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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The age of the youngest victim was incorrectly stated. The youngest victim was 15 years old.

In Mexico, the massacre of 15 young people at a birthday party in Juarez is being seen by some as a turning point in the country's drug war. President Felipe Calderon initially dismissed the attack, saying the teenagers were probably gang members cut down by rivals. But they weren't. Most were students; the youngest, just 13 years old. President Calderon has since apologized to the families.

And as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, he has been forced to rethink his plan to fight the cartels in Juarez.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Mexican President Felipe Calderon rarely comes to Juarez, so when he did in mid-February, security was incredibly tight. Soldiers in Humvees, with machine guns mounted on their roofs, guarded the airport. Federal police lined the streets and surrounded the hotel where he was speaking.

Last year, more than 2,600 people were killed in Juarez as Calderon's forces, and two of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels, fight for control of this border city.

Outside his hotel, a few hundred protesters, many masked behind bandanas, clashed with the police. Cipriana Jurado, who was in the demonstration, says Calderon and his administration abandoned Juarez.

Ms. CIPRIANA JURADO (Protester): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: They started a war without consulting the community, she says. And the victims are the community. We don't want this war. There are executions and assassinations in broad daylight, but neither the army nor the federal police intervene.

Last March, Calderon put the Mexican army in charge of the Juarez Police Department after one of the local cartels ordered the police chief to quit. Calderon now concedes that military muscle alone isn't going to end the violence.

President FELIPE CALDERON (Mexico): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We need to tackle this social plan, President Calderon told a group of business and community leaders here, because the problems in Juarez have deep roots in the structure of this city. There's a lack of opportunity for young people, he said. There aren't enough schools, hospitals, soccer fields. Only half the roads are paved. Murder, extortion, kidnapping go unpunished.

Calderon said the social fabric and rule of law need to be re-established here. He got one of his biggest rounds of applause when he declared motorists must be accountable, and that people should no longer be allowed to drive around without license plates.

Pres. CALDERON: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

BEAUBIEN: At the same time that Calderon pledged tens of millions of additional dollars for social programs in Juarez, he said he will not pull the Mexican army out of the streets.

This border city, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, has been battered by the double punch of the global economic downturn and the gruesome drug war.

The maquiladoras, or assembly plants, in Juarez have cut more than a hundred thousand jobs since 2008. The owners of thousands of restaurants, bars, corner stores and other small businesses have shut their doors rather than pay protection money to local gangs. Many professionals have moved to El Paso.

Alvador Gonzalez Ayala is a civil engineer who works in Texas, and he's chosen to stay.

Mr. ALVADOR GONZALEZ AYALA (Civil Engineer): And I want to remain here. I want my children to remain here.

BEAUBIEN: He says one of the biggest problems facing this industrial city is the huge disparity in wealth. Gonzalez says much of the blame rests with the local elite.

Mr. AYALA: A privileged and influential minority that is totally indifferent to the great mass of poor people that live in the area.

BEAUBIEN: And he adds that the city has been neglected for decades. Young people who see the opulence in Juarez and just across the border fence in Texas, he says, are attracted to the quick money of the drug trade. Workers in the maquiladoras earn $60 to $70 a week. Drug runners can earn that - or a lot more - in a day.

Gonzalez is involved in several civic groups, and he recalls going recently to talk to a group of pre-teens in one of Juarez's poorer neighborhoods.

Mr. AYALA: We were promoting education and science and math. And we were asking them, what do you want to do when you grow up? Many of them told us, I want to be a sicario. That's striking; a sicario is a paid assassin.

BEAUBIEN: Gonzalez and many others say they welcome President Calderon's new social plan for combating crime. But they're still skeptical, and they say any investment in rebuilding the social fabric of Juarez is going to need the attention of the president - not just for a few weeks, but for years to come.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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