National Geographic : 2016 Jun
Juárez Returns to Life 117 cell phone calls. On a visit I found gleaming tile, bright lights, clean yards. By 2014 there were no killings, escapes, or riots. The prison, along with seven others in Chihuahua, is now accredited by the American Correctional Association. As the violence was exploding, Mexico was instituting a U.S.-style trial system, with judges who hear testimony from sworn witnesses in courtrooms open to the public. For centuries Mexican judges had weighed written evidence and testimony, deciding guilt or innocence be- hind closed doors. Verdicts could take years. Chihuahua was one of the first states to adopt the open-trial system, and Juárez was quick to implement it. The state built a spacious, airy courthouse complex. Things got worse at first. Prosecutors made rookie blunders. But by mid- 2011, they were winning life sentences for extor- tionists and kidnappers. In one courtroom I visit, a three-judge panel, after a month of testimony open to the public, convicts three men on trial for invading homes at gunpoint, robbing families, raping women, then making off with computers and televisions. Police had arrested the men, investigated the case, and found witnesses to testify. “These guys were doing what so many young guys started doing,” Josefina Soara, the prosecu- tor, tells me as afternoon shadows spread across the complex. “They were getting a gun, going and robbing anyone that occurred to them. They figured that since the wave of violence was so huge, no one was going to pay any attention.” In Juárez homicides have fallen, from 3,766 in 2010 to 256 in 2015. Juárez is no longer on the list of the 50 most violent cities in the world. No cases of kidnapping or extortion have been reported in more than two years. Helped by the U.S. economic recovery, Juárez added 17,000 new jobs in the first half of last year, the best such figure in five years. Alamillo insists that Juárez can be a model for other regions of Mexico still beleaguered by eruptions of medieval violence. “If Juárez can do it, why can’t they? It’s the same country,” he says. “ We can change this.” I’d like to believe him. Yet Juárez is in the north, a region closer to the U.S. market and typically more open to new ideas than the rest of Mexico. Much of what weakened Juárez remains: low-paying, dead-end jobs; street gangs and drug cartels; more billboards than trees; and proximity to a neighbor with an insatiable ap- petite for drugs and few controls on guns. What’s more, politicians haven’t touched the political system’s corruption and lack of accountability, which allowed small-time drug traffickers to become national security threats. Though almost half of Chihuahua’s tax revenue is generated in Juárez, only a small percentage of that money returns to the city. Juárez remains a city of too many potholes and too few parks. Still, the transformation seems credible, though some say it is also the result of an ac- cord between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug car- tels. “It’s possible. I don’t know,” de la Vega says. “ What I do know is that police are doing a much better job. There are murderers in prison, kid- nappers in prison, extortionists in prison.” The answer was always in Juárez, Leyzaola tells me when we meet for breakfast. “People think someone’s going to come from outside and cure the problem,” he says. “People think a messiah will come. No. The key to suc- cess is to strengthen what’s local.” Two months after our conversation Leyzaola was shot multiple times while parked on a Juárez street, a reminder of how dangerous the city re- mains. He is now paralyzed and uses a wheelchair but has moved back to Tijuana and is running for mayor. As evidence of how much has changed in the city he left behind, the police quickly caught and charged two alleged attackers. Their trials will be open to the public and reported by the media. And if convicted, they’ll spend years in prisons run by guards, not inmates. j Go to ngm.com/Jun2016 to hear Diego Montejano tell about growing up poor in Juárez—where he be- longed to a gang and bagged drugs for money—and why helping other kids is now so important to him.