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.
Eric Olson, senior associate of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, believes these groups are on the right track. "It's not just about having a crack police team that's going to take down organized crime; you have to fight the whole structure, the lack of governance," says Olson.
And there have been other small victories. When President Felipe Calderón's team arrived in Juárez in February after one of the city's greatest tragedies- the massacre of 15 young people at a birthday party in January - Contreras, Fernández, and other civic leaders pleaded with them to push municipal authorities to enforce vehicle registration laws. Some 80,000 cars without plates cruise the Juárez streets, many of them imported from the United States by people unwilling to pay steep import taxes and registration fees, and no small number used by criminals and hitmen to flee the scene of a crime.
Gustavo de la Rosa, a lawyer and the human rights commissioner for the state of Chihuahua, was among those who lobbied hard for the registration law. Since it went into effect in March with federal backing, 10,000 vehicles have been registered. "It's a small success but it's very significant," says de la Rosa. "Now it will be easier for citizens to report and the police to apply the law, and it won't be so easy to commit a crime."
Crime reporting rates are exceptionally low in Mexico: less than 25 percent of citizens say they go to the police, according to a 2010 report by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. One clear reason is that it often doesn't do any good: municipal police forces in Juárez and other cities are notoriously slow to respond to calls, or investigate crimes. But with pressure from the Contreras and his colleagues on Security Roundtable, the local cops last year reduced their average response time from two hours to eight minutes.
A new mayor took office in October, and Contreras and Fernández are expecting something better. Contreras asks me about crime in America, and when I tell him it's gone down by a third since 1989, he seems comforted. He thinks his city has not yet hit rock bottom, but after that the only direction is up.
Image: TECMA, a manufacturing plant in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua state, employees about 3,000 people. By Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images.