EL PASO, Texas — In May, 2010, UTEP student Alejandro Ruiz Salazar, 19—also an employee of the Graduate School—was the first known UTEP student slain in Juarez since the beginning of the current drug war. The same day, former UTEP student Jorge Pedro Gonzalez Quintero, 21, was murdered.
According to Steve McCraw, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, the situation in Mexico is worse now than the Colombian drug war of the 1980s and 1990s ever was. “Colombia was never threatened like the government of Mexico is with the level of violence,” McCraw stated at a Capitol hearing.
“At first, we all saw the violence and murders as something that would never happen to us but now so many families have been torn apart, and a once prosperous, to some extent happy city, has been destroyed,” Acosta commented.
As of July, 2010, a new record for fatalities has been reached in Juarez: 1,645 homicides in a seven-month period. Despite President Felipe Calderon’s war against organized crime, 6,022 crimes have taken place in Juarez from January 2008 to July 24th of this year. This deadly toll includes children, men, women, and even foreigners that have lost their lives in this dangerous city. Mexican federal authorities report that 25% of homicides related to organized crime in the country are committed in Juarez alone.
According to newspaper records, a historical record was set for monthly and annual homicide totals was in 1995 with 34 victims in the month of August and 294 for the whole year. Fifteen years later, homicide rates have increased nearly ten fold. In 2008, 1,623 murders were recorded, with a much larger number of 2,754 in 2009.
“No longer is the violence in Juarez out of our lives but intricately part of it,” said Diego Acosta, a junior at UTEP.”
“I miss my old life very much, a city one that was once my home. I have built my life here [El Paso], my friends are here, or they come over often, and most importantly I feel safe here; I cannot say the same about Juarez,” lamented Esmeralda Zazueta, a current UTEP sophomore.
Despite the fact she misses Juarez, Zazueta explained that after violent threats to her family, they “panicked, began packing that afternoon, and were living in El Paso within two weeks.”
The violence in Juarez has also affected the housing market. According to Brandi Grissom of The Texas Tribune, Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz reported an estimate of 20,000 homes have been abandoned since 2008, with the estimates of those who fled, and continue leaving the city, ranging from 100,000 to half a million or 38% of the city’s total population.
“While some have fled north to seek safety and prosperity in America, many more have gone back to their homes in southern Mexico,” Reyes Ferriz said.
According to a survey by the Observatorio de Seguridad y Convivencia Ciudadanas, seven out of ten Juarez citizens reported they have modified their everyday lives and routines due to the intolerable fear. This study showed 63% of the Juarez population perceives the city as dangerous and citizens of the downtown area reported feeling more at risk.
“I see [El Paso] it sort of like a safe haven. Now my life and work are here along with school and most of my friends,” said Acosta. “I’m glad we live on the border where it takes less than 20 minutes to get from one city to the next. It doesn’t really feel like I live in another city, let alone a different country.”
Governor of the state of Chihuahua, Jose Reyes Baeza, asked the people of Juarez to practice extreme precaution to lessen the probabilities of becoming victims of violent acts. According to Rocio Gallegos, a reporter for the El Diario Newspaper, Reyes Baeza added it would be best if people stayed home after returning home from work as night is the time most susceptible to crime.
Juarez citizens have adopted new life styles as their freedom has eroded. It is now impossible to roam the streets without fear, and carrying money, visiting public parks, and wearing jewelry are out of the question. Teenagers and young adults who live at home are not allowed to go out as often as they once did.
The nightlife of Juarez had always outshined that of El Paso. Now, young people are crossing the border to enjoy themselves in a safer environment.
“I’m not afraid of going out whenever and wherever I want. When you go out in Juarez, you’re afraid you might get killed,” said Acosta.
To gather feedback from people living on the El Paso-Juarez border, a group of 114 UTEP students were surveyed regarding the current situation Juarez is going through, how it has affected their lives, and how the U.S. should aid Mexico. An astonishing 3/4 of the total participants believed the U.S. demand for illegal drugs was a fundamental cause of the violence and more than half believed the U.S. should legalize marijuana as a possible solution, versus 43% who opposed legalizing marijuana.
Of the total number of students, 74% said they have been affected by the violence in Juarez and 86% reported to feel much safer in El Paso. Despite the fact many have come to see El Paso as a safe haven, not all feel the U.S. should be more involved in stopping the violence in Mexico. Only a little over half of the 114 student participants believe the U.S should aid Juarez.