CIUDAD JUAREZ (Mexico), Feb 5, 2016:
Billboards with pictures of Pope Francis welcome the pontiff to Mexico’s former murder capital with the inviting phrase “Juarez is Love”, as the northern border works to shed its violent image.
Ciudad Juarez, just across from El Paso, Texas, is striving to show that it is no longer a gangland battleground or the dark place where hundreds of women have been senselessly murdered.
Life has returned on the streets while inmates at the state prison put a coat of fresh paint on the penitentiary’s church as they prepare for the pope to visit them on Feb 17.
The prison is a symbol of the city’s violent past, but also of its recovery.
Some 30 inmates in orange jumpsuits arranged plants and painted the church this week in biting-cold temperature as they spruced up a place where some 100 prisoners died in riots and brawls in 2010.
“There used to be groups in here that would cause problems between them. As an inmate, you would have to run to your cell,” said Joel Torres, a former soldier who has served 15 years at the Number Three state prison for murder.
“This doesn’t happen anymore. They take away even the smallest nail. It’s very secure,” Torres said as his face lightened up at the thought of the pope’s visit to the prison.
Outside the prison grounds, the city was once engulfed in a bloody turf war between the Sinaloa drug cartel of captured kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the Juarez gang.
The murder spree peaked at more than 3,000 homicides in 2010, but it fell in the following years, dropping to around 300 last year, according to official figures.
The local government has attributed the improvements to the arrival of a hardnosed police chief and a crime prevention programme.
But security experts and law enforcement sources say violence dropped because the Sinaloa drug cartel won the turf war and focused again on getting drugs across the border.
But the city’s violent past has left scars that have not healed despite the message of love for the pope, which contrasts with the pictures of missing girls and women pasted on walls.
“This city is recovering because that’s what God wants, and the pope is coming to give us words of encouragement because many families are suffering,” said Susana Montes, a 46-year-old woman who could not hold back tears as she remembered the tragic afternoon of Jan 31, 2009.
That fateful day, her 17-year-old daughter, Maria Guadalupe, disappeared when she went downtown to buy tennis shoes.
Montes did her own investigation because she did not believe that the authorities were doing their job. After several months, she learned that a criminal group kidnapped her daughter, held her in a hotel and forced her into prostitution along with other girls.
Maria Guadalupe’s dismembered body was found later in a creek, near a military facility, along with 11 other girls who are among more than 400 women who have been victims of “feminicides” since 1993.
Pope’s visit a ‘gift’
Violence is not the only problem that has lacerated Ciudad Juarez.
In the 1980s, the city’s proximity to the United States attracted many foreign companies that built factories, known here as “maquiladoras”, which prompted thousands of Mexicans to travel here to work for low salaries.
But competition from China caused some manufacturers to move out, and those that have stayed face workers seeking better conditions.
Around 100 workers of US printer maker Lexmark have set up camp outside the factory, accusing the firm of firing them for forming a union and demanding a wage increase from their US$38 (RM24) weekly salaries.
While the pope will hear from some factory workers, one of his central messages at a cross-border mass will be directed at migrants whose quest for the “American Dream” has turned into a nightmare of deportation and separation from their families.
“Presidents and politics apparently don’t agree with us, but we can’t stay in the shadows. We also want rights,” said Jose Alberto Sanchez, who lived for 15 years in Las Vegas until his deportation more than a year ago.
Sanchez left behind his wife and two children. He was detained three times while trying to recross the border.
Father Javier Calvillo, a priest who runs a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juarez, said he knows hundreds of similar stories.
But, he added, “I don’t ask anything from the pope because the mere fact that he will step foot in Juarez and hold a microphone is the best gift.”