Monday, April 25, 2016
With Violence Down, a Revived Ciudad
Juarez is Bouncing Back
By Kent Paterson
Not too long ago, violence and unemployment
compelled residents of the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez originally from the state of Veracruz to return to their native
Nowadays, some Veracruzanos are moving to Juarez in a reverse migration of sorts. Ruben Martinez Gonzalez, for example,
counts about four months in Juarez, a place he considers "prosperous" and more secure than his former home in Veracruz,
where he says insecurity and economic bad times have left the southern state a "broken" entity.
Martinez and his wife Elsa operate a small
shop, Mi Lindo Veracruz (My Beautiful Veracruz), in the interior of the Plaza de las Americas Mall adjacent to Juarez's
Struggling to pay the rent, Martinez is nevertheless hopeful about the prospects for a business that offers traditional
Veracruz cheeses and drinks, moles, coffee products and artistic creations like the "ecological necklaces" his wife
strings together with coconut and coffee beans. Asked about the transition between Veracruz and Juarez, Martinez immediately
mentions the food.
"It's difficult, because the food is different. They use a lot of wheat here," he says of the difference
in popular tortillas. "The chicken here is from the U.S., but it's local in Veracruz," he says with a smile
that celebrates the fresh taste back home.
Mi Lindo Veracruz is among a growing number of businesses that are refilling the Plaza de las Americas
Mall. Situated near the Cordoba Bridge (also known as the Bridge of the Americas) between Juarez and neighboring El Paso,
Texas, the Plaza de las Americas developed as an important commercial center in the 1990s, blessed with a prime location that
drew people from both sides of the border.
The indoor mall and surrounding streets that once boasted the liveliest night life in Juarez were
among the worst-impacted zones by the Great Violence of 2008-2012, when murder, extortion and kidnapping forced people to
stay at home and shopkeepers to shutter their doors.
From a bustling district of honking traffic, drifting music and bubbling crowds, the
zone transformed into one of ghostly, deteriorated buildings and weed-splashed empty lots.
"It's an unprecedented flow of
people. It's been many years since we had so many people," Jose Rolando Talavera Sanchez, the Plaza de las Americas
Mall administrator, told FNS during an April weekend fair that featured product stands, free health screenings, and live music
and performances like the chanting, drumming and dancing exhibition of Brazilian capoeira. As an individual dressed
up like Spider-Man traipsed about the corridors, vendors hawked t-shirts that thanked Pope Francis for his recent visit to
Juarez. The event attracted steady crowds of shoppers and onlookers.
In a gesture of great confidence in things to come, ten million pesos
(approximately US$600,000) were invested in a major face lift during the month of March alone, including roof repairs, LED
lighting, new paint, scrubbed floors and 22 security cameras, Talavera calculates. "People want this place to be the
way it was before," he adds.
According to the mall's manager, about 50 percent of the 209 storefronts are now occupied or under
negotiation, with a food court on the way and the Cinepolis movie theater chain planning to begin construction of a venue
by the end of the year.
At one end of the mall another Veracruz-themed business, Cafe Veracruzano, has endured 15 years in a tidy corner where
clients jam tables while discussing the state of the world and sipping coffee. Elsewhere, a private English school broadens
the mall's functions. For May, parking lot make-overs are on the agenda, Talavera adds.
Additionally, the mall's promoters say
they hope to reopen the indoor ice-skating rink, while a new Marrakech Hair Salon will complement stores that specialize in
perfumes and beauty supplies.
Maintenance worker Mario Jabalera started with the mall three years ago but says the job was initially
difficult because business was down and employees were sometimes not paid on time. Since the new management took over, payroll
is back on schedule and "everyone is happy" in anticipation of bigger crowds and more work, he says.
Outside the mall proper, other redevelopments
are visible in the looping boulevards of the PRONAF and connecting neighborhoods. The
Plaza de las Americas Mall's Grand Dunas Casino joins another newer casino, the Gran Casino de Juarez, just off Paseo
del Triunfo de la Republica.
