CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Seven months after Pope Francis made history by visiting this city once considered the deadliest in the Americas, pedestrians can still see a billboard celebrating his visit looming right across the border over downtown El Paso.
It’s a reminder that the papal visit to Ciudad Juárez was meant to honor the region's binational culture and resilience as much as its primary religion.
But Pope Francis' message of faith and hope, which brought international attention and — for a time — local promise, has been complicated by an uptick in recent violence here, a city where memories of an enduring drug war that killed thousands are fresh.
In the days leading up to the Feb. 17 papal Mass, which was celebrated in Ciudad Juárez and broadcast to thousands at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, the Pope’s smiling image was plastered across the city on signs that read “Juárez Es Amor” (Juárez Is Love). Vendors enjoyed a slight surge in business as American tourists, some of whom had abandoned the city years ago, traveled south of the Rio Grande to shop and eat.
For 20-year-old Luis Gomez, that seems like ages ago.
“They just covered things up during the visit, then everything went back to normal,” he said after attending Mass at Ciudad Juárez's Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe last week. “Things are the same – or worse.”
From 2008 to 2011, the Sinaloa cartel, whose infamous escape artist of a leader Joaquin Chapo Guzman is in a Mexican federal prison on the outskirts of the city, contributed to the killings of thousands of people in Ciudad Juárez as it fought the Juárez cartel for control of the drug corridors that extend into Texas and beyond.
The violence cooled considerably in recent years; some attribute it to beefed up law enforcement, others to one cartel successfully dethroning another.
But in the first nine months of 2016, the city has seen more homicides — 345 — than it did in all of 2015, as mass killings have erupted in parts of the city and authorities have uncovered dead bodies, according to local media reports. It’s still not nearly as bad as it was a few years ago, said Antonio Rivera, a Ciudad Juárez cab driver. But he said his customers have a heightened sense of paranoia that another violent spell is on the horizon, one that the papal visit quelled only briefly.
“The beautiful thing was the visit — it was very beautiful,” he said. “But the violence is starting to rise again.”
It's unclear exactly why. Some say Caro Quintero, who founded a major criminal group years ago that later split into several others — including the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels — wants to regain control of the plaza that extends from Ciudad Juárez north into El Paso. Quintero was connected to the 1985 murder of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, and congressional lawmakers have said that his 2013 release from a Mexican prison could be troubling for U.S-Mexico relations. But others argue that’s a smokescreen offered by government officials who don’t have a handle on violence in the region.
North of the Rio Grande, however, people are more optimistic about the lasting effects of the papal visit.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said his sister city is vastly improved and that he felt safe being out in public there.
“I feel it’s a very secure area,” he said. “When I was there the last time, I got off in downtown Juarez wearing a suit and hat and I walked through the streets and shook a lot of hands and took a lot of pictures.”
And Bishop Mark Seitz of the El Paso Catholic Diocese said that donations to the church and its associated charities are up slightly, which he attributes in part to the papal visit.
“The Pope’s visit brought together our region toward a common goal," Seitz said in an email. "The relationship of the Catholic Church in El Paso with that of the Church in Ciudad Juárez, across the border, and with our neighboring Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico was strengthened.”
Seitz believes the effects of Pope Francis' mass and message won't fade away soon.
"These benefits are difficult to measure, but we who live here are aware that our profound experience is more than just a happy memory," he said.
Some in Ciudad Juárez are holding onto a different kind of faith — for those in elected office. Rivera, the cab driver, said he hopes the city's incoming mayor, former television personality Armando Cabada, will be a fresh start. Cabada joins a small but growing list of independent candidates elected since Mexico amended its Constitution in 2014 to allow runs for office without official party affiliation.
“It’s not the same as before, either the [Institutional Revolutionary Party] or the [National Action Party],” Rivera said. “And we hope that some things will change, something nice in Juárez.”
Read more on the Pope's visit to the border:
- During a whirlwind, one-day visit to Ciudad Juárez, Pope Francis delivered poignant remarks on immigration and corruption, keeping intact his reputation as a polite but no-holds-barred pontiff.
- From city officials working to rebrand Ciudad Juárez as a safe and organized metropolis to the mother and daughter who met along opposite sides of a border fence, Pope Francis' visit here is fraught with symbolism.