It's a Friday night in Juarez, one of Mexico's most dangerous cities, and Mauricio Barba is bored and wants to party. In his parents' kitchen, within the gated walls of a downtown neighborhood, he sips from a bottle of Dos Equis and texts his friends. Just a year and a half ago, the 21-year-old college student didn't leave the house after dark. When we head down a poorly lit side street, Barba cradling a case of beer under one arm, I see why -- the city feels hollowed-out, almost post-apocalyptic. More than 11,000 people have been murdered in this border town in the last four years, and 110,000 homes sit abandoned.
But now, Barba tells me, Ciudad Juarez is changing. The murder rate has dropped 84 percent in the last year, car-jackings are at a three-year low, and people like him are reemerging. Up ahead on Avenida Lincoln, a white stretch limo sits idling in front of a club, where girls in stilettos wait behind a velvet rope. A truck with tinted windows drives by, blasting a popular drug ballad known as a narco corrido.
No one knows for sure why the violence is decreasing, but even those skeptical of official statistics say homicides in Juarez have dropped significantly. The most popular theory is that the two cartels warring over the lucrative I-10 corridor, which stretches from El Paso to Dallas, have reached a kind of temporary truce. "There's a lot of speculation that the Sinaloa cartel has beaten the Juarez cartel, and that they're in charge of the city now," says Molly Molloy, a researcher at New Mexico State University who has studied violence in Juarez. "But there's also less people to kill. Most of the people killed were young men between the ages of 15 and 30. There's less of that demographic around."
The most compelling theory, however, is even simpler than that, chalking up Juarez's drop in crime to good, old-fashioned police work. The murder rate began dropping about a year and a half ago, around the arrival of a new police chief named Julian Leyzoala, who brought with him a back-to-basics, broken-windows approach to policing. A former military colonel who studied at Mexico's equivalent of West Point, Leyzoala came up in Tijuana, where he served as warden of prisons and later as police chief.
At his office in Juarez, in a police station that feels more like a military compound, Leyzoala showed me a series of charts tracking the city's crime rates. "In one month in 2010, there were 259 murders," he said. "Last month, we had 29." When I asked him why, he smiled. His manner is casual and relaxed, but the deep bags under his eyes suggest the stress of his current assignment. For safety, his family lives in the U.S., and he only sees them once every four months. "In Mexico, the police chief is usually someone who likes guns and has friends in high places," he said. "But police work is not for amateurs. It is for professionals, and I am a professional."