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A ray of hope in Mexico's murder capital

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 12:36 PM EST, Fri January 20, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Murder rate in Ciudad Juarez drops 38% in 2011; still, city saw 1,933 killings
  • Some businesses that had shuttered are opening back up
  • Street vendor: "We were hoping for a reversal, and it seems like it's happening"
  • City's new chief of police had overseen decrease in crime in Tijuana

(CNN) -- On a recent night at Club Tequila Frogs, the music, lights and plenty of people dancing combined to give the place the ambiance you would expect at a spot in a tourist area.

The lights at the nightclub that caters to travelers and locals in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas, were turned on for the first time last week after being dark for several years.

This is one of the first businesses to reopen in Juarez. Owner Mario Fierro says he felt he could operate Club Tequila Frogs again because his city doesn't feel like a war zone anymore.

"Fortunately, since violence has decreased a little bit, people are feeling more confident. Many who fled to El Paso or other cities are coming back, and we're betting on the confidence that we have in our city," Fierro said.

For years, Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, has been known as Mexico's murder capital.

Last year, there were still 1,933 violent deaths in Juarez, according to the Chihuahua state attorney's office. But it's the first time since at least 2007 that the number of murders went down. And it went down sharply, with a 38% decline from the 3,117 murders counted in 2010. There were 2,643 murders in 2009, 1,607 in 2008 when violence exploded and 300 in 2007.

Police officer burned to death on Juarez street

Guillermo Soria, the Juarez director of the National Chamber of Commerce (CANACO by its Spanish acronym) says between 30% and 40% of businesses shut their doors during the violence, but that's beginning to change.

"It used to be that you would stop at a traffic light, and you were the only one driving at 11 p.m. or midnight, and it was very sad. Seeing people waiting in line at restaurants and stores makes me very happy, and that's exactly what's happening," Soria said.

So, what's happened to bring about this change? The federal government sent in thousands of troops and federal police, and there's a new mayor and a new chief of police.

Julian Leyzaola had successfully reduced crime in the border city of Tijuana as its chief of police before getting the unenviable task of doing the same in Juarez. In June, shortly after taking office, Leyzaola said that "the city was in a state of abandonment which generated anarchy. There was no authority, no police on the street."

Leyzaola is a former military officer. Under his watch, Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, aka "El Diego," the powerful boss of the street gang known as La Linea, was caught. La Linea terrorized the city and is believed to be behind the murder of American consular employee Leslie Enriquez in March of 2010.

But the crackdown has not been without controversy. Leyzaola and his police officers have been accused of human rights violations, including the beating of prisoners. He dismisses the allegations as an attempt to derail his crime-fighting efforts.

Human rights commission levels allegations of torture

What matters to the locals is that streets that used to be empty because of fear now have plenty of traffic. Street vendors such as José Hernandez, who was selling flowers out of a bucket at busy intersection, are no longer afraid to come out at night.

"We were hoping for a reversal, and it seems like it's happening. We used to live with a lot of anguish, fearful of getting caught in the middle of the street violence and shootouts." Hernandez said.

Some fighting among drug cartels that used to happen in Juarez seems to have moved elsewhere in Mexico.

Drug violence takes almost 13,000 lives in first three quarters of 2011

States such as Veracruz and Guerrero, which used to be relatively safe, are now teeming with violence.

According to the latest statistics from the Mexican government, more than 47,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars in the last five years, 13,000 in the first three-quarters of 2011 alone.

Journalist Edgar Roman in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.

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