By Laura Vargas
CIUDAD JUAREZ—The kids lined up in the rows of the open amphitheater, facing the center of the circular structure where the microphones were. They giggled nervously and played around as the ensemble’s director began his job of keeping order and tuning the instruments, starting with the wind section and slowly incorporating the whole group methodically. The parents looked on proudly. Next to the amphitheater, you could hear the clashing of helmets as the competing teams warmed up for what might be the most memorable game of their lives. That day the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, was to sit among the crowd of proud parents and participate in the official coin toss on the football field adjacent to the amphitheater.
This lively scene takes place in the neighborhood of Villas de Salvárcar, in Ciudad Juárez, where two years ago a horrific act of violence threw this community into a state of shock, and turned the attention of the nation to a city traumatized by chronic violence.
On January 31, 2010, a group of hit men massacred 16 young men and women who had gathered for a party at a home in a poor housing area in Villas de Salvárcar. The neighborhood—which has a large number of abandoned homes as well as poor access to transportation, services, and schools—is an area of increasing hostility between gangs. But this time, the young men and women killed were not gang members, but rather students, many of whom were members of the local football team.
Today, the community remembers the 16 young men and women that were senselessly murdered with the music of a new generation. Ciudad Juárez has always been about the people—their relentless search for solutions, and the persistence of hope in the most hostile conditions. The federal government sought to foster this hope through an initiative—Todos Somos Juárez (We are all Juarez). I was there as part of a team tasked with the difficult challenge of helping Juarez find collective solutions. It was my first experience working in the public sector, and it came at a time when the eyes of the world were watching. Through this strategy, the government has invested approximately $400 million in the city over the last two years, mostly through social policy programs meant to strengthen security policies. As a result, today there is more activity on the streets, and the economy has begun to recover.
Before Todos Somos Juárez, traffic on the streets was light. Most people drove as little as possible, and walked outside even less. People were afraid to stop at stoplights, and it was not uncommon to see Federal Police or Army convoys patrolling the main avenues of the city. Jobs were scarce and anyone who had money to invest in a business preferred to take it elsewhere. People informed each other through text messages where a murder had taken place as a warning to stay away from certain parts of the city.
Since then, there have been marked improvements. One in seven jobs created in January 2012 in Mexico were created in Ciudad Juárez, according to the president, who has come back for eight visits over the last two years. But the city still faces considerable challenges in security and development, and the efforts must be sustained for years to come. It still has one of the country’s highest murder rates and faces extreme poverty in many areas of the city. Nevertheless, a sense of progress is now palpable throughout the city.
As the president approached the players on the newly inaugurated field—a brand new synthetic turf complete with shaded bleachers (a must in a city where temperatures regularly reach the 100s)—there was a sense of pride in all of the players and family members that were there commemorating that tragic day with a one of celebration. After the coin toss, both teams roared with pride in their huddles, as they prepared for a game to remember.
One of the mothers of the deceased, Señora Ana, was given the microphone to speak. She was in tears as she spoke about her murdered son Rodrigo, and urged parents to love and cherish their children every day. She misses her son, but to her Rodrigo’s life (like the lives of the rest of the young men and women killed two years ago) has brought a greater good to her community—a good that will remain, because it forced the community to strengthen its ties and take measures to ensure that a similar tragedy would not occur again.
Later that day, the President met with the citizens of Ciudad Juárez. In February 2010, Calderón stood in front of hundreds of angry citizens who expressed their frustration and lack of confidence in public institutions. They felt they had been abandoned and left to a cruel fate: a city besieged by ruthless criminals who terrorized its inhabitants. They too had lost friends, sons, daughters, and spouses to kidnapping, and were themselves victims of extortion and other terrible acts of cruelty.
This time, the atmosphere was different. Today, those present reflected on the progress the city had made and on the need to keep all levels of government active in their commitment to the citizens of Juárez.
A young man, Guillermo, who spoke before the president two years ago and demanded emphatically that the youth of the city be given better opportunities, today stood in front of President Calderón and his fellow citizens to reflect upon what he had helped construct along with the government and civil society—a Tejido social (or social fabric, as he called it).
The crowd Guillermo stood before included a coalition of youth organizations (57 in total), who collectively sit on six different citizen’s councils. They now put on events such as “Juárez en Vivo,” the city’s first massive public event—which brought out more than 10,000 people one day in July 2010. Juárez en Vivo brought together the city’s local graffiti artists and bands, and put them on center stage with famed national and international musical acts for a day to celebrate Juárez’s unique and diverse culture, injecting some life back into the battered city.
Tejido social, Guillermo went on to say, is reflected by acts of collective courage and a voice firmly stating that society will not succumb to being held hostage by fear and terror. The city, he says, is worth saving, and the only way to accomplish their goals is by being realistic about the great amount of work that has yet to be done.
Social change takes time, and Juarez has had to deliver on rush orders, but there are many encouraging signs. For starters, the murder rate has dropped by more than one third since 2009. Also, the place where the brand new field, library, and park for this community lie today was once a huge plot of dirt when Rodrigo and his team used to practice, unaware that their deaths would be catalysts for change in the city. Today, both teams are lined up in clean, crisp jerseys, ready to play a football game in honor of their friends. They may no longer be here, but their legacy reminds their community of its resilience. Rodrigo’s Mom is there, and will continue to be in the bleachers during every game, to cheer for her son’s team.
Laura Vargas is an MPA degree Candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
(Photo courtesy of Daniel Schwen)