Mexican officials are trying to persuade Americans to visit Ciudad Juarez, touting the city in a new billboard campaign as a “land of encounters.” But on this side of the border, that sounds like a cruel joke.
More than 1,100 people have been killed this year in Juarez, population 1.5 million, in a drug-related bloodbath so staggering that the city has been declared off-limits to U.S. soldiers looking to go bar-hopping; El Paso's public hospital is seeing a spillover of the wounded; and residents on the American side are afraid to cross over to visit family, shop or conduct business.
“We all like to make money, but the money I was making isn't worth it,” said Fernando Apodaca, who spent at least one day a week for the past 18 years working in Juarez as an auto industry consultant. After his SUV was seized in a carjacking last month, Apodaca vowed he wouldn't go over the border again.
“I had a gun to my face. There's no law over there,” he said.
Juarez, situated just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, has had more murders this year than New York and Chicago together had in all of 2007 – and those two cities have seven times the population of Juarez. Last weekend alone, Juarez had 37 killings.
Violence began to mount early this year after Mexico's president launched a national offensive against drug lords.
Initially, the bloodshed involved drug cartels fighting each other. Then, military troops, law enforcement officers and government officials became major targets.
Assassinations have become more brazen. Armed robberies, carjackings and kidnappings for ransom are also rampant.
Mexican Consul General Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez said the number of visitors crossing into Juarez from El Paso this year is down about 20 percent.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory Tuesday, warning Americans of daylight shootings at shopping centers in Juarez and suggesting applicants for U.S. visas at the consulate in Juarez not pay in cash to avoid getting mugged while in line.
Rosa Flores, 30, has lived on both sides of the border and used to travel to Juarez twice a month to visit family with her 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. With killings on the rise this summer, she insisted the children not play video games or listen to music in the car so they could be alert for gunfire.
Flores said her aunts gave her practical advice: If she hears shooting or sees gunmen, she should put her car in park, duck and wait for the gunfire to stop.
“You don't know when they are going to just stop and shoot,” Flores said. “You just don't know.”