lot is packed. Across town, shoppers are casually strolling the gleaming white-tile concourses of Las Misiones shopping mall, as attendants welcome visitors to its two-story glass enclosed health club and spa.
"It is fresh, that is for sure," said Gustavo Granados, the 38-year-old chef at Montana. "I don't know if it is fragile, but a lot of people are living in the moment. It feels good."
The novelty of it all - people on the streets again and the absence of military checkpoints on major thoroughfares - is particularly striking for the owners of restaurants and nightclubs whose businesses were among the first to suffer or close when the violence reigned and fear kept locals locked inside their homes.
Between 2008 and 2011, Juárez lost an estimated 20,000 businesses, according to the city.
"It's like we're breathing again," said Susana Vivar, 53, whose family has run the Villa del Mar seafood restaurant for nearly a half-century in Juárez.
During the worst of the fighting, Vivar, her brothers and sisters kept the popular restaurant open despite periods when "sales were non-existent."
"It was devastating," she said.
What has not yet returned is the steady stream of American tourists and business people who helped keep the restaurants full at night, patronized doctors and pharmacies for more affordable health care services and supported local grocery stores supplied with cheap produce.
"It's probably going to take years to change the view (of Juárez) from the outside," Granados said.
"It's always hard to re-label something for the good."
Some of the thousands who fled Mexican border cities to escape the violence (an estimated 200,000 from Juárez alone between 2008 and 2011, according to Murguía) are beginning to return.
Among those returning to Juárez are members of an El Paso exile group known as La Red (The Network), whose leaders helped fleeing Mexican business owners resettle in the United States.
At its height last year, La Red had 120 members. About 40% of those, co-founder David Saucedo said recently, have returned to Mexico in recent months. And others, including Sergio Munoz, a 47-year-old restaurant owner whose young family left Juárez in 2008, fearing he had become a target for kidnappers, are preparing to follow.
"We plan to return later this year," said Munoz, who receives almost-weekly, informal "security briefings" from friends and colleagues across the border.
"We don't feel we are taking as much risk as we used to," Munoz said from the dining room of a new steakhouse that he opened three years ago in El Paso. "It has been amazing in the past year how fast things have changed for the better, and there is reliable (crime) data to support it. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't go back. It is home for us."
Johnson reported from Ciudad Juárez, Gomez from Tijuana.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Mexico's commerce crawls back from drug war's chaos