Can Local Business Leaders Save Juárez?

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The business elite in Ciudad Juárez favor SUVs with darkened windows to temper the hot sun and keep the outside world from peering in. Jorge Contreras, businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist, has one (a Dodge Durango) and the requisite hulking bodyguard, too. But he prefers to move around his collapsing city by bicycle, so he can keep a close eye on abandoned buildings, streets filled with potholes, glaring federales, and the speeding, sinister cars without license plates.

"Juárez is dying. The houses in the center of the city are abandoned; there are so few opportunities here," says Contreras from his office inside the cavernous furniture factory he owns. Most famously, there's the violence. In 2010 alone, more than 3,100 people were killed here. Unlike most Mexicans, Contreras doesn't immediately mention the American hunger for drugs as the reason for his city's--and his country's--woes. "The true origin of the insecurity is corruption," he says, blaming a toxic brew of political and socioeconomic problems for the deterioration of public safety.

Contreras is not alone in his exasperation. He leads and belongs to a number of groups: Juárenses for Peace, Security Roundtable, Economic Development for Juárez, among others. They are part of a hodgepodge force of civic groups old and new founded by angry businessmen, doctors, and other professionals--an encouraging, if still small, indication that civil society in Juárez, and Mexico more broadly, is experiencing a form of awakening.

It might seem unlikely that a handful of civic leaders could organize and fundraise their city out of the chokehold of drug violence responsible for so many killings, kidnappings, and attacks on police. But they believe it could work in part because the city's economic backbone is still intact. Though the violence has exacted a painful economic toll, more than 24,000 new manufacturing jobs have been added in Juárez since June 2009. The city is also still a critical port of entry to the United States for tractor trailers. Mexico's overall economy is on track to grow around 5 percent this year thanks to exports to the U.S. But local leaders like Contreras understand that a genuine turnaround requires more than just jobs.

"There is a growing interest in Mexico in the rule of law, not just anti-crime, but a vision of a society supportive of rule of law," says Roy Godson, professor emeritus at Georgetown University and president of the National Strategy Information Center, a Washington think tank that has studied how crime-ridden cities like Palermo, Sicily, and Bogotá, Colombia, can nurture a culture of lawfulness.

Miguel Fernández, a Coca-Cola bottling magnate who heads a group called the Juárez Strategic Plan, regularly gives high-profile tours of what he sees as the city's worst boondoggles: highways without exits and new housing developments with open sewers. The Strategic Plan's most recent initiative, called the Pact, sends a representative to every city council meeting; this year, it helped reveal that Juárez had grossly overpaid for 50 public buses--a clear act of corruption according to Fernández, who has campaigned for a full audit.

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Eliza Barclay is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

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