Flight brings plight: About 25% of Juárez homes sit empty, as
residents flee drug war violence
by Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera \ El Paso Times
Posted: 05/23/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT
JUAREZ -- Most of the houses in Villas Residencial have no doors, no
windowpanes, and graffiti covers graffiti on every wall. Everything
that could be resold -- electrical wiring, sewer lids, anything made
out of copper -- is gone.
Rows upon rows of houses have been abandoned in this housing project
located on the southeast side of the city. People left because of the
lack of security or the lack of work. The few who stayed have nowhere
else to go.
"Back home, you either work at the mines or with the narcos," said a
maquiladora worker from Parral who preferred not to be identified.
About a quarter of the homes in Juárez are empty due to the massive
exodus of people who have fled the current wave of violence, and the
urban planning mistakes of the past. Now, the abandoned neighborhoods
attract vandalism, breed new criminals, weigh down financially on the
city and represent one of the biggest obstacles for its recovery.
Citywide, the number of people who have left Juárez in the last three
years is about 230,000, according to one study.
Urban planning experts believe restoring these areas is a crucial
step to get Juárez back on its feet, but while some projects are in
the process of taking off, the
task remains a largely unsolved challenge.
In some ways, empty housing units are both the cause and consequence
behind some of the city's most substantial problems today.
For one, they attract crime. Empty houses are often vandalized or
serve as hideouts for thieves and drug addicts; in some cases, hit
men have even used them to dump bodies. To avoid the risk, new
residents will not move in, triggering a vicious circle of more
desolation and crime.
For the city administration, it has meant continuing to shoulder the
high cost of maintaining the massive network of utilities that run
through these mostly unoccupied areas, at a time when the departure
of thousands of taxpaying homeowners and businesspeople has caused
the city coffers to settle critically low.
But urban development experts say the problem with housing started
Abigail García, coordinator of plans and programs at the Municipal
Institute of Planning and Research, or IMIP, said residential
construction in Juárez soared in the 1990s thanks to federal policies
that made low-income housing credits widely available as a measure of
The boom in residential real estate was also meant to accommodate the
growing number of people moving into the city, which had become a
magnet for thousands of jobseekers from all around Mexico.
"Juárez received and received and received people from all over the
country, and they needed a place to live. But now some people have
left and returned to their places of origin, and others don't want to
buy a home because of the uncertainty regarding their jobs. And it's
all because of the insecurity," said Victor Manuel Ortega, president
of the Mexican Chamber of the Construction Industry, or CMIC, in Juárez.
But García said there was no research supporting the push for more
houses, and population growth rates also seemed to contradict the
"Given the economic growth of the city, the logic was that their
gamble would be successful. But there was no study suggesting that
these houses would be occupied," she said.
Figures from Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography,
or INEGI, show that while Juárez had one of the highest population
growth rates in the country for several decades -- the city grew by
21 percent between 1990 and 1995 -- the pace began to slow down in
the early 2000s. In the first five years of the last decade, the
population grew only 7 percent.
Ortega said residential construction was justified by the industrial
plants that continued to arrive in Juárez and required new homes for
"It definitely wasn't a miscalculation, because there wasn't a
miscalculation from the part of the industrial plants or from the
restaurants and from every other business," he said. "These were
unoccupied houses meant for the people who came in on an annual basis."
But César Fuentes, regional director of Juárez's Northern Border
College, said factors other than need were involved, such as politics
and powerful interests in the last 50 years that often trumped
technical decisions regarding the planning of the city.
"When the municipal government wanted to expand to the southeast, we
argued it was an inefficient move in terms of expanding water and
drainage infrastructure, especially when there were plenty of
undeveloped areas within the city. However, the decision to grow
outward was approved by the city government because of its ties with
the owners of that land," he said.
"In the case of Juárez, the powerful groups that control the land
keep strong ties to the political parties because they fund their
campaigns, so their interests will be protected by whatever
administration is in charge."
Fuentes said one problem of this unhinged growth in housing was that
residential development did not go hand in hand with the creation of
schools, health centers, supermarkets or community centers in those
areas, which he sees as one of the causes behind family
disintegration, school dropout rates and crime in the city.
