Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border town that has become a symbol of the wave of violence wracking the nation, has grown far safer in recent months, though the security gains could be due to ‘El Chapo’ consolidating his power.

After years of being known as Mexico’s most violent city, Juarez is enjoying a stunning turnaround. In the first six months of 2012 just 653 people were killed, a decline of more than half from the same period in 2011, according to Chihuahua State Attorney General’s Office. A separate tally by the army has higher overall numbers but shows a similar decline.

Though slight security improvements seen across Mexico in the last few months may be fading away, the decline in violence in Juarez appears to be solidifying. The state counted just 42 murders in the city in July, which translates to an annualized murder rate of less than 40 per 100,000 residents. In contrast, according to state figures, Juarez’s murder rate stood at nearly 300 in 2010.

The murder rate began to tick down last year. For instance, as InSight Crime noted in June 2011, the 150 homicides registered in May that year amounted to a two-year low, though the murder count has dipped even lower several times since then.

The impact on life in the city has been significant. It is now relatively common for days to go by without a single murder being reported, which was unheard of for much of the past four years. As the Washington Times recently reported, the city’s economic recovery and its security rebound are closely intertwined. “The jobs are coming back,” Carlos Najera, of La Red Noticias, told the Times. “The result of the economic slowdown in the United States was a jump in unemployment in Juarez that coincided with an explosion of crime.”

Unfortunately, Juarez’s improvement has not been matched in several other cities and states, such as Acapulco, Monterrey, Torreon, and Culiacan.

The lack of consensus on the cause of Juarez’s declining violence has complicated any efforts to reproduce the process in other blood-soaked regions. There are several different theories circulating as to the reason for the city’s dramatic change of course:

New Social Programs

After the murder of 15 teenagers at a birthday party in January 2010, which marked an unofficial low point for the city, the federal government began to contemplate new ways to approach insecurity in Juarez. State, local, and federal officials joined together to launch Todos Somos Juarez (We Are All Juarez). The joint initiative called for $50 million in new spending, to be used on everything from after-school programs to new hospital facilities. It also created a permanent dialogue between the private sector, civil society, and the government, with periodic meetings to discuss advances and setbacks in the city’s security. While initial reports were largely critical, others have begun to point to Todos Somos Juarez as a major factor in the city’s improvement, and a similar plan is now being implemented in Acapulco.

Rolling Back the Army

Mexico’s army made its first major deployment in Juarez in February 2009, and the murder rate in the border town plummeted immediately. However, the drop was only temporary, and within months the gangs operating in Juarez were killing each other in record numbers. Indeed, the year following the army’s arrival was the most violent for any city in Mexico’s modern history, with 3,951 murders, according to state figures.

The army began to withdraw in 2010, leaving the federal and municipal police to take on a greater role. Upon their arrival, the federal police promised to implement more sophisticated tactics, instead of the aggressive snatch-and-grab operations for which the army had become known. In November 2010, the agency announced a policy of building “islands of security,” flooding some of the most violent neighborhoods with officers.

The federal police, in turn, have been supplemented by a rebuilt municipal force under the leadership of Julian Leyzaola, a retired army colonel who earned a reputation for leading a brutal but effective turnaround in Tijuana. Many of the complaints that dogged his force in Tijuana — including illegal detention and torture — have followed him to Juarez, but his tenure, which began in March 2011, has coincided with the city’s improvement. The accusations of abuse are troubling, but the idea of municipal police taking the lead in a city’s security is a welcome development.

Chapo’s Victory

Perhaps the most convincing explanation for Juarez’s turnaround is also the most disheartening, as it suggests that there is little the government can do in the short term to improve security in a given region. The theory is that the security gains are due to the victory of the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, over its enemies in the Juarez Cartel. Since that dispute was the single most important factor in sparking the nearly half-decade of bloodshed, it is certainly a plausible explanation.

Other factors support this theory. One key element is the decline of La Linea, the Juarez Cartel’s primary armed group, which had been fighting Guzman’s forces for several years. Furthermore, the appearance of gunmen loyal to Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the head of the Juarez Cartel, in Sinaloa (his native state as well as Guzman’s) suggests that he is now concentrating on rebuilding his fiefdom elsewhere.