People walk past hundreds of red shoes, symbolizing missing women, left by their relatives in Ciudad Juárez
Seeking justice: red shoes symbolising missing women are left by their relatives in Ciudad Juárez. Hundreds have disappeared, many without trace, since 1993

Two years ago, when armed gunmen opened fire on a party of teenagers in a poor neighbourhood of Ciudad Juárez, the city on Mexico’s northern frontier reached its lowest point. The massacre, which left 16 dead, was part of a turf war between two drug cartels that turned Juárez into the world’s deadliest city.

The bloodshed – the murder rate reached 224 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010 – coincided with a sharp fall in employment as the US economic crisis gutted Juárez’s manufacturing-for-export (maquila) sector, which lost 20 per cent of its jobs, according to the Amac, the local maquila association. “It was the perfect storm,” says José Luis Armendáriz, Amac’s president.

The effect of both phenomena on the city’s youth – half of Mexico’s 112m inhabitants are under 29, according to HSBC – was traumatic. Not only did the violence curtail any sort of nightlife but the resulting lack of jobs from the US crisis made the prospects of finding factory work much harder.

To make things worse, successive local governments in Juárez had largely ignored, or underestimated, the effects of the lack of green spaces and social infrastructure in the city. Nowhere was this more glaring than in Villas de Salvárcar. Rodrigo Cadena, who grew up in the neighbourhood, was a fanatical American football player. But even though he had a team, he never got to play on a pitch that was surfaced with anything other than uneven dirt: he was one of the victims of the shootings.

“The government abandoned us,” says Adrián Cadena, Rodrigo’s father. “They used to call this ‘the city of death’. They didn’t go far enough.”

The inevitable consequence of the lack of investment and lack of access to opportunities for Juárez’s youth was a growth in the city’s gangs, membership of which at least provided young people with a way of making money and, more important, perhaps, a sense of belonging in a city in which all too often children are left at home – or to wander the streets – until their parents return from work.

Today, Juárez is starting to write a new chapter. In the year to the end of September, there were 658 murders in the city compared with 2,305 in the same period of 2010, according to the state attorney-general’s office. There are now entire days without any murders, which would have been inconceivable a couple of years ago.

Many attribute the drop in violence to the common view that the Sinaloa cartel, one of the drug organisations operating in the city, has emerged triumphant in its war with the Juárez cartel. But they admit a huge social investment push since 2010 by the federal administration and increased security spending by the municipal government has also made a difference.

Called Todos somos Juárez (We are all Juárez), former president Felipe Calderón’s programme has so far funnelled about $400m – roughly twice the city government’s annual budget – into areas such as education, health and community. In the past two years, federal ministers have made more than 70 visits to Juárez.

In Villas de Salvárcar, for example, there are now proper sports facilities, including an American football pitch with artificial turf. And on any night of the week, it is full of children and adolescents. “Before all of this, they had nowhere to play except the street,” says Mr Cadena.

Aside from Todos somos Juárez, which is funded from Mexico City, the local government is raising spending on the municipality’s police force and security equipment. The city purged its police force of about 2,300 members, and reorganised it to cover the area more efficiently and respond to crimes more quickly. The total cost of the re-engineering is about 1bn pesos ($79m), or more than one-third of the local government’s annual budget.

The change of federal administration in December last year could produce an end to Todos somos Juárez – local authorities say they do not know if the programme will continue.

Another concern is that the relative recovery of the US will fizzle out, plunging export-dependent Juárez into another recession.

But for now, the murders are about 70 per cent down on what they were at the height of the troubles and the number of jobs in the maquila sector is growing rapidly. “Green spaces are helping to win back a lot of kids who took to the gangs,” says Mr Cadena. “But we need a lot more of them if this is going to change for good.”

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