Sprawling Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, is possibly Mexico’s nastiest border town. Vast, dirty and riddled with visible social problems at the best of times, it’s spiralling drug-gang violence led to the Mexican army being deployed to patrol its bullet-spattered streets in 2008 – around 2660 people were murdered here in 2009. This followed the already notorious rape and murder of over four hundred women since 1993, “las muertas de Juárez” portrayed in the depressing Jennifer Lopez movie Bordertown (2007) and Roberto Bolaño’s seminal novel 2666. There’s an element of paranoia to this of course; Juárez is a city of two million people that, by and large, functions like anywhere else in Mexico, and tourists are very rarely targeted by drug gangs. The troops had improved the security situation by early 2010, but it’s still a good idea to pass through Juárez as quickly as possible – you won’t miss much. In five hours you can reach Chihuahua (373km) or, rather closer, Nuevo Casas Grandes, the base for excursions to the archeological site at Casas Grandes.
The Mexican drug wars
The Mexican drug wars
Ciudad Juárez has become one of the most violent epicentres of the escalating Mexican drug wars – a violent struggle between rival cartels to control the flow of narcotics into the US, and increasingly, between these gangs and the Mexican government. The violence made prime-time news in the US in 2009 (after almost six thousand people were killed in 2008), and led to a stream of travel warnings relating to cities along the US–Mexico border (though many pundits believe this was an over reaction).
Mexican gangs began to take over the US cocaine trade from the Colombians in the 1990s, and were originally drawn into roughly two rival camps led by the Gulf cartel, based in Matamoros, and the Sinaloa cartel with its ally the Juárez cartel (Gulf ally the Tijuana cartel has been dramatically weakened in recent years). Since 2007 however, the Juárez cartel has been locked into a vicious turf war with the Sinaloa cartel, for control of Ciudad Juárez, and the Gulf cartel is now run by a terrifying group of ex-soldiers known as Los Zetas, whose notoriously violent tactics have led to their dominance of the drug trade. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón ended decades of government inaction by sending federal troops to the state of Michoacán to end drug violence there (spurring a violent response from local drug lords, “La Familia”), and he’s continued to take an aggressive stance on tackling the cartels, many of which have infiltrated local police departments; in 2009 the notorious Beltrán-Leyva cartel (allies of Los Zetas) was severely weakened after its key leaders were killed or captured.
Despite the sensational headlines, it’s important to remember that most of Mexico remains peaceful; as a visitor you should be safe (tourists are rarely targeted), though it obviously makes sense to avoid the major trouble spots if you can, particularly along the US border. If driving a car from the US, check the current situation with US authorities before you go.