John Hoffmire: A tale of two cities in northern Mexico: One has a murderous history and one is fairly calm

Published: Monday, Dec. 16 2013 7:55 a.m. MST

People walk at a square in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011.

Raymundo Ruiz, Associated Press

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Mario Alejandro Mercado Mendoza completed the vast majority of the work on this column.

This is a tale of two development models used by northern Mexican cities. Both of them are located in the state of Chihuahua; one of them can be considered a success and the other, although it had a recent turnaround, has seen a bitter and brutal chapter of its history unfold during the last decade. Our working assumption is that business is good for cities. However, government must function effectively if businesses, and thus cities, are going to thrive.

The city of Chihuahua is devoted to manufacturing. It has the third largest GDP per capita of any city in the country. Of its currently employed population, 77 percent have a bachelor’s degree. By 2011, up to 17 percent of Mexico’s exports were manufactured in the state of Chihuahua. Of these, 18.3 percent were produced in the city of Chihuahua. Also, the city received $853 million in foreign investment in one recent year.

The other city is Ciudad Juarez. This city’s exports comprise 78.1 percent of the total exports produced in the state of Chihuahua. This figure represents annual exports of $33 billion in manufactured goods; four of every 10 employed people work in manufacturing. Additionally, Ciudad Juarez received $8.2 billion in foreign investment during 2011. It is a city so industrialized that according to dailyfinance.com, before the 2008 economic crisis, it had more factory jobs than Detroit and Atlanta combined.

Ciudad Juarez, a city that once was catalogued as the most dangerous city on earth, with a murder rate of 200 per 100,000 people, has dealt with devastating drug-related violence and the mysterious recent raping and killing of more than 500 women. Furthermore, by July 2010, the overall death toll had climbed to 6,000 people in about five years, which is more than the number of coalition troops killed who fought in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

The key question about Ciudad Juarez is: how is it possible that a city with such a high economic profile can suffer from such dreadful conditions? What went wrong with its development program? While the situation is complex, it seems clear that this mess was partly due to failures in the execution of the city’s urban programs, as well as failure to elaborate suitable measures for the city’s fast-changing conditions.

Lack of planning is by no means a complete explanation of the issues at hand. As a matter of fact, both cities have a long tradition of urban planning. Ciudad Juarez’s first urban plan dates from 1956, and so the question remains, what went wrong?

We know that in the 1970s, both of these cities experienced a demographic explosion. Ciudad Juarez’s boom was noticeably bigger; this was the consequence of the Borderline Industrialization Program, the government plan that enabled in-bond maquila factories to obtain privileged conditions. The manufacturing sector became, by far, the dominant economic force in the city, creating jobs for up to 50 percent of the working population. Suddenly, people began immigrating from other cities and from agricultural areas to Ciudad Juarez.

Consequently, population more than quadrupled between 1960 and 2000, with the biggest growth coming in the mid-1990s following the approval of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This accelerated growth had consequences; the city didn’t have the resources to create new urban zones with basic services. As a result, new settlers squatted on land surrounding the city, creating sub-urbanized slums. Up to 50 percent of the streets weren’t paved years later. These areas lacked lighting, water, sewer systems, police stations and schools.

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