"Now we see areas in the west and southeast where there are no high
schools, for example. Whether it is because of their economic
situation or the distance from education centers, young people have
no opportunities. This influences whether they stay in school or not,
and can turn them into easy prey for drug traffickers," he said.
The result was a cancerous growth in the number of houses being built
in the city, which was only accentuated by the recent exodus of
people fleeing from the violence.
According to INEGI figures, there were 70,434 unoccupied dwellings in
2005 -- last year, the number reached 111,103, or about 24 percent of
all private homes. A recent study from a social sciences research
center in Juárez found that about 40 percent of them had been abandoned.
For the construction sector, the collapse of the housing market meant
a near complete shutdown. Ortega said that construction investments
in the city have dropped almost 90 percent since the crisis started.
Out of the city's almost 400 construction companies, only 30
currently have work, he said.
Urban planning experts in the city believe that repairing abandoned
areas and attracting new residents is a crucial step in restoring the
city's social fabric.
García thinks efforts should focus on building health centers,
schools and commercial areas in the locations lacking them. Some of
the empty houses could be repurposed into community centers, small
libraries or rental homes for temporary populations, she said.
State, city and housing officials have already announced or begun
several initiatives to fill those homes. The city government
announced last month that it will restore and give away 100 homes to
outstanding municipal police officers.
Chihuahua's branch of the National Workers Housing Fund Institute, or
Infonavit, recently began offering a home-repairing credit to
potential home buyers who take an existing damaged home.
And López, with the city's urban development department, said that
the municipal government has begun a pilot program to rehabilitate
Riveras del Bravo, a neighborhood with one of the highest vacancy
levels east of the city. López said the repairs include fixing street
holes, parks and lighting posts, while the federal government will
invest in community, sports and education centers.
But observers and the general public believe these efforts haven't
Claudia, a 27-year-old housewife who lives in Riveras del Bravo and
prefers not to give her last name, said she saw city workers clean
half a dozen houses, but hasn't seen them since then. The street
lights went on briefly during a visit from Juárez Mayor Héctor "Teto"
Murguía, but the streets have been dark ever since.
Meanwhile, neighbors continue to abandon their houses since the
killing of three men last year, their slayings marked by three small
crosses on the sidewalk. Claudia said thieves target maquiladora
workers in the early morning and banners have appeared on a nearby
convenience store warning residents and merchants that they will soon
be asked for an extortion fee.
"My 7-year-old son has heard gunshots in the streets and now he
doesn't like to go out because he's afraid he'll get shot," she said.
Some believe government officials are lacking coordination to
implement neighborhood restoration programs, but besides that,
Fuentes said the local government couldn't if it wanted to because of
its tight budget.
And given the city's security crisis, a large part of municipal
resources currently go to security-oriented programs.
López said another problem is the legal status of abandoned houses,
as it can take several months for housing authorities to repossess
them. So far, Infonavit has recovered 2,500 and estimates it will
have 15,000 by the end of the year, López said.
Ultimately, Fuentes said, it all comes back to reversing the city's
security crisis. Without security, people will not migrate to Juárez
looking for work as they once did, houses will remain unoccupied and
that will continue to fan the flames of violence and other crime, he
"If we don't see any improvements in security, it is difficult to
move forward," he said. "We can think of many things (to solve the
empty housing problem), but I don't see how it could be done. If we
don't have security, who's going to want to come to Juárez?"
Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera may be reached at
'Bravest woman in Mexico' seeks asylum in United States
By Ed Lavandera, CNN
May 23, 2011 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Marisol Valles Garcia, pictured in October, was the only person who
accepted the top police job in Praxedis, Mexico.
Marisol Valles Garcia says threats forced her to leave, gave her
"fear that will last a lifetime"
She was police chief for four months in the border town of Praxedis
Her idealism drew international attention
Attorney: "She represented the average person saying, 'No more'"
Editor's note: Tune in to AC360° Monday at 10 p.m. ET to see Ed
Lavandera's report about Marisol Valles Garcia.
El Paso, Texas (CNN) -- When the cell phone rang, the words "private
number" flashed on the screen. Marisol Valles Garcia knew who was
calling. The threatening, mysterious voice on the other end of the
line had hounded her for almost four months.
But this phone call had a starkly sinister tone. The man said
something he'd never said before. He was coming to pick up the 21-
year-old police chief at the station. "Some people" wanted to see
her, he said.
