No one knows how many residents have left the city of 1.4 million since a turf battle over border drug corridors unleashed an unprecedented wave of cartel murders and mayhem. Business leaders, citing government tax information, say the exodus could number 110,000, while a municipal group and local university say it’s closer to 230,000 and estimates by social organizations are even higher.
The tally is especially hard to track because Juarez is by nature transitory, attracting thousands of workers to high-turnover jobs in manufacturing, or who use the city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, as a waystation before they slip north illegally.
Long controlled by the Juarez Cartel, the city descended into a horrifying cycle of violence after Mexico’s most-wanted kingpin, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa Cartel tried to shoot their way to power here beginning in 2008. President Felipe Calderon sent nearly 10,000 troops to restore order. Now, the Mexican army and federal authorities are going door-to-door, conducting an emergency census to determine just how many residents have fled.
Many people, however, refuse to answer their questions for fear authorities are simply collecting information about neighborhoods so they can begin extorting residents–just like the drug gangs. “Soon,” Longoria said, “there won’t be many people left to count.”
Massacres, beheadings, YouTube videos featuring cartel torture sessions and even car bombs are becoming commonplace in Juarez, where more than 3,000 people have been killed this year, according to the federal government, making it among the most dangerous places on earth.
Juarez Chamber of Commerce President Daniel Murguia said at least 6,000 city businesses have closed so far this year, according to Mexican Interior Ministry figures. There is no data available on those shuttered amid last year’s and 2008 violence, however, or on scores of businesses targeted by arsonists.
Even for those not tied to drug trafficking, staying in Juarez means paying off extortionists–like a 43-year-old food wholesaler near the city’s center who provides everything from bulk dog food to beer that smaller stores use to stock their shelves.
Every week, the wholesaler receives a call in which a distorted voice provides a bank account number where money can be deposited but not withdrawn. He takes cash to indicated bank branches and makes deposits.
The wholesaler’s son-in-law was kidnapped early last year–the family put $230,000 on a debit card and exchanged it for his safe return. His store had also been burglarized previously. Since he began paying for protection, however, all crime around him has ceased and his customers have even stopped getting harassed by police for illegally parking in front of his business.
Now parts of Juarez after sundown are all but deserted–even in the heart of downtown. Closed used car dealerships, taco and hamburger stands, pharmacies, ice cream parlors and muffler shops give way to a block of abandoned doctors’ and dentists’ offices, which stand forlornly next to a closed stereo outlet and across from an empty office supply store.