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Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juárez
Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juárez
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas
Mexican children from Pueblo Nuevo, Oaxaca, are seen through a broken window, August 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata
Report 54 / Latin America & Caribbean

Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juárez

For lessons on crime prevention, Mexico can look to the example of Ciudad Juárez, the world’s “murder capital” in 2008-2010. Government and citizens worked together to bring violence down by strengthening local law enforcement and addressing socio-economic inequalities. These initiatives should be monitored, refined and expanded if Mexico is to overcome its country-wide crisis of confidence at all levels.

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Executive Summary

Just four years ago, Ciudad Juárez was under siege from criminal gang members and being sabotaged by crooked cops. Killings and kidnappings spiralled out of control despite the deployment of thousands of soldiers and federal police. Today Juárez is on the path to recovery: public investments in social programs and institutional reform plus a unique model of citizen engagement have helped bring what was once dubbed the world’s “murder capital” back from the brink. Daunting problems persist. Juárez remains an unruly frontier city of great inequalities, where traffickers and other criminals can too easily find recruits among a largely young population, many of whom still lack good jobs or education. To sustain progress, citizens and local policymakers need to assess achievements and obstacles, relaunching their partnership and upgrading efforts to strengthen local institutions and address social inequities.

Though Juárez remains fragile, there are reasons for guarded optimism: civil society leaders – including business and professional groups, non-profit organisations and academics – hold the government accountable for any increase in crime, meeting regularly with municipal, state and federal officials in a unique Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia (Security and Justice Working Group), an independent body including citizens and authorities. All three levels of government remain committed in principle to addressing the causes of violence through social programs aimed at the poor communities that have borne the brunt of the killings.

President Felipe Calderón’s administration invested more than $380 million in 2010-2011 under its Todos Somos Juárez (TSJ, We are all Juárez) initiative to finance social programs designed to make communities, especially their young people, more resistant to violent crime. Much of the money went to expanding existing programs for the urban poor and building or renovating community centres, schools and hospitals. But the impact of these efforts was never evaluated, largely wasting the opportunity to create innovative, sustainable programs, subject to outside review and evaluation.

When he took office in December 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto promised to make crime and violence prevention central to his security strategy, adopting and adapting some of the strategies initiated by his predecessor. Among his first acts was to order nine ministries to join forces on a national program. Its objectives are sweepingly ambitious: promote citizen participation and a culture of peace and respect for the law; address the risk factors that render children, adolescents, women and other groups vulnerable to violence; create and reclaim public spaces to foster peaceful coexistence; and strengthen institutional capacity at the federal, state and municipal level.

The National Program for the Social Prevention of Violence and Delinquency channels funding into high-risk zones chosen to serve as laboratories for social change, including three within Ciudad Juárez. This “socio-urban acupuncture” approach holds promise. Officials say crime rates have already fallen within many of the target zones and promise that detailed surveys will measure impact going forward. But the effort in Juárez itself has been plagued by delays and controversy. The lack of transparency in project selection and monitoring has given rise to accusations of mismanagement and political favouritism.

Local authorities are justifiably proud of progress in reducing homicide and other high-impact crimes, such as kidnapping, but more is needed to keep Juárez from again falling victim to a surge of violence. The model of citizen participation embodied in the Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia should be extended to the neighbourhood level, so that working class and poor communities are empowered to monitor violence-prevention projects and work with law enforcement to combat crime. Local police must play a more important role. Authorities on the municipal, state and federal levels should open their efforts to greater scrutiny, crafting long-term strategies that can be continued past the next electoral cycle.

The achievements of Juárez and the surrounding state of Chihuahua offer hope for other Mexican cities and regions still suffering epidemic rates of violent crimes, including murder, often at the hands of criminals in league with local authorities. The focus of federal action has shifted to the north east, where the state of Tamaulipas now leads the country in kidnappings, and the south west, where the state of Guerrero and the city of Acapulco have the highest rates of homicides per capita. National authorities have poured soldiers and police into these regions while promising funding for social programs, much as they did a few years ago in Chihuahua.

