Even as he plans his exit from one of the world's toughest jobs — mayor of Juárez, Mexico — José Reyes Ferriz still holds out hope that his city will return to its vibrant former incarnation and that thousands who have fled the violence there since 2007 will return as the economy improves.
"When they get the opportunity to work, they'll probably be back," the mayor says. "But since there's no work for them right now, it's a good decision to go back to where you have a support system to help you out."
Reyes Ferriz was in Austin on Monday to discuss his city's plight at a University of Texas forum. Afterward, he took a few moments to talk with The Texas Tribune. He's now in the homestretch of a three-year term as the leader of Juárez, right across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Since 2008, more than 4,800 Juarenses have died in a bloody war between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels over control of drug trafficking routes. Though he is hopeful conditions in his city will improve, Reyes Ferriz told about 200 people gathered at the forum that drug trafficking at the root of Mexico's problems will continue as long as the U.S. maintains its insatiable appetite for narcotics. But it's not just the violence from the drug trade — mostly cocaine and marijuana — that has fueled the city's descent into chaos. Economic recession has only added to the turmoil.
Time was, Juárez had a miniscule unemployment rate and thousands of workers in its massive maquiladora industry. Now, Reyes Ferriz says, many of the factories have shuttered, and unemployment is at 20 percent. Restaurants, nightclubs and small businesses have also closed in droves, pummeled by the slumping economy and the stunted flow of tourists, fearing stray bullets and cuotas, or protection fees demanded by gangsters. The shrinking economy and rising violence have sparked a mass exodus from Juárez. Reyes Ferriz estimates about 100,000 people have fled the city that once claimed 1.5 million population, seeking safety and prosperity either north of the border or elsewhere in Mexico.
The mayor's term ends in October, and voters will choose his successor on July 4. Though he places part of the blame for the city’s current troubles on previous administrations, Reyes Ferriz also defends his endorsement of his party’s nomination to succeed him: former Juárez mayor Héctor Murguía, of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, who faces Partido Acción Nacional candidate César Jáuregui.
Reyes Ferriz also insists the weapons used to scar his city and slaughter his constituents come almost entirely from the United States. Critics have alleged that Mexican officials only submit to U.S. authorities weapons they know will be traced to the states, specifically Texas, as a way to diffuse blame and responsibility for the violence. But gun advocates charge that several thousand Mexican military deserters also use their government-issued weapons, a claim Reyes Ferriz denies.
He also provides an update into the investigation surrounding slain Mexican journalist Armando “Choco” Rodriguez, a reporter for El Diario de Juárez, who was gunned down in front of his house in 2008. The unsolved murder prompted the Inter American Press Association last month to ask Mexican President Felipe Calderón to address the country's "apathy and negligence" when investigating the murders of reporters in his country.