CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Teresa Rodriguez might have found comfort inside this border city’s famous downtown cathedral Tuesday afternoon when she stopped in for a midday mass after running errands. But after leaving Our Lady of Guadalupe church, she was back on guard.
“That’s close enough,” she told a reporter just a dozen or so paces from the church’s main entrance. She shielded her eyes from the sun with one hand and raised the other in a “halt” gesture before adding. “You know, because of everything that’s been going on.”
Rodriguez survived the war between rival drug cartels that raged in this industrial border city from 2008 to 2011 — and with violence on the upswing again, she's taking extra precautions.
From January through last Sunday, there were 829 reported homicides here, including 114 in August, according to local media reports. The monthly average stands at six per day, though it’s unclear if the latest surge means the beginning of another turf war like the one that began in 2008 and resulted in more than 10,000 killings here.
Experts say the latest bout of fighting is between former cartel allies — the Juárez Cartel and the Barrio Aztecas — vying to claim the downtown area as their own. But the how or why seems less important to the people whose main concern is instead how long this new surge in killings will last.
“There are innocent people that are there when they get to a business and the hitmen show up,” said Rodriguez, 69. “And they don’t just kill [the target] — they kill all of them.”
The homicide total includes 29 children, the most recent of whom died Sunday after getting caught in a crossfire the week before, the Diario de Juárez reported.
Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso whose research focuses on the U.S-Mexico border, sees the current wave as unique because most of the violence is concentrated in downtown Ciudad Juárez.
“What’s different about this is it’s just over and over and over again that people are getting murdered in these areas where the Aztecas live, which is right in the heart of the downtown area,” he said. “So a lot of these killings have been in broad daylight.”
The Barrio Aztecas in Juárez are affiliated with Aztecas in El Paso, but Campbell said the Juárez Aztecas operate independently. And while the organization was once aligned with the Juárez cartel, it has since split and is fighting to keep a foothold in the city.
Campbell said the end could come when one gang ousts the other, but what he sees as perplexing in this situation is that it's the hometown gang that's being squeezed out.
“It looks to me the Aztecas are losing, and that’s pretty shocking,” he said. “It’s like going on somebody’s home court and kicking their ass.”
There is the added element of the prevalence of methamphetamine dealers trying to find a niche in the Juárez market. While cocaine, pot and heroin have historically been the illicit goods of choice for street peddlers, methamphetamine has been making its way into the traditional markets largely because of the increased presence of another major cartel: the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación.
“[The Aztecas] see meth as a threat to their business, and it’s only recently that meth has made an appearance in Juarez,” Campbell said. “The influx of meth and the people that sell it are contributing to this conflict. And the Jalisco people are the biggest meth producers and meth controllers, so they have a lot to do with this.”
The city government has acknowledged the surge in killings, but leaders there say it’s not going to rise to past levels. During a Mexico-U.S. border summit in El Paso last week, Roberto Rentería Manqueros, Ciudad Juárez’s secretario del ayuntamiento, a high-ranking position on the city council that serves as the administration’s second in command, conceded his city is having issues due to “disgraceful” acts by criminal elements. But he said he didn’t see what's happening today as comparable to the war a decade ago.
“What caused the great worry for Juarenses 10 years ago was that the crimes affected common people. That was the impact,” he said. “What we’ve seen currently is that the crime that’s increased are murders are between the [warring groups].”
Just north of the Rio Grande in El Paso, city leaders still see the need to remind outsiders that their city is one of the safest in the country despite what happens in Mexico. A decade ago, lawmakers and tourism officials were engaged in a nonstop public relations effort to convince potential visitors and business investors that El Paso wasn’t affected by what was happening south of the river.
Last week, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said the violence in Ciudad Juárez has always affected El Paso but that it was up to people to see for themselves what the reality of the situation actually is.
“It has an impact, it always has,” he said. “During [times of high violence], people said, ‘How can you come down to El Paso?’ The point is, we got to get people here to understand the uniqueness of our region. Everyone keeps talking about the border, but no one has been down here.”
As the situation plays out, there will be people like Leonardo Cortez, a maintenance worker at the El Paso Museum of Art who lives in Ciudad Juárez — and asks himself every day how far things will escalate.
“The mayor is preoccupied with things other than security, and everyday people are getting killed,” the 54-year-old said. “The gangs don’t respect the citizens, they don’t respect God. There is no respect for life.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.