I received a lot of feedback on a recent article I wrote about a casual trip I made to Juárez a few weeks ago.
My travel to Mexico has been limited during the pandemic, and this was the first time I had been to the main part of Juárez in several months. Some readers asked if a certain favorite club or restaurant was still open. Others commented about the main plaza and the cathedral. Still, others related stories of their visit to this border city during their wild youth.
It is true that many Americans view Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, as a raucous border town where Americans go for entertainment and to purchase cheap liquor. However, my viewpoint of Juárez has morphed into that of a city that has been through horrible circumstances, and whose citizens have managed to get up every day and push forward.
More than a hundred years ago, its population shouldered the beginning battles of the Mexican Revolution in which an estimated 1.5 million Mexicans died and hundreds of thousands of others fled the country. Juárez shouldered three battles (1911, 1913 and 1919) during this war, and saw many of its citizens killed and sections of city destroyed.
As the U.S.-Mexico border became a place of entertainment and trade, Juárez routinely saw annual population growth rates between 5% and 7% in the 1950s and 1960s, which put a strain on its infrastructure and social services. The expanding maquiladora industrial base, which drew Mexicans from the southern part of the nation seeking work, was a major factor in this growth.
More recently, Juárez has faced several crises. Twelve years ago, Juárez was an epicenter in northern Mexico of an outbreak of swine flu. I remember having meetings there during the outbreak and everybody I met with was nervous that this would snowball into a full-blown pandemic. Cases eventually subsided, but I remember very well the fear in the city at that time, and how many events and meetings were canceled.
About the same time, I was teaching a graduate business class at one of the city’s universities when the monsoon season decided to drench the El Paso-Juárez-southern New Mexico border region with torrents of rain. On the U.S. side of the border, we saw debris at street intersections and ponding areas full of water – minor inconveniences. However, traveling through Juárez to my class was an exercise in steel nerves and patience, as whole streets and neighborhoods had become impassable lakes. Like other travelers, I had to find ways to get around the flooded areas and get to the university. I remember students being nonplussed about the flooding in the city, as they had become accustomed to it over the years. I let class out a little early so that each of us could chart the driest path we could find back to our homes.
It was about this same time that the cartel wars were flaring, as different factions fought each other for control of the flow of drugs north, and President Felipe Calderón’s crackdown on the drug industry. Although the Mexican army was sent in to quell the multitude of murders and violence that this war generated, the situation did not change. Daily reports of drive-by shootings and of gangs machine-gunning rivals and innocent people down in their tracks filled the newspapers. Juárez quickly gained a reputation as one of the world’s most violent cities.
And there were the murdered and disappeared women, which was perhaps the saddest of all the crises. The bodies of young women who were murdered routinely turned up in vacant lots or in shallow graves. Rumors of serial killers gripped the city, and many women were afraid that if they left their houses, they were risking their lives. Activists began to erect monuments to the murdered women throughout Juárez, and attempted to have international watch groups intervene in the situation.
And now the latest crisis is the COVID-19 pandemic. I was in Juárez for business during the beginning of the pandemic when the city was starting to shut down. I remember talking to some businesspeople and their family members who had mom-and-pop-type operations such as restaurants and retail outlets. So many of these people, many of them economically challenged, completely depended on these operations to feed their families. When the order came for shops to close and people to be quarantined in their homes, many of these smaller businesses continued to operate clandestinely, because the owners had no other choice. And unlike in the U.S., where citizens received stimulus checks and PPP loans for businesses, businesses in Mexico were not offered a lot of support.
However, through these various crises, the citizens of Juárez have endured and struggled to put their lives back together again. The vibrancy that follows the crises that I have personally witnessed in that city always provides me with hope for my own personal struggles, even though mine have not been of the magnitude I have seen there.
The one thing I do know about the people of Juárez is that they have learned to persevere.
Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.