CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — On the Mexican side of the wall separating El Paso from its sister city of Juarez, two small children play in the midst of garbage. The 18-foot-high rusty metal fence cuts through a dry landscape of sand and waste. Near where the children are, an abandoned Mexican customs’ office testifies of a past that no longer exists.
Before more barriers were installed and security was increased at the border, people from El Paso and Ciudad Juarez would go stroll in each other’s cities every weekend to relax, work and visit family. The two towns functioned as one unit.
“I used to go for a walk in El Paso and shop there,” Fernanda Rosa Lopez, a market-goer in Ciudad Juarez, told Catholic News Service. Lopez is not her real name, which she asked not be used for fear of reprisals. “I wish I could renew my visa, because I really enjoyed it.”
Ruben Garcia, founder and director of Annunciation House, a refugee shelter in El Paso, lived the experience from the U.S. side of the border during his childhood.
“My mom’s helper, Chincha, whom we loved very much, used to come from Juarez, and no one gave it a second thought, it was just … normal,” he told CNS. His family helped Chincha get her U.S. work permit. “But now, things have changed, we (U.S.) have decided to close the doors to all the Chinchas of the world, believing they are bad people.”
Increased control of the border started in the 1990s to fight international drug trade, and 9/11 marked a turning point in its militarization. In the meantime, the North American Free Trade Agreement, adopted in 1993, helped U.S. manufacturing corporations, known as maquiladoras, grow along the border. The prospect of a job, albeit in an assembly line processing or assembling imported components for export, continued to attract many peasant farmers from all over Mexico.
In 2008, corrugated metal fencing was built and cut the binational city in two. Workers lost jobs, and families lost family members. El Paso’s sister city sank into poverty and drug-fueled violence.
“In the early 1990s, we didn’t have this problem of violence, but then femicides started,” said Jesus Lorenzo Perez, human rights activist from Ciudad Juarez. “A curtain of iron separated us from El Paso as the border became more and more militarized.”
The 1990s coincided with the growth of international drug trade and maquiladoras.
“The maquiladoras pay their workers less than $70 a week and offer very little job security,” said Columban Father Bill Morton of Corpus Christi Parish in Ciudad Juarez. “People go through a lot of unnecessary suffering here and aren’t aware of the causes of their affliction.”
Duty-free assembly-line factories contributed to the breakup of families, said Morton, who has been working at the border for two decades. The sudden growth of the city and rampant political corruption also led to deplorable infrastructure and public services, with understaffed and under-equipped hospitals and schools.
In a toxic mix of family ruptures, endemic poverty and violence fueled by cartels, domestic violence surged as well. Texans, who already were discouraged by the tougher border regulations, stopped crossing the border, affecting the city’s tourism and entertainment industries.
Lopez is only too aware of the issues that plague Ciudad Juarez. She has lived with an abusive husband and had her wages extorted by gangs.
“My granddaughter’s new partner killed her baby, she was only 14 months old,” she told CNS. “He thought that my granddaughter was flirting with his son, when really, he (the son) was the one harassing her.”
Out of anger, the man hit the 16-year-old mother and beat the toddler to death. Lopez and her granddaughter did not accuse him of the murder for fear of more repercussions. The incident is one of many recorded in Ciudad Juarez statistics.
The violence from Ciudad Juarez never overflowed to El Paso, which remained one of the safest cities in the U.S.
“Yet, people’s fear is being manipulated to militarize the border, which costs a lot of money and separates families,” Garcia said.
At the peak of Ciudad Juarez’s violence, between 2010 and 2012, “100,000 people from our sister city crossed the border to flee the violence, and El Paso housed them without a fuss,” Garcia said. For El Paso, Ciudad Juarez is still family, despite the controversial border and the troubles its southern sister faces.