The same day -- March 1 -- her mother spotted strange cars driving
past the family's home. Valles Garcia knew it was only a matter of
time before they closed in.
She called her husband and told him to grab their 1-year-old son.
Four months after headlines around the world heralded her as the
"bravest woman in Mexico," Valles Garcia plotted a hasty escape
across a remote border crossing in West Texas.
Terrified of being tortured or killed, she fled the country without
packing a suitcase.
With her parents, sisters, husband and son, Valles Garcia crossed a
footbridge into the United States and asked for asylum.
"I came here for the security my country cannot provide for me," she
told CNN in a recent interview. "The fear will never go away. What I
experienced is a fear that will last a lifetime."
A few days after she left Mexico, Valles Garcia learned her mother's
house had been ransacked. She is hiding in the United States while
she awaits a ruling in her asylum case, and agreed to speak with CNN
in El Paso, Texas.
The asylum process is a lengthy legal road that could take up to
three years, El Paso attorney Carlos Spector said, and there's no
guarantee U.S. authorities will grant the request.
But Spector said one thing is certain: Going back to Mexico would be
a death sentence.
"I have no doubt she will be killed," said Spector, who calls Valles
Garcia "the Rosa Parks of Mexico."
"She is a trophy for the cartels. She represented the average person
saying, 'No more,'" he said.
Last October, Valles Garcia took a job no one wanted. She became
police chief in the small Mexican border town of Praxedis G. Guerrero.
The previous police chief had been murdered. Drug cartel assassins
cut off his head.
Nationwide, the Mexican government says there have been more than
34,600 drug-related deaths since President Felipe Calderon began a
crackdown on cartels in December 2006.
Praxedis, located only about 35 miles away from Ciudad Juarez, is in
a region that has seen some of the bloodiest conflict, as rival
cartels fight over smuggling routes into the United States.
The idealistic criminology student's rise to police chief in one of
Mexico's most violent areas thrust Valles Garcia into the
international spotlight. News reporters from around the world came to
Praxedis, a town of only 3,000 people, to tell the story of the woman
who dreamed to make a difference.
"We had a beautiful idea. That's why I accepted the job," Valles
Garcia said. "We wanted to re-establish people's confidence in the
But just weeks into her new job, the threatening phone calls started,
Valles Garcia said.
At first, the man on the phone tried to convince her to work for both
To many public officials in Mexico, it is a familiar offer, commonly
referred to as "plata o plomo" (silver or lead) -- a not-so-subtle
demand to accept the drug cartel's bribes, or be on the receiving end
Valles Garcia refused the offers for months. Knowing she could not
take on the drug cartels with her tiny police force, her mission at
the police department was focusing on prevention.
She hired 13 female police officers. They refused to carry weapons
and the young police chief never used body guards, unlike many other
public officials in Mexico.
"Yes, there is fear," Valles Garcia told CNN shortly after she
started the job. "It's like all human beings. There will always be
fear, but what we want to achieve in our municipality is tranquility
Her vision was training the police force to focus on pushing children
to stay in school and helping single mothers find steady-paying jobs.
It was a lucrative offer in a town full of women widowed by the drug
war, where many families were scrambling to survive. Valles Garcia
hoped the same circumstances that made so many young people fall prey
to drug cartels' offers of making easy money would bolster her police
"We were helping the people they (the cartels) were recruiting from,"
Valles Garcia said. "I don't think they liked that. We were trying to
help them make a better life."
But perhaps naively, Valles Garcia said, she didn't expect to be run
out of her hometown by the narco underworld.
"I thought we made it clear to the drug cartels, we were going to be
focused on social issues," said Valles Garcia. "We weren't going to
attack them. That was the job of the state and federal police."
But the threats kept coming.
Eventually, Valles Garcia became so frightened that she asked her
father to drive her to work.
Now, she fights back tears as she acknowledges that she can never
return to the only place she's ever lived -- a violent, corrupt world
where many of her friends and family remain.
"My whole life was in Mexico," Valles Garcia said. "I hope Mexico
becomes what it once was, a safe, fun place with life."
Valles Garcia is devastated that she can't go home, and disappointed
she couldn't finish her three-year term as police chief of the small
town where she was born and raised. But still, she's proud of her
"We at least made a difference, gave people a little hope," she said.