It was just six years ago that Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was labeled one of the deadliest cities in the world.
In 2010, more than 3,000 people were killed during a bloody turf war between the local Juarez cartel and its rival the Sinaloa Federation, according to figures released by the attorney general’s office.
At the peak of the violence, decapitated bodies were dumped on crowded streets, cartel death threats were spray painted on makeshift banners hung freely throughout the city and, in perhaps the most dramatic episode that highlighted the raging drug war, a car bomb targeting police exploded in broad daylight, killing four people.
It was believed to be the first time in Mexican history that a car bomb was used to target federal police.
Of the thousands killed during the violence, one man was thought to be responsible for playing the biggest hand in it: Joaquin Guzman Loera, more famously known as El Chapo.
It was around 2012 that an unofficial declaration of victory was made by Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel in Juarez. It hung “narco mantas,” banners marking its territory, around the city. At the time, the city’s mayor credited law enforcement and “no one else” for the changes in Juarez and the drop in homicides. But the sentiment among many Juarez residents was more cynical, acknowledging – if only privately – that the war had been won by the Sinaloans, led by El Chapo.
Several years have passed since then and recently local residents have done their best to move on. But unexpectedly, last week the drug kingpin was transferred from a prison an hour outside Mexico City to a local penitentiary in Juarez. His unceremonious return has forced city residents to confront a past they’d much rather forget.
“When you were sleeping you would get woken up in the middle of the night by the shootouts,” Juarez business owner Sergio Velez said, referencing what it was like to live through the height of the violence.
Velez hasn’t fully shaken the nightmares from the bloody war. He said he still mourns the slaying of one of his construction workers who was killed inside his business.
“There are many people very hurt by that war. There are many still mourning what happened during the narco war. And there’s still a very latent sense of insecurity bred by the delinquent group of El Chapo Guzman here in Ciudad Juarez,” Velez added.
Painful memories Velez buried deep in his mind have been unlocked by the return of El Chapo. Even with the kingpin behind bars, there are those like Velez who fear a return of impunity for the cartel foot soldiers still in the city.
Hiram Ruiz lived through the violence as well.
“We used to live and work with the doors closed. There was always a fear something bad was going to happen, every day,” Ruiz said.
In 2009, Ruiz’s family member was killed during an extortion attempt on the family business.
“I don’t live in fear anymore, even with El Chapo back here. Him being here hasn’t affected me one bit. And I don’t think, truthfully speaking, that his presence will ignite more violence. I know he’s here, but can he really do anything while in prison?”
Indeed, the mood on the streets is different now. There has been a dramatic drop in homicides, which have continued to decline since 2012. Last year there were 311 people killed, according to the Attorney General’s Office. This year, 117, so far. And while some may worry what El Chapo’s return might contribute to the violence, most seem to be unaffected, according to local journalist Arturo Chacon.
“The prison is about 40 kilometers from the city center, so most people don’t see him as a threat,” Chacon said. “Juarez is doing better from many different perspectives. Business is doing better and factories are improving. But, because of the geography, the cartels in the city will always be present and a way of life for many.”
Over the last week with El Chapo back, in press conferences and interviews Juarez city leadership has tried to temper the concerns of residents.
“[El Chapo’s] transfer has had no impact of relevance on the daily life of most of its residents,” Juarez Mayor Javier Gonzalez Mocken said.
Gonzalez Mocken, who has been mayor of Juarez for less than a year, said the city would rather look forward at its progress than worry about El Chapo.
“Juarez now finds itself peaceful, working and dedicated to producing goods and services,” Gonzalez Mocken said. “Juarez is dedicated to creating better life conditions for its residents.”
At a press conference last week, Gonzalez Mocken said he hopes El Chapo is extradited to the United States expeditiously. Despite conflicting reports by Mexican authorities, the Juarez mayor told CNN he expects El Chapo to be held in the Cefereso No. 9 federal prison until he is handed over to the United States.
On the day of El Chapo’s prison transfer, a senior Mexican law enforcement official told CNN, due to the proximity to the United States, El Chapo’s transfer to Juarez “makes it easier to extradite him.” Officially, however, Mexico’s federal government said El Chapo was transferred while renovations were underway at the Altiplano penitentiary, the facility where he was being held.
Gonzalez Mocken, a man focused on moving the city forward, any reminder of its tumultuous past ought to be forgotten. Even if that means making little out of the transfer to the local prison of the world’s most notorious drug trafficker.