CIUDAD JUÁREZ – On a recent day in January, six buses, five cars and a convenience store burned in broad daylight. An old booth that served as a police checkpoint was also set ablaze in what investigators suspect was a coordinated attack. Nobody was injured, but the fires reignited widespread fear in a city that has long been ravaged by violence.

“Innocent people who have nothing to do with this sometimes are in the wrong place,” said Alejandro Luevanos, who works at a convenience store that is part of the Oxxo chain, like the one that burned down. “Imagine if it had happened here?”

Like some other residents in Juárez, Luevanos does not think the timing of high-profile attacks is coincidental.

“It’s seasonal with the change in administration. Some criminal groups have a preference,” Luevanos said. “I think it will be temporary while they make accommodations.”

Over the years, the public displays of violence have been a reminder of how fragile and volatile security remains here and in regions across Mexico. The blatant acts also are sometimes used to test new administrations in Ciudad Juárez and the state of Chihuahua. The new Juárez mayor and the new Chihuahua governor were sworn into office in September. 

“The idea of sowing mayhem and chaos has become a key negotiating tool,” said Jeremy Slack, a professor specializing in organized crime and migration at the University of Texas at El Paso. “So much seems to be tracking toward new municipal governments, new state governments, elections.”

The cluster of brazen acts of violence in Ciudad Juárez happened about a month after the December visit by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar.

National Guardsmen and agents of Chihuahua’s State Investigative Agency secure the scene where several men dressed in municipal police uniforms attempted to rob a Del Rio convenience store on Jan. 14. The attackers were repelled after shooting and wounding a security guard. (Luis Torres/Special for El Paso Matters)

The U.S. ambassador and Chihuahua Gov. María Eugenia Campos Galván stood side by side during a gathering with mayors at the U.S. Consulate in Juarez. Cruz Pérez Cuéllar, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, was among the mayors who signed an agreement to work together to prevent violent crime, reduce corruption and build citizen trust in Mexico’s police forces.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is funding the initiative as part of a four-year, $19.4 million violence prevention program that includes 32 cities in 10 states across Mexico.

Homicides in Mexico declined slightly last year, falling 3.6% according to data gathered by Mexico’s federal government and touted by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Similarly, in Juárez, the number of homicides in January reached a three-year low, according to the Attorney General of the State of Chihuahua.

The decrease in overall homicides, however, resulted in an increase in the percentage of female gender-based violence known as femicides in Mexico. Female homicides increased by 2.7% last year.  

In Ciudad Juárez, a city notorious for the killings known as femicides, the bodies of four women were dumped on public streets in garbage bags in late January.  

The death toll does not include those reported missing, a number that is nearing 95,000 according to Mexico’s National Search Commission. The agency created by federal lawmakers in 2017 that tracks reported disappearances across the country, notes the majority happened after 2007. That’s when rival cartels clashed violently and federal forces in Mexico began their own drug war crackdown. 

Migrants are among those who have disappeared. Some have gone missing in the vast Chihuahuan desert, which includes a smuggling corridor that stretches from the eastern edge of Juárez known as the Valle de Juárez to Ojinaga just across from Presidio, Texas.

The Chihuahua State Attorney General’s office confirmed that a group of 13 migrants was reported missing last fall in the region. Relatives have not heard from the men for months and some fear they may have been killed before reaching the United States. 

National Guardsmen and agents of Chihuahua’s State Investigative Agency secure the scene where several men dressed in municipal police uniforms attempted to rob a Del Rio convenience store on Jan. 14. (Luis Torres/Special for El Paso Matters)

While some disappear without a trace, other killings are made public.

Gruesome calling cards include dismembered bodies designed to send a message to government officials and rival criminal organizations in battles over smuggling routes.

“You display those bodies, that violence, to tell the other group ‘don’t mess up in my route or with my merchandise’ – which is horrible to say. But this is the way sometimes they see migrants, they see people,” said Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, an expert on organized crime and immigration at George Mason University.

While the reasons for public displays of violence vary, the crimes share something in common.

“It’s because of impunity, corruption. It’s because of the political protections provided at all levels to organized crime,” said Correa Cabrera. 

The bloodshed in other regions of Mexico is also evident in Ciudad Juárez, which is seeing more displaced migrants fleeing violence from elsewhere in Mexico arriving in the border city.

After years of sharply declining migration from Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is encountering more Mexicans crossing the border.

From October through December 2021 the number grew to 168,623, comprising 34% of all migrants taken into custody by Border Patrol along the southwest border,  according to CBP data – a 38% increase from the previous year. During that same period the previous fiscal year, there were 122,578 apprehensions of Mexican migrants. 

“A lot of what we see coming to, and coming through the border, is a lot of rural people from Guerrero and Michoacán that are being targeted in ways that really feel like a race to the bottom,” Slack said.

Slack recalled a father and son, both fishermen, who he interviewed for his research.

“The criminals wanted to take 90% of their fish,” Slack said. “His father almost got beaten to death. They burned down their boat. They burned down their house and made them flee.”

Cover photo: A National Guardsman secures the scene where a maquiladora personnel transport bus was burned in Colonia Aztecas on Jan. 13. An Oxxo convenience store, a police substation, and seven buses and cars in different parts of the city were set on fire with Molotov cocktails, just a month after U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar visited Juárez and signed a violence prevention agreement with the governor of Chihuahua. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners....