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In Mexico's brutal drug war, the city of Juarez has seen horrific levels of violence. In 2009, it racked up the highest number of murders in its history. Last year, close to 2,600 people in Juarez were killed in drug-related crimes. The city lies just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

NPR's Jason Beaubien traveled there and sent this story.

(Soundbite of sirens)

JASON BEAUBIEN: Juarez is a city torn apart by more than just murder. It's a city adrift, a city struggling unsuccessfully to find hope, a city flooded with heavily armed security forces, but where most people say they don't feel secure. The wave of killings that's grown steadily over the last two years has spawned a secondary crime wave of kidnapping and extortion. And the violence has left the city in a state of shock.

In downtown Juarez, Diana Martinez just placed a small black cross with the name of her brother on it on a banner to the thousands of people killed since 2007.

Ms. DIANA MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I think we are now living in a state of paranoia, Martinez says, all of the inhabitants of Ciudad Juarez, even the children. It's something that's completely upturned our lives. I don't feel secure in the streets or even in my house.

Her brother, Rafael, who sold used cars, was gunned down in May in what Diana thinks was a robbery.

Ms. MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: He was a very young man, 24 years old, she says. He leaves behind a family and three kids. It's a tragedy just like the thousands and thousands of tragedies that are repeating here every day in Juarez.

In 2009, officials promised things would get better in Juarez. 2008 has been a terrible year in the border city as two of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels fought for control of smuggling routes into El Paso, Texas. Early last year, the Mexican military took over the Juarez police department. President Felipe Calderon sent in thousands of federal police and soldiers to regain control of the city, but the violence has only gotten worse.

More than 2,600 people were killed in Juarez in 2009, making it the murder capital of the hemisphere and giving it a homicide rate more than 17 times greater than that of Los Angeles.

Mr. NELSON ARMENTA: The last two years have been just unbelievable, how the level of violence, you know, we are living each day. I mean, the level of violence is just incredible.

BEAUBIEN: Nelson Armenta runs a small seafood restaurant in downtown Juarez. After he was held up twice in one month, he hired a security guard to twirl a baton out front.

Mr. ARMENTA: These young guys, you know, almost 17 years old, you know, carrying guns. That got us worried. That's why we got the security guard.

BEAUBIEN: Mexican soldiers with automatic weapons also patrol in front of his restaurant. Truckloads of federal police with machine guns mounted on their pickups roll through the streets, but the violence hasn't just continued, it's been increasing.

Every day, he reads in the paper about businesses getting shot up or burned down for not paying for so-called protection.

Mr. ARMENTA: And we just realized that, you know, we cannot be afraid of that. I mean, it's not about religion, but it's about faith. It's about, if this happens, well, at least we can do is just move on.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Juarez is a city of dreams. To Americans, it may look like the ugly, dusty, beat-up stepsister of El Paso. But to poor Mexicans, it's a land of promise. For decades, people have flocked to the low-paying but plentiful jobs in the city's maquiladoras. They must first apply for mandatory criminal background checks. And each day, a long line extends outside the state attorney general's office as jobseekers wait for their paperwork. Other enterprising souls are hawking burritos, tacos and cold drinks to the people stranded in line. But at the same time that the city's murder rate has skyrocketed, so has unemployment.

Jorge Pedroza, the executive director of the local maquiladoras association, says the global economic downturn hit the Juarez factories incredibly hard.

Mr. JORGE PEDROZA (Executive Director, Asociacion de Maquiladoras): Since 2008 to 2009, we lost around 125,000 jobs.

BEAUBIEN: This in a city of just 1.5 million people, and it represents almost a 50 percent drop in jobs at the city's main source of legal employment.

Tighter border controls and the bad publicity from the drug war have also slashed tourism. The U.S. military has ordered its personnel not to enter Juarez without special permission. Despite this, a U.S. airman was gunned down along with five other people in a Juarez strip club in November.

The city is trying to confront the situation. The mayor has reconstituted and doubled the size of the local police force. He's opened subsidized day care centers for the children of factory workers.

But Clara Rojas, who teaches political rhetoric at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, predicts it will take decades for the city to recover. She traces the roots of the current violence to the hundreds of murders of women in the 1990s that are still unsolved.

Professor CLARA ROJAS (Political Rhetoric, Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez): It's impunity, of course. What else?

BEAUBIEN: She says that that impunity sent a signal to the drug cartels and other thugs that Juarez is, in her words, fertile ground for criminal activity.

Prof. ROJAS: There is no way you can change anything if everybody thinks the city is a trash can for whatever they want to do.

BEAUBIEN: Rojas says Juarez has much more than a drug-related problem. She says the current violence stems from deep social fissures. And until those are fixed, she predicts the killings will continue.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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