But they have not been able to stem the crisis of confidence in government at all levels: municipal, state and federal. The kidnapping and apparent killing of 43 students from the rural teaching college of Ayotzinapa by a criminal gang allegedly backed by corrupt police has sparked violent protests in Guerrero and mass marches in Mexico City. Perhaps the most important lesson of Juárez is that crime must be tackled through the combined effort of authorities and citizens. Opaque, top-down solutions that fail to address the concerns of local communities – eliciting their ideas and soliciting their support – are unlikely to produce sustainable progress against the scourge of violent crime.

Listen to Mary Speck, Crisis Group’s Mexico & Central America Project Director, describing how the citizens of Juárez, a city once dubbed the world’s “murder capital”, prepared the way for a new approach to combat organised crime. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA/Paul Fisk
Migrants walk across the Paso del Norte border bridge after being deported from the United States amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 21, 2020. REUTERS/ Jose Luis Gonzalez

Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas

As the coronavirus spreads, and the U.S. presidential election looms, the Trump administration and Mexican government continue to deport migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some deportees are carrying the virus. Central American states should press their northern neighbours for more stringent health measures.

Under-resourced health systems and poverty, along with the grassroots power of criminal groups and gangs, make Central American countries highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and the knock-on effects of national lockdowns on people’s livelihoods and security. But it is the region’s relentless migratory flows, whether legal or undocumented, forced or voluntary, that are shaping up to be the weakest links in virus prevention campaigns. Above all, deportations from the U.S. and Mexico now threaten to become leading vectors of southward transmission and could spark worsening unrest among fearful residents. Central American governments should respond by urging the U.S. either to pause deportations or to reform how they are handled, ensuring that strict health checks are in place before any more migrants are sent back.

Deportations without Testing

While all three northern Central American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have banned passenger air and land travel in and out of their countries, deportations have not stopped. U.S. flights carrying deportees to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have proceeded on and off over the past few weeks, though they are now on hold in Guatemala at its government’s request. Meanwhile, deportations overland from Mexico have continued unabated. In total, the U.S. and Mexico have returned at least 6,500 Guatemalans, 5,000 Hondurans and 1,600 Salvadorans between March and mid-April, according to available figures.

Virus testing by U.S. and Mexican migration authorities before deportation, however, has been far from being reliable or robust. Although mass testing in South Korea and elsewhere has consistently shown that most carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been testing only those deportees who report symptoms, mainly fever (efforts will reportedly now be made to test up to 2,000 migrants in custody per month). The Guatemalan government has already confirmed that 100 deportees have tested positive for the virus, one fifth of the entire tally of recorded cases in the country. But the real total could be higher, as Guatemala only started widespread testing of returning migrants, and setting up ad hoc reception centres, after a 26 March deportation flight arrived bearing various infected passengers. Before that, migrants had been invited to observe a two-week voluntary quarantine. Mexico has identified at least sixteen Central American migrants with coronavirus in its northern Tamaulipas department, fourteen of them infected by one migrant previously deported from Houston, Texas.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities in the U.S., which host more than 32,000 convicted or illegal migrants, are turning into a hot-spot for COVID-19, intensifying concerns as to the risk of contagion via deportees. At least 360 migrants held by ICE of only 425 who had access to a test turned out to have been infected, while at least 9,000 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have been sidelined from their official duties after testing positive or having been exposed to the virus. The Mexican government has been slow to react to the pandemic and has taken virtually no preventive measures in its migrant detention centres, according to UN officials and humanitarian workers to whom Crisis Group spoke.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico, where a Guatemalan migrant died in a revolt at a migrant detention centre in Tenosique, Tabasco, at the end of March. After this episode, Mexican authorities started releasing most of the 6,000 migrants stranded in detention facilities, and even shut down the Tenosique facility. One humanitarian worker stated that most of these released migrants have been put on buses heading south, and are sometimes abandoned in the town of Tapachula on the southern Mexican border with Guatemala, a migration bottleneck. Authorities give them no shelter and have blocked access to public spaces where migrants used to gather. In some cases, Mexican officials reportedly have even incited them to return to their home countries via illegal crossings often employed by criminal traffickers. Meanwhile, representatives of shelters run by non-governmental organisations told Crisis Group that, due to the pandemic, they have scaled down their operations and are unable to receive more incoming migrants.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has asserted that, alongside deportees and detained migrants, higher numbers of Central Americans are independently heading back to their homelands overland from the U.S. and through Mexico, using illegal crossings. UN officials consulted by Crisis Group have identified at least 700 Central Americans trying to return to their countries through various blind spots in Guatemala’s borders with Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras in the past two weeks alone.

