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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

A city once known as the most violent in the world is not so violent anymore. Juarez, Mexico, was known a few years ago as the bloodiest battlefield in the drug war, where people were killed by the thousands and even dismembered. Today, it's different.

INSKEEP: A team of colleagues and I visited Juarez as we traveled the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border. We were exploring stories of people, goods and culture that cross from one country to the other. It used to be that no place on the border was scarier than Juarez. So it's surprising to learn who is crossing into the city now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND MUSIC, CHATTER)

INSKEEP: Consider this sign of change in Juarez, Mexico: Intocable, the popular Texas border band we profiled last week on MORNING EDITION, has not played Juarez for years. It's a big city, but it was considered simply too dangerous. On this Saturday evening, they have returned, and we're backstage as they prepare to play to a baseball stadium filled with thousands of people.

RICKY MUNOZ: You know, we haven't been here in Juarez like, for a long time, man.

INSKEEP: The lead singer, Ricky Munoz, welcomed us into his tour bus. In recent years, this Texas group has played in Mexico City, in Central America, even Colombia and beyond, but Juarez was impossible.

MUNOZ: As a matter of fact, they weren't doing events. In seven years, we haven't been here. And so we're back.

INSKEEP: Juarez suffered more than 3,000 murders in 2010. By last year, annual murders had fallen to under 500. Juarez still has big-city violence; three people were killed on the day of this show. But the city no longer feels like it's at war with itself. Nightclubs have reopened, and night life has returned.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Spanish spoken)

(CHEERS)

INSKEEP: An announcer asked: Wanna hear Intocable? and then asked the crowd where they were from.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Spanish spoken)

(CHEERS)

INSKEEP: There's the people of Juarez.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Spanish spoken)

(CHEERS)

INSKEEP: Those were people from El Paso, Texas. They had crossed the border from Juarez's fraternal twin city across the Rio Grande. High-paying fans in the front sat on plastic chairs, drinks on the tables in front of them.

(OPENING CHORDS OF SONG)

INSKEEP: They stood when Intocable took the stage well after midnight, playing music that sometimes sounds like '80s rock before veering into Mexico.

INTOCABLE: (Singing in Spanish)

INSKEEP: It's hard to say why violence in Juarez receded, though people have theories. Maybe rival drug cartels reached a truce. Maybe one cartel won out. Either way, this calmer city is not exactly crime-free, which is why some people remain in exile from Juarez, having crossed over to the far safer city of El Paso.

We crossed over to the American side one evening to visit the home-in-exile of Jose Alfredo Holguin. He beckoned us into his El Paso home, and told us the story of his Juarez business career.

JOSE ALFREDO HOLGUIN: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Before the violence, he said, my brothers and I had a fleet of buses. They provided public transport. They had more than 20 buses at one time, but somebody wanted a piece of the action. Men showed up brandishing guns in front of Holguin's family, and demanded extortion payments to leave the business alone.

HOLGUIN: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Every business, whether it was transport or restaurants, they received threats and demands for money.

In Juarez, the weekly payment to criminal groups is called the cuota, or toll. Holguin says his business had to pay $800 per week - almost half the weekly income - though he later negotiated down to 400. Sometimes the extortionist disappeared, only to be replaced weeks later by another man.

HOLGUIN: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Oh, because maybe the old guy got killed, and a new guy came in to take the money.

HOLGUIN: Es posible.

INSKEEP: Possibly so.

Holguin says he was part of a transport owners' group who complained to the government about the cuota. Then someone killed his adult son, shooting him nine times in the head. That's when his surviving family moved to El Paso, seeking asylum in 2009. Holguin has never been back to Juarez, but says his business has continued paying extortion as recently as last year.

What do you feel when you see Juarez? - which is so close; it's just across the river.

HOLGUIN: (Sighs) (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: I see Juarez at least three times a week, he says, and I feel shame.

INSKEEP: Other people doing business in Juarez told us they, too, are paying the cuota, though it's hard to prove exactly who is collecting. Crime in Juarez has not gone away. It's just become more businesslike, which shouldn't be surprising in a city that's all about business.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND STREET NOISES)

INSKEEP: So we have Delphi. We have Automotive Lighting, Flextronics...

During our visit, we took a drive to a series of maquiladoras - assembly plants lined up right along the borderline, set up to make parts and components for U.S. industries.

It's like a strip mall of maquiladoras, coming in here.

We watched a shift change, as people came and went from their 11-hour days...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: ...and a candy vendor outside the Lear Corp. offered chewing gum and chocolate for sale. Workers from many plants have long commutes, and one maquiladora worker let us follow along on hers. She went to an ATM to collect her pay - $43 per week - and then boarded a bus with her 16-year-old daughter.

This is the way to see Juarez, from inside a packed commuter bus. It's actually a school bus. The roof is so low, I really can't stand up straight here, in this jammed vehicle.

The woman we accompanied, Yvonne Navarro, was taking in the end-of-week atmosphere.

Someone is on this bus with a handful of hula-hoops.

YVONNE NAVARRO: (Spanish spoken) (Laughter)

INSKEEP: Those are good exercise, she said. She pointed out that on this bus, the emergency exit signs were in English. Juarez buses were worn out by American schoolchildren long before they were repainted many colors, and repurposed in Mexico.

You see the broken windows, the open windows, the torn seats, the graffiti; but you also see the mother and daughter with ice cream, the parents with children, people traveling home at the end of a long workweek.

Yvonne Navarro works making parts for refrigerators and other appliances, which are shipped across the border to the U.S. Years ago, she lived very close to the border herself, with a view across the river to the United States.

Did you like looking at El Paso from where you lived?

NAVARRO: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Sure, she says, but I like Mexico better. The only time she has crossed the river is to shop. She used to buy cheap items - like hairbands - in El Paso and sell them in Juarez, where prices are higher. These days, she lives deep inside Juarez. Her bus ride home leads past miles of restaurants offering burritos, and rows of washing machines for sale on the sidewalk. Yvonne points out a local pawnshop.

Have you ever used it?

NAVARRO: Si.

INSKEEP: She sold her rings when she needed money. That $43 a week doesn't go very far. Her husband left her, and she has two daughters still at home.

Oh, this is our stop.

We walked an unpaved street, which pointed toward a craggy mountain at the edge of town. Then we turned through a dimly lit gateway.

A dirt courtyard, a single lawn chair.

We arrived in a two-room house. A bare bulb cast light on yellow walls. Stuffed animals for Yvonne's two daughters filled a corner - teddy bears, Winnie the Pooh. The older daughter is also named Yvonne. She opened a book of photos from her recent quinceanera, a traditional coming-of age party for 15-year-old girls. Yvonne had to wait an extra year while her mother saved for it.

What do you want to do when you graduate?

NAVARRO: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: I want to go to college, she said, and become a lawyer. She has no idea how she'd afford that. Maybe she'll find a job, she says. At 16, she is the same age as her mother was when her mother went to work in maquiladoras. The Navarro family, like the city of Juarez in which they live, is surviving. They just haven't figured out how to get ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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