By David Adams @dadams7308
Officials in the sister cities of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, straddling the border between the U.S. and Mexico, are used to defending their region’s crime-plagued image at the violent epicenter of the drug war.
So Wednesday’s historic visit by Pope Francisco to Ciudad Juárez was a golden public relations opportunity to paint a different picture.
“You can’t put a price tag on this type of national and international exposure,” said Bryan Crowe, the city of El Paso’s Quality of Life director.
The papal visit could serve as a boost to regional economic development and the area’s large “maquiladora” industry of assembly plants in and around Juárez which employ 300,000 people, according to Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association in nearby Santa Teresa.
“It’s a message to the whole world, and we need to use that to attract more companies," he said, noting that the maquila plants are owned by global companies in the U.S., Canada, and Europe with managers who live in El Paso and commute daily across the border. “Now we can say we are safe enough for the Pope to visit. How many places can say that?” he added.
“This is a big opportunity for Juárez to recover from the bad impressions,” Alejandro Ramírez, president of the Juárez chapter of Mexico’s National Chamber of Commerce, told the El Paso Times. “A lot of people that didn’t come before will come and see another city,” he added.
At the height of the drug war the cartels battled one another to control the best trafficking routes, including Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican government says that between 2007 and 2014 more than 164,000 people were victims of homicide - on a par with Afghanistan and Iraq - in large part due to drug-related violence.
For several years Mexicans in Juárez lived under virtual curfew after the drug violence began spiraling out of control in early 2008. Dozens of police officers were gunned down, some of them beheaded. The killings only dropped after federal troops were sent to the city. The Obama administration also reinforced border security in the region as fears grew of violence spreading across the border.
The Pope’s visit has drawn criticism from presidential candidate Donald Trump, who told Fox Business, "I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They're making a fortune, and we're losing."
"We need Juárez to be safe"
But locals are thankful for the Pope’s recognition of the area’s importance. Divided only by the Rio Grande which marks the U.S. border, Juárez and El Paso are joined at the hip, commercially and culturally, in what is known locally as ‘the borderland.’
“Juárez is our industrial engine, we parlay off that because El Paso supplies the maquila industry,” he said. “We need Juárez to be safe and we need Juárez to be successful,” he added.
Contrary to some media depictions of El Paso as one of America's most dangerous places to live, the Texas city of 700,000 people is relatively safe with better crime statistics than many municipalities of its size. It is currently undergoing something of a downtown renaissance after voters approved $500 million in bonds for new parks, museums, libraries, and a Mexican-American Cultural Center.
It is customary for residents of El Paso to walk cross one of the four bridges into Juárez to do business, visit relatives, or cheaper Mexican dentists.
“For 400 years we have really been one community,” said Crowe, who heads El Paso’s tourism and convention bureau. “It’s a very unique blending of cultures,” he added, despite the border security issues raised by the Sept 11 terror attacks and the thorny U.S. immigration debate.
“Ciudad Juárez went through some very difficult times and we are proud of the efforts they have made to tackle security in their community,” he added, noting that it the city no longer featured on a list of the world most dangerous cities.
As many as 250,000 Catholics were expected to attend Wednesday’s Mass at a former fairground in Ciudad Juárez within view of the border, according to local officials. Tickets were provided to parishes on both sides of the border for those who want to attend the Mass.
Other faithful will be able to observe the Mass from a special raised viewing area on the U.S. side of the border fence, while the El Paso Catholic Diocese hosted an event, titled “Two Nations, One Faith” at the local Sun Bowl Stadium with a live-stream of the Mass on a Jumbotron.
The drug violence scared many El Paso residents away but cross-border calm has returned in recent years. “It’s just night and day,” said Pacheco comparing safety today with the past. “Now you go out to the main plaza by the cathedral in Juárez and it’s bustling with tourists.”