Ciudad Juarez, Mexico -
A young crowd filled “El Rudo” bar in Ciudad Juarez, laughing at jokes, downing beers and dancing to Shakira tunes, no longer afraid to go out after dark in the Mexican city once known as the world's murder capital.
Just over a year ago, the 30 university students would have stayed locked indoors after sunset, like many people in Juarez, afraid of falling victim to a stray bullet, carjacking or kidnapping amid a raging war between drug cartels.
But after more than 10 500 murders in the past six years, the killing frenzy is finally fading, shops are re-opening and people are going out at night again in the desert city bordering Texas.
“We were scared to go out in the street. We couldn't do anything,” said Vicente Martinez, a 21-year-old university student sipping a beer with five friends at the lucha libre-themed “El Rudo” bar on a recent Tuesday night.
“But now that things have changed, we can enjoy ourselves again,” he said.
The carnage has dropped sharply since peaking at 3 116 deaths in 2010, when more than 300 bodies piled up in a single month, according to official figures.
In 2012, 759 people were murdered in the city of 1.3 million, and 2013 has kicked off with even more promising figures: just 27 homicides were recorded in January and only 10 in the first three weeks of February.
“This used to be a ghost town,” Mayor Hector Murguia told AFP. “Today we can say it clearly: Ciudad Juarez is like Palermo (Sicily), Medellin (Colombia), New York or Chicago. It took them 10 years to lower the crime rate when it took us two years.”
“You can see it in the streets. The city is alive on Thursdays or Fridays. We have come back and returned to the condition we were in when things were good,” he said.
The reason behind the relative peace in Ciudad Juarez is up for debate.
Local authorities credit the arrival of a new, hard-nosed city police chief in 2011, along with efforts to provide better weapons and equipment to the 2 600-strong municipal force, tougher sentencing laws, and a slew of arrests.
But some officials and security experts say the violence has fallen because the powerful Sinaloa cartel, led by elusive kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, triumphed in a war for lucrative US drug trafficking routes against the Juarez cartel.
“It's the most credible reason,” a Mexican government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
While Juarez heals, the violence continues unabated across the country, with the Pacific resort town of Acapulco the new murder capital. More than 70 000 people have died in the drug war since 2006 - one in seven in Juarez.
President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December, has unveiled a $9.2 billion nationwide crime prevention program, and his government has cited Juarez as a model for other cities.
His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, had focused a $473 million effort there to repair the city's social fabric, named “We Are All Juarez,” after 14 young people and two adults were gunned down at a house party in January 2010, a massacre that became a symbol of the city's senseless violence.
The runaway crime caused people to flee, with a 2010 study by the non-governmental Juarez Citizen Security and Coexistence Observatory showing that more than 230 000 people had fled the city.
But businesses that were extortion targets are putting up “open” signs again in this city of wide boulevards, small shopping centres and low-rise buildings. About 115 restaurants, bars and clubs have reopened, according to city figures.
Factories, the city's economic lifeblood, went from employing 230 000 people in 2007 to 143 000 in 2010, partly due to the US economic crisis. They hire 210 000 today.
Javier Zarragoicoechea, the 28-year-old co-owner of El Rudo, decided to open the bar early in 2012 as violence waned.
“I think that the city will get better,” he said. “We had a very difficult test, and I think it will remain in every resident's conscience. It will be even better than before the violence began.”
His friend Marcos Enriquez, 30, said his bar, La Playita, was losing customers and money during the bloodshed, but clients have returned and he invested in a new club six months ago.
“We opened it because the situation was improving in the city,” Enriquez said in his trendy 13 Lunas club, which has new wooden floors, chandeliers and booths that attracts hundreds of people on weekends.
But Father Oscar Enriquez, head of a local human rights group, said the city is still plagued by the root causes of crime, including poverty, unemployment and youth disenchantment.
“We still have crime, including the disappearance of young women, human trafficking, drug trafficking and drug use,” Enriquez told AFP, adding that nine women vanished in January alone.
While officials tout the municipal police's progress, Enriquez said officers commit abuses by arbitrarily detaining young people.
Some experts say the violence began to fall after federal police and army reinforcements left town in late 2011 with a trail of alleged abuses behind them.
The municipal police is now in charge, patrolling the streets on foot and in pick-up trucks armed with assault rifles.
“Police pass through here and we feel safer,” said Ramon Barraza, 38, who sells baby clothes near the city's Plaza de Armas square as three officers walked by.
But danger still lurks. A police commander approached AFP reporters to warn them that he had called reinforcements because “a lot of armed people” were around the square.
“There aren't as many deaths and gunfights,” said Rosario Hermosillo, a 70-year-old great-grandmother sitting and smoking a cigarette in the square. “But it has not finished, and it will never finish.” - Sapa-AFP