Ciudad Juarez, a city just across the border from El Paso, has become notorious as the epicenter of Mexico’s drug war. It is a dangerous place for all who live there, but especially for watchdog groups trying to organize initiatives for peace in the city.

According to Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, an official on the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission (Comision Estatal de Derechos Humanos – CEDH), only 10 of the body’s 27 original employees now remain. “The rest have all either sought asylum in the United States or been killed,” de la Rosa told Spanish news agency EFE.

Widely considered “ground zero” in Mexico’s war on organized crime, Ciudad Juarez is a strategic crossing point for illegal narcotics entering the United States. As a result, the city has turned into the battleground of one of the bitterest feuds in Mexico, with the Juarez and Sinaloa Cartels fighting for control. The two organizations were once allied, but in 2008 Sinaloa boss Joaquin Guzman, alias ‘El Chapo,’ broke a pact with Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias ‘El Viceroy,’ of the Juarez Cartel and killed Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, Vicente’s brother, sparking a feud that is still playing out today.

At least five human rights activists have been murdered in the Ciudad Juarez area in the last two years. The most recent case is that of Susana Chavez, who was instrumental in the “Not One More” (‘Ni Una Mas’) campaign to protest the more than 500 documented cases of femicide in the city since 1993, most of which have gone unpunished. Chavez was raped, mutilated and murdered in January 2011, and her body was left near the city center. Three teenagers confessed to her murder, which they said was not linked to organized crime.

As InSight reported, just weeks prior to Chavez’s death, gunmen shot Marisela Escobedo Ortiz as she protested in front of a governor’s office in state capital Chihuahua to demand justice for her murdered daughter, whose suspected killer was an ex-boyfriend freed by a panel of judges for lack of evidence.

When confronted with such violence, and often faced with death threats, many civil society organizers and their families seek political asylum in the United States. Such is the case for the family of campaigner Josefina Reyes, who was killed in January 2010. According to Mexican newspaper La Cronica de Hoy, several members of Reyes’ family have won political asylum in the U.S. this year after the murders of six of her relatives since 2008.

The deaths of these human rights defenders are a drop in the bucket compared with Ciudad Juarez’s total murder rate. According to official government statistics, 3,111 people were murdered in 2010, bringing the homicide rate to an astonishing 239 murders per 100,000 of the city’s inhabitants.

Still, the fact that criminal organizations now seem to be explicitly targeting civil society activists in Ciudad Juarez is a significant development, and marks a shift in the threats facing rights workers in Latin America. The biggest enemy of activists in the region has historically been the state, especially the authoritarian regimes in power during the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite the danger, a commitment to social justice keeps Juarez’s activists pressing on with their work. “I’m not afraid,” said de la Rosa. “One needs to make oneself feel as safe as possible because the instant you lose faith is the instant you have to stop. [A human rights activist should] never lose perspective in his work, because then he is at great risk.”

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