Although the once-throbbing Vaqueras nightclub stands abandoned, the Plaza de Las Americas Mall hosts Tequilas Discoteca,
flanked appropriately by a row of agave plants in front of the INBA theater, where a Disney-themed play was staged on a recent
Sunday afternoon. The PRONAF area redevelopment is comparable to the revitalization project still underway in downtown Juarez,
though the actors involved and the socio-demographic context are a bit different.
Abutting the mass transportation hub of the city, the
tianguis-style markets and street stands of downtown attract working-class consumers from the far-flung corners of the city.
Though the Plaza de las Americas is accessible by bus from downtown, the PRONAF area is designed around the automobile.
Situated near neighborhoods where residents
have largely paid off their homes, the Plaza de Las Americas Mall is convenient for consumers who don't have budgetary
pressures from big mortgages or educational expenses, Talavera says.
Strategically, the mall is surrounded by hospitals, hotels, universities
and the Cordoba Bridge to El Paso only minutes away. In this sense, the mall's biggest attraction, longtime tenant S-Mart,
is a golden asset in the hat – especially at a time when the peso is hovering at record lows in relation to the dollar.
According to Talavera, the S-Mart outlet
serves many El Paso residents shopping for bargains at the large supermarket; the company invested $1.5 million in its Plaza
de Las Americas Mall store during 2015-2016, he adds.
"The plaza has great potential, but it wasn't taken advantage of for a while,"
Talavera sums up. "People are saying, 'how nice it is that you are renovating it.'"
For the mall's managers, security is
the name of the game in building consumer confidence and assuring a safe environment. A native of Argentina who lived in Juarez
but moved away because of the rampant insecurity, German Zavala is now back on the border working as the mall's security
monitor. From an office he commands the high-tech PTZ security camera system that constantly pans the parking lots and zooms
in on any object of interest. The cameras can capture license plates or the goings on inside an automobile.
The objective, Zavala says, is to prevent
crimes while having an efficient tool to assist both private security guards and public law enforcement personnel. The young
security man gives a recent example of how the cameras potentially avoided trouble when the system captured two drivers arguing
after their cars collided on the mall's edge. "Thanks to having a security system the transit police were able to
come," Zavala adds.
Zavala agrees with Talavera that the mall is off on a promising path in the spring of 2016. "It's been a radical
change," is how he describes the customer turnout in recent weeks.
Ultimately, an important measure of the mall's success
as a revived commercial center will be gauged by the business outcomes of the small shop owners like Maria Teresa Santander.
A warm woman with a ready smile, Santander is among the tough ones who stuck it out through the cataclysm of the previous
"It affected us in sales. We only made enough to eat, just for me and my husband. If we would have had to support
children, we wouldn't have been able to make it," Santander recalls. "Some days we earned nothing, but we took
it and (business) began going up about two years ago."
A 12-year veteran of the mall, Santander recalls pondering the proverbial,
hard choice of whether to abandon or attempt salvaging a sinking ship. The landlord's decision to not charge Santander
and her husband rent for three years greatly helped the hard choice the couple made, she says.
Santander's colorful store features
the artistic talent of Mexico as expressed in Aztec calendars, earrings, blankets and shawls, clay tiles with images of Frida
Kahlo and Jesus Christ, and much more. Especially striking are the indigenous dresses from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Puebla.
Santander says she's recently greeted
old, returning customers from El Paso she hadn't seen for five years or so. "It's great thing for me that they
remember me," she beams.
The Juarez shopkeeper credits Pope Francis' February visit for an upturn in her business. "People
that came from other countries realized that Juarez is more peaceful. Let's hope to God that Juarez continues like this,"
Santander says. "Let's hope investors come to renovate, because it's an interesting part of Juarez."
Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Cruces, New Mexico
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera
NorteSur. Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.