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Ciudad Juarez has been the epicenter of Mexico's cartel war, but lately, it's getting a reprieve. Violence is down sharply across the city: Children are playing outside again; shops and cafes have reopened; and some people are moving back. NPR's john Burnett visited with a Catholic priest whose parish was torn by the havoc. He's begun to reflect now that the worst appears to be over.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Father Kevin Mullins steers his old Chevy pickup up a steep road to a hilltop dominated by a large statue of the virgin. She has a commanding view of this troubled corner of Christendom.

FATHER KEVIN MULLINS: Jump out and we'll look around for awhile if that's all right with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

BURNETT: Here, the states of Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, intersect amid barren hills freckled with ocotillo plants and greasewood. The graying priest with the kind, ruddy face squints north. He's Australian-born, a member of the Columban Fathers who are committed to social justice.

MULLINS: So you see the border fence down there, and then further to the south, you have Ciudad Juarez.

BURNETT: His Corpus Christi church is in Rancho Anapra, a hardscrabble barrio on the west side of Juarez that stares at El Paso across the sluggish Rio Grande. It's been a tough four years when massacres, beheadings and disappearances became as commonplace as dust storms in the Chihuahua Desert. As the cartels took over and security vanished, packs of freelance thugs roamed the city, extorting at will. No one was spared.

MULLINS: I heard on one occasion that a priest was threatened, his parents would be shot if the priest didn't pay up with the Sunday collection.

BURNETT: Giving last rites to bleeding bodies became as common as reciting the rosary. Father Mullins grew afraid, but he stayed. He says he wanted to be a witness to the suffering in his parish.

MULLINS: On average, we'd have one or two murder funerals a week for a couple of years, for at least three years, mainly young people, males between the ages of 15 and 25. I believe that we have seen a lessening of the violence. We haven't buried anyone because of the drug-related violence in I'd say about four months.

BURNETT: In 2010, there were more than 3,000 murders in Juarez, or one every three hours. It came to be called Murder City. Last year, there were fewer than 800 homicides, still high, but that counts as progress in Juarez. The government takes credit for jailing the gang leaders and for instituting social programs for at-risk youth. That's part of the explanation. But the word on the street is that the turf war is winding down because one side won: The interloping Sinaloa Cartel has all but defeated the local Juarez Cartel. Despite encouraging trends, the crime wave is by no means over.

JUAN PABLO PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Juan Pablo Perez pays extortion every month to keep his meat market and grocery store open on Anapra's main street. He's a parishioner at Corpus Christi.

PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Perez says a couple of years ago he paid $300 every month in protection money, which was collected by a 14-year-old girl who worked with the gangsters. Today, he pays them $120 every month. So, is that progress?

PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: No way, Perez says, it's a burden. In a neighborhood nearby, Reyna Hernandez sits by her gas heater bundled against the cold. Outside, the season's first snow carpets the muddy streets and rocky hillsides, turning them temporarily graceful. She works as a cook for the priests. She too has witnessed the tribulations the parish has gone through.

REYNA HERNANDEZ: (Through Translator) A lot of times, they lose their faith. Their faith weakens when they see so much death, so much blood. Some people who are in pain ask: Where is God? Why does he permit these things?

(SOUNDBITE OF CATHOLIC MASS)

BURNETT: The white-washed church, located on a dirt street off the main boulevard, became a refuge from the madness of the cartel war. A place of darkness in which evil thrives is how Juarez has been portrayed to the world. But Father Mullins sees another reality.

MULLINS: I see the results of darkness, but I also see the goodness and the courage and the bravery of people. I would see the hand of God in the midst of mayhem by people who were able to support each other, show great solidarity and kindness, love, hug, pray together.

BURNETT: In the past decade, some Catholic churches in Mexico have been criticized for accepting narco-limosnas, or drug money tithes. One chapel in Central Mexico bears a plaque honoring its patron: a late drug lord who led the ruthless Zetas Cartel. Father Mullins says that two years ago a woman with ties to a Juarez drug gang offered to pay for a youth center and basketball court next to his church. The long-planned project would give young people something to do besides joining a gang.

MULLINS: We couldn't accept what turns out to be blood money for works in the parish. We gratefully thanked her for her help and offer but politely refused.

BURNETT: Father Kevin Mullins is pleased to report that after he rejected the narco-tithe, other donors stepped forward and the spacious new youth center was completed last year. With violence decreasing all over this shell-shocked city, he prays the youth of Rancho Anapra will have a better chance to reach adulthood. John Burnett, NPR News.

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