What was once a bustling scene of smiling tourists and eager sales people peddling their wares is now eerily quiet. Smiles have been replaced with drawn faces and eyes full of worry.
Courtesy of Minero Magazine. Originally published on Vol. VII, Fall 2008.
Since January 2008, there have been more than 1,000 homicides in Ciudad Juárez. The number of murders in El Paso’s close neighbor thus far averages nearly four killings per day. The numbers continue to rise each day and have increased by more than 300 since research into this article began.
Many of the murders, which resemble execution-style shootings, are presumably linked to a war between a Sinaloa drug cartel and a Juárez drug cartel known as La Línea. The recent violence caused by these embattled drug cartels and the Mexican government’s attempt to curb them has greatly impacted tourism to Cd. Juárez. The fear of getting caught in the middle of the violence has not only affected tourist hot spots, such as restaurants and nightclubs, but pharmacies, optical and dentistry businesses as well.
These health care businesses in El Paso’s sister city were not only alternative health options for El Pasoans and UTEP students with and without insurance, but also for many thousands of U.S. citizens who travel to the border region to take advantage of the lower cost of health care in Mexico.
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“Malo (bad),” says Jorge Aponte about the current business situation in Cd. Juárez. The simple one-word answer from Aponte, a taxi driver, carries as much weight as seeing the hard faces of men in military uniforms flanking the Mexican side of the border.
As a border town, El Paso attracts a great deal of American tourists, who have routinely ventured over the international bridges to sample what for them is a colorful and exotic world. The economy of Cd. Juárez has greatly depended on the tourists and residents of the U.S. and El Paso to survive. Nightlife and entertainment across the border have always been popular among young college students, especially since the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18.
“Está muy tranquilo (It is very quiet),” says Mayra, an optician from Optical Internacional, located on Avenida Juárez. Avenida Juárez, also known as The Strip, is the street located just off the Juárez side of the Stanton Street international bridge and is lined with several dental and optical businesses that expressly cater to U.S. citizens. Optical Internacional, along with other businesses, has dropped its prices due to the lack of customers coming over the border. “Con todo lo que está pasando, mucha gente tiene miedo (With all that has happened, many people are afraid),” Mayra explains.
The drug cartel violence has deterred many would-be medical tourists from making their usual visits. “No hay turistas (There are no tourists),” Aponte says. “Tienen miedo a venir (They are afraid to come).”
“Ochenta por ciento (80 percent),” is the unanimous answer given as to how much business has dropped since the violence in Cd. Juárez began. The answer does not vary from taxi drivers, restaurant owners, pharmacy owners and optical workers alike.
Trinidad Sánchez Torres is the long-time owner of El Mexicanito, a restaurant located in the Mercado Juárez. The Mercado has always been a popular hot spot for tourists. Sánchez Torres looks around the empty tables and walkways and sighs as she explains: “Siempre se la pasaba lleno aquí–muchos clientes, pero ya ha bajado 80 por ciento (It was always full here—many customers, but now it is down by 80 percent).” Sánchez Torres is one of the few owners who has been able to keep her business from dying. She says it is thanks to the money she had put away prior to recent events. “¿Qué voy hacer cuando se me acabe mi ahorro? (What am I going to do when my savings run out?)” Sánchez Torres asks worriedly.
While Sánchez Torres laments over the present situation, a lone gentleman has stopped to order lunch from El Mexicanito. Even though it is lunchtime, the take-out order he places is the only one the once-busy restaurant has. “Estamos en crisis (We are in crisis),” he says. “Hay muchas partes que ya han cerrado (There are many parts (of the city) that have already closed).” Sánchez Torres responds with “¡Aquí estamos todavía! (We’re still here!)” She says that the gentleman is a fellow business owner who has a pharmacy on the other side of the Mercado.
José Contreras Corral, vice president of international relations for the Juárez Chamber of Commerce, confirms the rough estimate of business decline from the business owners. “It’s easily 80 percent,” Contreras Corral says. Contreras Corral also agrees with the observation made by Sánchez Torres that the reason many of the businesses are closing in Cd. Juarez is the lack of tourists visiting the city.
Edmundo Valencia, a senior linguistics major at UTEP, is a local promoter who books bands in both El Paso and Cd. Juárez. Valencia had worked closely with The Line Bar, located on Avenida Juárez. The Line Bar closed its doors before the violence began. Valencia says that the music scene in Cd. Juárez has also been affected. “It’s been difficult to book bands in Juárez,” Valencia says. “People will wait and find their own entertainment, bands will look for alternative venues.”
Valencia says that there are a lot more house parties since the violence in Cd. Juárez has escalated. Valencia explains that even the bars, such as the Yankee Bar, also located on Avenida Juárez, that were once popular hangouts for the younger crowds have been empty. “A lot of people are scared right now, who knows how it will go,” Valencia says.
The violence prompted the university to send an e-mail advising the UTEP student body to be vigilant about their safety when traveling to Cd. Juárez. Catie McCorry-Andalis, assistant vice president for student life and associate dean of students, says that the e-mail was merely an advisory reminding students to be aware of their surroundings. “The intent of the e-mail was to make sure the students were conscious of their surroundings when they travel to Mexico,” McCorry-Andalis says. “We’re very proud of our relationships with Mexico and want those relationships to continue.”
Sánchez Torres does not believe tourists should be afraid to venture into Cd. Juárez. “No, lo que es más importante es que ellos no están aquí por la noche (No, what is more important is that they are not here at night).”
Contreras Corral believes that the Mexican government won’t be able to solve the problems in Cd. Juárez by itself. Contreras Corral worries that the violence occurring in the Mexican border city will not be contained by the physical border between the two countries. “The U.S. needs to get involved with Mexico as they did with Colombia,” Contreras Corral says. “If this does not happen, it could end up hurting more people on the U.S. side of the border.”