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Unemployed entrepreneurs: Ciudad Juarez and the War on Drugs

Ciudad Juarez is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. It is also one of the most violent.
Naomi Conrad
17 August 2010

Dusty, heaving Ciudad Juarez sprawls along the Rio Grande, ever more heavily guarded, natural border separating Mexico from its Northern Neighbour. It is one of the world’s fastest growing cities, yet it is has also gained notoriety as one of the world’s most violent ones outside the declared war zones. The city thrives on low-cost manufacturing as well as illicit narco- and people trafficking, yet increasingly the continuously high levels of violence scare off investors.

Almost daily, Ciudad Juarez continues to make the headlines with gruesome stories of its high levels of violence: Some 2,700 people died in 2009 in the border city in drug-related violence. - After his narrowly fought and won election in 2006, Mexican President Calderon declared a ‘war on drugs’ and sent the army into the dusty Mexican hinterland and northern border states long controlled by the all-powerful drug cartels. And the narco-traffickers, equipped with whatever newest state-of-the-art technology and weapons their stashes of drug dollars can buy, are fighting back, ruthlessly and relentlessly.

The Mexican government is desperate to emphasise the war’s victories, and several leading cartel members have been caught or killed in the fighting. Yet others are quick to take their place, turf wars have broken out between the cartels and the drug traffickers are targeting journalists, human rights defenders and anyone else who stands in their path. 

Despite the violence, Ciudad Juarez, a major manufacturing centre for exports to the United States, is growing rapidly. The city has an ever expanding industrial centre, hundreds of foreign-owned assembly plants, or maquildoras, cluster in and around the city. In these maquiladoras Mexicans, in their majority women, an unknown number of whom are working under-age with forged documents, assemble goods and textiles and are paid minimum wages. The finished goods are then shipped back across the border into the US, tax- and duty-free. Tens of thousands of people cross the Juarez-El Paso border every day, making Ciudad Juarez a major point of entry and transportation hub for northern Mexico.

Yet not only assembled goods for the retail business are shipped across the border. Small enterprises have mushroomed in the border region, making a living off the steady flow of US tourists in search of cheap souvenirs, petrol and other goods.

Border crossings have a habit of spurring small entrepreneurship of all kinds as well as corruption. - A hot, noisy, bustling border crossing in Central America, endless queues of old, rusty US lorries, many painted in bright colours, pictures of the Virgin Mary taped to the windscreen next to tattooed boxers and football players, their drivers lounging in the sun, patiently waiting to be waved past. Pulling up in a friend’s sturdy, medium-sized car, a man in a shabby suit shuffled up to the two foreigners and the Central American. He offered to take our passports, speed things up a bit in the scorching mid-day sun, just in case we might want to refill on petrol in the meantime or use the grimy facilities. Passports and several twenty-dollar notes were handed over; ten minutes later we pulled out past the waiting lorries and continued on our way, stamped passports securely back in our bags. And an enterprising man wandered off with his day’s wages, leaving us with a nagging feeling of guilt, having helped spur corruption.

Yet in Ciudad Juarez the intensity of the violence has had an effect on both tiny and bigger businesses which benefited from the border. Faced with increasing insecurity some US companies have held off increasing their investments. The local chamber of commerce has gone as far as to demand the deployment of UN Blue Helmets to protect the city.

The increased levels of violence only add a further layer of fear to an already existing environment of extortion and kidnapping: Drug barons and cartels in Ciudad Juarez routinely demand ‘protection’ money, whoever refuses may find his business burnt down, visited by local gangs of thugs or a relative kidnapped. According to a Mexican journalist, businesses most affected are construction companies, bars and restaurants.  The heavy presence of the federal army is of little to no avail and many complain that police officers and soldiers are involved in the extortion.

Add to the nefarious effects triggered by the violence, that of the international economic crisis: 55 percent of the factories in Ciudad Juarez supply for the car industry, which is one of the sectors the most badly hit by the financial crisis. Some companies have lost over fifty percent of their business with the downturn in the US and many Mexicans formerly employed in the construction industry in the US have been made redundant and have returned to the other side of the border, in search for jobs which simply do not exist.

Furthermore, with more Mexicans making their way south, less US citizens are crossing the border: Since 2008 US citizens returning from Mexico need to be in possession of a valid passport. This has depressed the flourishing trans-border tourism trade. Hundreds of small enterprises that previously made a living from the steady flow of tourists and the differences in prices across the border have been forced to close.

And so young people find it increasingly hard to find gainful employment. And so the mix of corruption, violence and economic downturn may well lead to an explosive social cocktail in Mexico’s dusty North. 

Naomi Conrad is a free-lance journalist and researcher and has lived and worked in Latin America, Africa and across Europe on her areas of expertise: Politics, Civil Society and Economic and Social Development. She holds a postgraduate degree in Latin American Studies from Oxford University.

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