CIUDAD JUÁREZ – María, a mother of four children and business owner, says her family has had to adopt “survival” measures to protect itself from the crushing daily violence plaguing her city.
“We had to install a system of cameras that we monitor from home through the Internet,” said María, 54, who requested that her last name, details of her family and name of her businesses not be disclosed.
This was after her family had to pay a “quota” when several of its businesses were targets of extortion, one family member was victim of an “express kidnapping,” and they realized their businesses were under constant surveillance by criminals.
Subsequently, the family has contracted a security guard and installed alarms. By early afternoon, they lock the doors of their businesses and, as soon it starts to get dark, open the door only for known customers. They also removed business ads from the telephone directory and switched business and private telephone numbers to unlisted numbers.
In spite of these protective measures, they had to close one of their stores a few months ago because the “quota” was greater than the profits and they were no longer able to pay it.
“They entered with submachine guns and ordered (the employees to) ‘bring your boss in a half hour,’” said a worried María, recalling that she and her family members had watched the holdup on the cameras. “With cameras and all we have been robbed two or three times,” she said.
“You can have cameras, you can have guards, and they don’t care,” she said. “If they’re intent on holding you up, they will hold you up; if they’re going to kidnap you, they’ll kidnap you.”
Following the Mexican government’s five-year-old war against drug cartels, Ciudad Juárez has become the most violent city in the country with over 1,000 homicides thus far this year and 3,042 in 2010. Juárez is a desert city of about 1.3 million that has lost between 30,000 and 125,000 middle class residents over the past five years mainly as a result of criminal activity and turf wars between competing criminal/drug cartels.
Like María and her family, most residents of the crime beleaguered city have adapted to the indiscriminate violence by installing locks, safety bars and other security devices, changing their daily habits and routines, frequenting fewer public establishments and taking other measures such as dressing modestly and deciding not to purchase a new car. In many Juárez neighborhoods, residents have pooled their money to install security gates, guardhouses, hire security guards, or even set up rows of large orange highway construction barrels to bar access to their street.
Rosina Beltrán Cazarez, a child psychologist in Juárez, said children are vulnerable to the prevalent daily violence – especially those who witness assaults or shootings, or hear about these events from their classmates.
“They cry, stop eating, get lower grades in school and suffer from anxiety and depression,” she said, adding that many also have trouble sleeping.
“They are afraid of their environment or they may have a friend that tells them (about the violence) and this affects their sense of safety,” Beltrán Cazarez said.
In addition, hundreds of children have lost their parents to the violence. According to El Diario de Juárez, there are 1,400 petitions pending nationwide from orphans seeking funds from a special federal government program, Niños y Niñas Hijos de las Víctimas de la Lucha Contra el Crimen. Seventy percent of the requests are from Juárez children, the paper says.
As thousands of middle class families relocate to the U.S. or other parts of México to flee from the violence, these children may suffer from “low self esteem” from having to change residence and schools. The psychologist suggests parents stay alert to changes in their child’s behavior, shield their children from media coverage of the violence, and remain calm when they go outside with them.
Following the crimes against her family, María and her relatives are always alert observing who’s around them before leaving the house and check on each other several times a day by cell phone. “I’m calling to report that I’m fine, I’m doing my normal work, I’m still alive,” says María. “We try to take refuge in our house.”
Salvador, a 37-year-old electronics engineer, said he and his wife won’t let their children answer the phone for fear they might leak information to would be criminals that they are home alone or about their parents’ whereabouts. In addition to getting an unlisted number, the family removed the greeting from their answering machine.
“My wife controls access to our colonia in order to keep it restricted, with personal codes that are changed periodically,” said Salvador, explaining that this prevents strangers from entering the community.
Administrators at his children’s school have hired armed undercover guards who work in civilian clothes to patrol the school grounds. Additionally, parents are issued identification cards they must show when they come to pick up their children.
“The most drastic measure is that we almost never go out anymore to nighttime activities,” Salvador says, adding that they only frequent shopping centers they know are safe and avoid those that don’t pay for enough security. They go shopping with cash in their pockets. They don’t take credit cards or carry purses.
“We no longer participate in any type of survey in those shopping centers because that was another source of extortion,” he said.
Irasema, a bookkeeper who is 29 years old, says she began burning all her personal papers, including store receipts and credit card bills, after criminals extorted money from several neighbors using their personal information.
“I now burn all my papers and dump them into the trash,” said Irasema, adding that she no longer goes to nightclubs and only attends a party if she knows the person well.
“Many of my friends don’t know where I now live,” said Irasema.
Juan José, a 19-year-old university student studying manufacturing engineering, said he was on his way to the gym recently and had to take cover between a car and a house when he heard shots coming from a park near his house.
Later, he learned that someone had been killed at the park. “They just went by and mowed him down,” he said. The park had been the site of a previous drive-by shooting, Juan Jose said, adding that he no longer goes to the park to play soccer.
Now he plays at an underground park protected by walls. “You avoid some nut in a drive-by shooting,” Juan José said.
Luis, 32, admits he “becomes paranoid” when he drives in the city, especially when he stops at a traffic light. “You look around to see who’s next to you,” he said.
Because SUV’s are a popular carjacking target in Juárez, Luiz said he and his wife Mayra traded theirs in for a modest compact Nissan Tsuru that is less likely to call the attention of car thieves.
Even so, they have not been immune to the indiscriminate violence. Once when they were eating hamburgers with their nine-month-old son Esteban in a fast food place the family heard gunshots coming from the parking lot.
“I ran with the baby into the bathroom,” said Luis, who later found out the shooting had left several dead.
Several Juárez shopping centers have increased security to provide their customers with a safe environment.
“We have installed panic buttons to know immediately what store it is and all the guards concentrate in going to that place,” said Miguel Angel Esquivel Villa, an administrator at Plaza Juárez Mall. In addition to adding more security guards, the mall has installed security cameras and now closes at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.
When shoppers arrive they receive fliers with a list of safety recommendations, including not to carry valuables in purses, to be alert to strangers when you get in or out of your car, not to walk alone, and to take different routes home.
Plaza Juárez Mall also provides information to shopkeepers on how to handle a security emergency. Besides pressing a panic button that can be easily kept out of sight in their pants pocket, they are urged to check their store locks to be sure they haven’t been tampered with and to report anything wrong immediately to the security office.
San Lorenzo Shopping Center closed off its parking lot and installed booths to avoid auto thefts and facilitate arrests of criminals. “We made it into a paying parking lot to control entry and exit of vehicles,” said Julisa Ginen González, an administrator at the shopping center.
Las Torres Shopping Center has undercover security guards constantly moving to avoid detection. “The guards are rotated and they dress as civilians,” said Francisco Rodarte, an administrator for Plaza Las Torres.
Editor’s note: The surnames of some Juárez residents have been deleted to protect them.