New Mayor Takes the Helm of Embattled Juárez

As his council members and other invited guests descended from the dignitaries’ entrance of the Gimnasio Universitario in Ciudad Juárez, the city’s new mayor, Héctor “Teto” Murguía Lardizábal, instead arrived through an entrance open to the general public — to rousing applause, handshakes and “thumbs-up” gestures from the thousands of Juarenses on hand to salute the beleaguered city’s new leadership.  

Murguía took the helm on Sunday from the embattled former mayor José Reyes Ferriz, whose three-year term will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the darkest times for the city of 1.3 million. Murguía, 57, an engineer, businessman and member of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, was elected in July, defeating the Partido Acción Nacional’s César Jáuregui 

Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is embroiled in a war among drug cartels and law enforcement that has resulted in more than 6,600 murders since 2008, according to Mexican media outlets. Eighteen people were reportedly murdered during the weekend of Murguía's inauguration. Outside the festive atmosphere in the gymnasium, caravans of masked federal police officers roamed the streets. Several blocks were cordoned off to passersby, and snipers were visible on the rooftops of what used to be popular nightclubs in the once-thriving entertainment district. 

Murguía wasted little time in acknowledging the arduous task that awaits him: restoring safety and quality of life to the city he previously led, from 2004 to 2007. (Mexican law precludes mayors from running for consecutive terms.) He acknowledged that Juárez is vastly different than it was three years ago. “The scourge of drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, robbery and violence has dismantled our economy, has eroded our tranquility and has stained our social structures with blood,” Murguía said. “This economic and social disaster deserves a desperate cry for help and solidarity.” 

Part of that cry was Murguía’s nearly half-hour monologue — an energetic plea for more attention from leaders in the Mexican government. Ciudad Juárez was once a thriving oasis in the desert that offered outsiders work and shelter, he said, and it's payback time. “Juárez has offered the republic innumerable examples of patriotic loyalty and unconditional support,” he said. It now “needs the encouragement and commitment of Mexico as a whole.” 

Murguía counted among his supporters Chihuahua Gov. César Duarte, a fellow PRI member who defeated him in the primary election for governor in 2010. Duarte reiterated his commitment to Juárez on Sunday and promised several projects to help turn the city around, including a new hospital, a new drug rehabilitation center, a new baseball stadium and better infrastructure to connect the city to the rest of the country’s largest state. 

One of Duarte’s proposals would rid the cities in Chihuahua of their municipal police forces, whose ranks in Juárez and elsewhere have been infiltrated with corrupt operators. After his own inauguration in Chihuahua City last week, Duarte quickly moved to install a larger state police force to oversee Chihuahua, disbanding local authorities. Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of the recently published Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárezsaid the idea might look nice on paper, but he cautioned against too much optimism. 

“In the short term, laid-off cops are likely to turn immediately to crime," he said. "Furthermore, changes in the structure of the police force will not necessarily erase the deeply rooted customs of corruption that have plagued Mexican law enforcement.” As recently as April, Mayor Reyes Ferriz admitted that, despite the city’s best efforts, the local police force was still infiltrated by organized crime. 

Campbell says similar efforts have worked elsewhere in Latin American countries, though each with circumstances unlike those of present-day Mexico. La policia única [one police force] is an idea that is thought to have worked well in Nicaragua, a small country with a unified national police and relatively little organized crime," he said. "Colombia also has a national police force, although its success has perhaps been exaggerated by the U.S. government.”

Though he offered few specific details about how to proceed, Murguía did at times display the passion that has made him popular with the city’s poor and working class. During his final moments at the podium, the mayor’s voice quivered. Some said they saw a tear roll down his cheek. He also implored the media to continue in its commitment to serve the public, despite the threat of violence. 

“Undoubtedly, the media will be of great help in this transition from paralysis to action, from fear to hope, from apathy to commitment. You have been and will be the pillar of our democracy,” he said. Murguía’s recognition of the role the press comes after a photographer for the city’s largest daily, El Diario De Juárez, was gunned down on Sept. 16, Mexico’s Independence Day. It was the second murder of a reporter for the daily in two years.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, was the lone Texas lawmaker at the inauguration, which he said was his fourth time witnessing a transition of power in El Paso’s sister city. He has also been in Chihuahua for the installation of three governors, he said. “As a senator from El Paso, we work on bi-national issues everyday," he said. "Going to Juárez or Chihuahua for investitures of colleagues is part of the [job] description." 

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