Central American Migrants and the U.S. Response

U.S. determination to press ahead with deportations of Central American migrants and refugees despite the pandemic follows years of tightening border and migration policies, notably under President Donald Trump. The draconian migration policy adopted by the Trump administration, to which Mexico signed up fearing tariff reprisals, has aimed above all to stem rising flows of migrants out of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which together account for around 8 per cent of the total legal immigrant population in the U.S., and 15 per cent of the illegal, according to Migration Policy Institute estimates.

Migration toward the U.S. has long been an escape valve for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing grim living conditions and chronic insecurity. But over the past couple of years, the lethal mix of gang-related violence, economic stagnation and prolonged, climate change-induced drought has spurred a sharp increase in northward migration, urged along further by concern that the Trump administration will completely prohibit entry into the U.S. U.S. authorities apprehended more than 600,000 Central American migrants – or almost 2 per cent of the region’s entire population – at the southern border with Mexico between October 2018 and September 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. Between 27 and 48 of the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran interviewees in a recent survey by the Inter-American Development Bank cited violence or insecurity as their main reason for making the journey.

In response, the Trump administration has increased border patrols, established stricter requirements for obtaining asylum or visas, and put pressure on Mexico and Central American countries to process asylum requests filed in the U.S. (through so-called Migrant Protection Protocols and the Asylum Cooperation Agreements). According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, these measures have helped reduce the number of Central Americans arriving at the U.S. southern border by 70 per cent since numbers peaked in May 2019. Mexico’s deployment of the National Guard to its southern border with Guatemala in June 2019 also curbed the flow northward. In 2019 alone, the U.S. and Mexico deported more than 250,000 Central Americans, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S. On 21 March, the president allowed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials to immediately expel illegal migrants found at the border. As a result, they have turned back at least 10,000 migrants to Mexico in a matter of weeks. On 22 April, Trump went further, signing an executive order halting immigration for green card seekers for at least 60 days.

Tough measures imposed by the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran governments to contain the pandemic, including border shutdowns, curfews and restrictions on internal movement, have further complicated the journey north. These measures have “only raised the cost of bribes officials expect from those who can afford it”, said a humanitarian worker in a shelter in southern Mexico. “And they’ve pushed those who can’t to more dangerous and remote trails, where they risk getting extorted or kidnapped”.

The Need for a Coordinated Response

Poor coordination among the U.S., Mexico, Central American states and UN agencies, as well as the lack of proper health checks in U.S. and Mexico migrant facilities, could have dire effects across a region ill prepared to combat the pandemic. None of Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador has ever managed to provide returnees with proper resettlement and protection services, and all three are now channelling most available resources toward strengthening health systems. Undetected COVID-19 cases among deportees could spread the virus in the poor and often violent areas which they left and to which they often return. This risk is already triggering unease, violence and stigmatisation of returnees. In one recent episode in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, locals first threatened to set fire to a centre designed to host some 80 deportees, and then set off in hot pursuit of several who had reportedly tried to escape.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations. Both countries, however, are likely to keep toughening law enforcement, including deportations, to curb migration north, especially in view of Trump’s re-election bid. Therefore, the urgent priority for Central American countries should be to negotiate with the U.S. and Mexico a safer, more orderly and coordinated return process, including far stricter health measures in U.S. and Mexico migrant detention facilities, stepped-up testing and possibly a quarantine period prior to deportation. In parallel, the region’s governments should seek UN agencies’ and humanitarian organisations’ assistance in setting up decent reception centres and improving protocols that ensure fair treatment and resettlement of returnees. They should also maintain channels of dialogue with communities that receive returning migrants, ensuring that they follow strict quarantine rules so as to minimise the risk of violent backlash. Continuing to deport migrants without taking these steps and in disregard of the potential for contagion is a recipe for turmoil.