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Border city of Juarez pays price of Mexico drugs war

By Julian Miglierini
BBC News, Mexico City

An aerial view of Santa Fe bridge that links the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, bottom, with the US city of El Paso,
Ciudad Juarez is located right on the border with the US

Business owners in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, at the centre of the country's drug-fuelled violence, have learned that rising crime is not only measured as a body count, but as a factor hitting hard on their financial bottom lines.

According to estimates by the local chamber of commerce, the increasing violence has forced more than 5,000 shops to close since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon deployed security forces in the area for a head-on confrontation with the cartels.

The head of the business chamber of the state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located, has said up to 100,000 people have left the city in the past few years.

A local businessman, who prefers not to be named, has experienced this trend first hand.

Of the six food shops his family owns in Ciudad Juarez, two have had to close and he expects the rest to follow suit soon.

"In the last nine months, we've been robbed three times and they twice tried to kidnap us," he told the BBC from El Paso, Texas, where he now lives and has opened new shops.

They can either run away from the country, or pay the cuota
Daniel Murguia

He says the "juarenses" who, like him, have managed to leave the city are the "lucky" ones. The others, including his employees, remain in a city hit hard by violence.

More than 2,600 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2009 in drug-related crime.

The toll the violence has had on the city's society - including its business sector- has become a major focus of debate.

President Felipe Calderon is expected in Juarez this Wednesday after a much-publicised visit last week during which he announced the creation of a task force to draw up a new economic plan for the city.

Despite deep poverty in some areas, Ciudad Juarez, with 1.3 million inhabitants, is not one of Mexico's most deprived cities.

Local government figures say it produces almost 45% of the GDP of the state of Chihuahua, mostly thanks to its manufacturing industry.

Women in black veils take part in a protest against violence in Juarez on 13 February
Anger at the recent killing of a group of teenagers has provoked protests

There are more than 300 maquiladoras - the factories that reassemble imported material and then export the finished product, mainly to the US - in and around the city.

Soledad Maynez, president of the Juarez association of maquiladoras, says what is at stake is Juarez's consolidation as a major industrial hub on the border with the US.

Extortion

Earning the reputation of being the most violent city in the world does not help, she says. It has added to the financial difficulties for an industry reeling from the impact of the US economic slowdown.

For example, a project to build clinics in the city for US patients wanting to avoid the high costs of healthcare back home was relocated to a different Mexican state, Sonora, because of security fears.

Ms Maynez says that particular investment would have created seven much-needed jobs for every patient who had opted for treatment south of the border.

In addition, many maquiladoras have had to make unexpected substantial investments in security systems such as CCTV, alarms or safety training for employees, she says.

President Felipe Calderon during a visit to Ciudad Juarez on 11 February
President Calderon: Two visits to Juarez in under a week

But the violence in the streets of Ciudad Juarez is more palpable for small shop owners.

Some of them have spoken of weekly visits by "people" - who they refuse to identify openly - who demand the payment of a "cuota", an extortion fee, in exchange for protection.

If left unpaid, they say, the retaliation can amount to increased pressure, even the burning down of their premises or physical violence against the owner and their families.

Daniel Murguia, head of Juarez's local chamber of commerce, says the owners have two options.

"They can either run away from the country, or pay the cuota. That's the only choice they are left with. They must pay because there is no institution that helps them," Mr Murguia told the BBC.

This is the type of frustration President Calderon is aiming to address.

His promise last week to "rebuild" the city seems like a daunting task, one the business people in Juarez know too well.



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