CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Just a few years ago, a tour bus traveling in this once-beleaguered city would have been more rare than a leap year. Some would argue that passengers on such a bus were playing Russian roulette with their lives.
But this week, tour buses began traveling from El Paso across the border to Juárez. Officials hope the effort will help erase the image of a war-torn city and bring tourism back to this part of the Mexican border.
The downtown-Juárez-bound buses began making their trips from El Paso Saddleblanket — a decades-old staple for shoppers seeking art, pottery, clothing and other goods associated with the culture of the Southwest — on Wednesday. The tours are coming about a year after Juárez officials opened a visitors bureau in the business to reach out to potential visitors.
“I think more people need to go to Juárez and need to experience it. I’d like to help Juárez come back up,” said freelance writer and bus passenger Rich Wright, whose own side business of guiding tourists and visitors from El Paso to Mexico has suffered.
Wednesday’s maiden voyage was part of a slow rollout that organizers said would help prove Ciudad Juárez is returning to its former status as a place for border residents and visitors to enjoy adventure and learn about the region’s history.
The trip was attended mainly by members of the media and invited guests, but José Arturo Ramos, the director of Ciudad Juárez’s special projects division, said the office has been fielding calls for days from curious border visitors who ask, among other things, how safe the trip is and what they need to take with them. Regular visitors will pay $12 for a round-trip bus ride, and they can opt to take a more detailed tour of downtown sites for an additional $5. The bus will make daily trips, and the tour will last about four hours. Guides will be on hand to point out places of interest, including the city's marketplace, the Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera and the famous Kentucky Club on the Juárez strip.
The effort comes as violence has ebbed in the area, which suffered through a war between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels that killed about 11,000 people from 2007 to 2013. During that span, once-popular nightclubs and restaurants closed, and business owners fled to neighboring El Paso.
The U.S. State Department still includes Ciudad Juárez on its travel warnings, urging U.S. citizens to avoid unnecessary trips across the Rio Grande. And politicians arguing that transnational gangs and even Islamic terrorists may be using the Mexican city as a launching pad for nefarious deeds in Texas has continued to unsettle nerves in Austin and Washington.
While Wright said violence can still plague the gritty city, he added that could happen in any city the size of Juárez, which has a population of about 1.5 million.
“I think [the fear] is overblown. We’re going to see thousands of people that live over there that deal with that every day,” he said. “There are still people being murdered over there, but it’s just a percentage of what it was.” The murder rate has slowed to about 35 per month.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Plaza de Armas — home to one of the city’s main downtown cathedrals — was stocked with retirees reading newspapers, school-age children in their requisite uniforms and vendors peddling pork rinds and Mexican sodas.
“I see that everything is under control. If we all work together to promote the region, Juárez will once again be what it used to,” said Darlene Piña, an employee at Providence Hospital in El Paso who was on the tour. As she stood outside one of the city’s marketplaces, Piña said she travels to Ciudad Juárez twice a week for various reasons, including to the dentist or to shop, a common practice for thousands of El Pasoans until violence exploded in 2008.
Though the soldiers who once guarded this city amid the recent chaos are now gone and gang lookouts, or halcones, are less obvious than they used to be, remnants of the drug war still remain. More than a half-dozen municipal police officers crowded into the marketplace, with their fingers on the triggers of their semiautomatic weapons or sidearms. Several more were standing guard near the former city hall, now a museum and tourist attraction.
“They have to be like that because of the situation we had,” Ramos said when asked if the police presence was intimidating to visitors. “And that’s the way they kept them. But there aren’t any issues downtown.”
Ramos added that after years of construction downtown, a revitalization project was recently completed that made the area more friendly for pedestrians. There is only one thoroughfare for vehicles, which should ease fears about random drive-by shootings — the preferred method for hitmen during the cartel wars.
There is also the possibility for southbound inspections by U.S. law enforcement. On Wednesday, the tour bus was stopped, and authorities asked Ramos and a reporter to get out. The reporter said he was asked about the pictures he snapped when a U.S. Border Patrol agent boarded the bus. Ramos said the issue is an easy fix: Passengers need to be reminded that they should avoid taking pictures of law enforcement officers on the bridge crossing the Rio Grande.
Juárez street vendor Maria Christina Padilla welcomes the effort to bring tourists — and their American dollars — back to the city. But she acknowledges the city still has a way to go. She still avoids traveling the city streets after dark.
“I think the [tour] is a great idea. It’s very important, especially for us Mexicans,” she said. “But the war was very sad for us. It’s sad that the violence continues at times.”