Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa paused briefly on Monday to tie his shoelace and shed his designer sports coat before firing a ceremonial penalty kick in a recently constructed youth sports complex in Ciudad Juárez. Meanwhile, security helicopters whizzed overhead and masked federales toted automatic rifles just yards away from smiling children eager to see the country's elected leader get the best of the goalie, newly inaugurated Ciudad Juárez Mayor Héctor “Teto” Murguía Lardizábal.
The stark juxtaposition was one of many during the president’s public relations tour touting a government project called Todos Somos Juárez ("We Are All Juárez") aimed at calming the nerves of this beleaguered border city, which has logged more than 6,600 murders in less than three years. The $55 million initiative, launched eight months ago, hopes to bolster quality of life through improvements to health care, schooling, culture, sports, employment, security and poverty.
The sports complex in the city’s southeast Parajes del Sur neighborhood is one of Todos Somos Juárez’s modest success stories. At first glance, it appears to be nothing more than a park with a basketball court, a soccer field, some bleachers and some benches. But to Martha Angelica Garcia, who serves on a citizens committee for the project, it represents a step toward normalcy in a neighborhood where, until recently, most residents refused to leave their homes after dusk.
“This park has changed our lives — it’s changed our way of being. Families come outside to talk. We co-exist,” Garcia said. “We leave our houses to enjoy what we couldn’t do before. Before, by 7 p.m. our doors were locked. Now they remain open.”
Before the ceremonial kick, Calderón said the park was a sign of hope for the city’s youth, who are viewed by downcast observers of the violent drug war as little more than hit-men-in-waiting. “In the places of the city where before only there was dirt, trash, crime and drugs, today they are places for soccer, basketball, volleyball, biking and athletics,” he said. “That’s why it gives me great pleasure to be here today.”
Calderón arrived on the same day that El Tri — as Mexicans affectionately call the country's soccer team — hosted Venezuela in a friendly match at the city's Benito Juárez stadium. Members of the team and Juarez’s professional outfit, Los Indios De Juárez, were on hand on the park; young boys and girls ran past soldiers and federal police, as much a fixture in the neighborhood as the stray dogs that roam the streets, to greet their heroes and ask for autographs.
Later in the afternoon, the president toured a new hospital that was also part of the Todos Somos Juárez project, and he met with city and state officials for three hours at the upscale Hotel el Paseo about other efforts to stem the city’s tide of bloodshed. But despite the momentary glimmer of hope, reality was ever-present.
Earlier in the day, an e-mail that circulated among members of the Mexican press sent word of a protest called by the staff of El Diario de Juárez, the city’s major daily, which has seen one of its reporters and one of its photographers gunned down in the last two years. “Days shy of the one-month anniversary of the murder of our colleague, photographer Luis Carlos Santiago Orozco, reporters from El Diario call for a protest … to seek justice and to alert authorities that the biggest enemy is impunity,” the e-mail read.
A headline in the newspaper from the day of the president’s visit punctuated the point: 19 people killed in 24 hours.