In 2010 Ciudad Juarez was one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world, a frontline battleground in the "War on Drugs." Then, in 2011, the crime rate began to fall sharply—and kept falling. Today, the city has morphed back into a lively border city with bustling markets and active nightlife. The Juarez Metropolitan Police take the credit, but in fact, much of the credit should go to the 177 private security companies who guard stores, patrol the streets and serve as personal bodyguards.
On 10 March 2011, a Thursday, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Leyzaola, a controversial crimestopper took the reigns as Secretary of Public Security in Ciudad Juarez. Mayor Héctor Murguia asked Leyzaola to come to Juarez from Tijuana, where he oversaw a drop in criminal violence to confront violence that was spiraling out of control. A year before Leyzaola's transfer, Juarez was classified as the deadliest city in the world, with over 3,100 murders in 2010. There were 1,500 executions prior to Leyzaola's arrival in 2011, and just 400 in the final nine months of the year.
Leyzaola's management appeared to bear fruit: murder, extortion and kidnapping declined by 70 percent each in 2012, and the number of carjackings fell 60 percent. Leyzaola insisted he could take charge of public security with the municipal police alone, so the government reduced the number of Federal Police officers and Army troops on the streets of Juarez from more than 2,000 to a couple hundred. But behind the Municipal Police, there was a hidden force at work: from 2009 to the present, residents of Juarez increased their employment of private security guards to the point that today, in June 2013, there are four times as many private security guards as municipal police.
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According to the Juarez Public Security Secretary (SSP), there are 1,690 active-duty police officers left in the city. (Leyzaola enacted rigorous confidence tests and dismissed 900 officers who failed.) In comparison, there are 6,733 private security guards registered in the city, with another 2,000 who work without any government authorization.
The proof of their work is visible on the margins of Juarez. There, poor residents cannot afford to pay private contractors -- and kidnapping, extortion and murder continue without interruption.
The Mayor's Security Detail
Across from a triangular park in one of the only neighborhoods that hasn't been closed to the public, you find the home of Juarez's mayor, Hector Murguia. Despite speculations that the mayor lives across the border in El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the US, the reality is Murguia has stayed. He sleeps and awakes each day with his family in a spacious house in Juarez. However, a security team made up of about ten white trucks, manned by municipal police officers, escorts and protects him. The agents assigned to his detail have specialized training as professional bodyguards. They dress in civilian clothes, but carry weapons a cut above standard police issue.
Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, President of the Mesa de Seguridad (Security Working Group), a citizens' group dedicated to tracking security trends, believes Juarez is safe -- for those of means. But he expresses alarm over the hierarchical organization of security in the city.
"What we need are police nearby, not private security guards dedicated to protecting a small bubble," he explains. "The same way the chief of police should be chosen by the people and not the mayor, it is these pseudo-police who fragment public security."
Valenzuela asserts that the decline in criminal activity is due to a combination of factors, including efforts by local communities and at all three levels of government, plus the increase in paid private security. Yet he also argues that these last are present only in the influential areas of Juarez.
"The security guards and bodyguards prevent, in some areas, crimes under local jurisdiction, like carjackings and assaults, but not so much the murders," he says.
In addition, Valenzuela views the increase in the number of private security agents as "muy fuerte" ("very strong"), since they offer a sense of security to powerful individuals.
"The demand for bodyguards spiked among people who, until 2009, never had private security," he says. "But then they started traveling everywhere with their bodyguards. It makes them feel safer."
The Outskirts Don't Lie
The same week in 2012 when the Mexican government announced the 70 percent reduction in extortion and kidnapping, "Ruben," a father and owner of a small burrito stand in the neighborhood known as Felipe Angeles, one of the most violent in the city, sought help from the authorities to rescue his daughter, kidnapped hours earlier.
In Felipe Angeles, like the neighborhoods around it, the "terrible times" from 2010 never ended. His neighbors who live crammed in small houses illegally siphon electricity, because they can't afford to pay for basic services, and take cover as soon as the sun goes down. Local parks are abandoned and small businesses like Ruben's, continue to pay between 500 and 1,500 pesos ($37 to $112) a week in extortion to local gang members who come to collect on behalf of the drug cartels.
In these neighborhoods, the victims know the victimizers; everyone lives in the same place. They watched each other grow up, and saw them go to school with their own children. But when police come to investigate a crime, nobody knows them; they've never seen the police, and don't know how to reach them.
Lucia, who lives two houses away Ruben's shop, reports that even though patrol cars drive through the area continuously, no one dares to report any crime. They all fear that the police are involved with the criminals.
"Many of the police themselves protect the bad guys, or tell them who ratted them out," she says. "And even if they don't do that, they won't do anything to help. They never catch anyone."
Lucia knows that the guilty remain free because she lives with it every day. She has watched first-hand as her neighborhood stayed in the control of delinquents for the last six years.
According to Erika Donjuan Callejo, an analyst for the organization Asi Estamos Juarez who supervised the publication of a recent report on crime in the city, the situation is worse than ever. She says those kinds of crime, extortion, kidnapping and assault have risen precipitously for "those who cannot pay the cost of private security," and expects the rate to continue to rise. The report by Asi Estamos Juarez calculates those cases increased from 322 in 2011 to 1,389 in 2012.
The Safest City in Mexico
The SSP in Juarez recently unveiled a concept for “total control” of the streets: a program to divide the city into sections which imagines the city as a series of blocks, each with police assigned to guard a specific area. On its face, the city refuses to recognize that the 177 private security agencies in Juarez played any part in the drop in overall crime statistics.
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, an official on the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission (Comision Estatal de Derechos Humanos - CEDH), insists that the municipal police cannot recognize the success of the private security system, because “they will not admit that their efforts are insufficient to protect” Juarez, as obvious as that may be.
“Private security has been a sort of invisible support," he says. "It isn’t convenient for the police to recognize that they have, and need, such assistance."
The human rights activist actually prefers to call private security guards “vigilantes,” notes that in a significant financial sense, the private security market helps the city by externalizing security costs.
Even so, Valenzuela admits that Juarez today is worlds apart from the Juarez of 2010, and staying on course.
“We are much better off," Valenzuela says. "I think that if we continue working as we have until now, we’ll keep improving, and could become the safest city in Mexico.”