A scan of recent developments might lead an observer to conclude that Ciudad Juárez, once monikered “Murder City,” is on the cusp of a new political era. Or is it?
In another sign that the city is turning a historical page, the Mexican NGO Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice removed Juárez this month from its list of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities based on homicides per 100,000 people.
Nowadays, change seems contagious in this northern Mexican border city of approximately 1.3 million people: A downtown redevelopment still incomplete but showing significant progress, busy export factories, the new international bridge in the Juárez Valley inaugurated Feb. 4 by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the planned visit of Pope Francis on Feb. 17 all give off a definite glow that a new sun is shining down on old Juaritos.
On the other hand, one-third of the population of El Paso’s sister city is mired in poverty; wages for the approximately 300,000 factory workers who are the sweat and blood of the City by the Rio Grande are at historic lows; and violence, though dramatically reduced since the days of the so-called narco war of 2008-2012, remains a persistent plague with one killing here, two over there and so on. According to one count by the Reforma News agency, at least 22 people were murdered in Juárez in January alone.
Thousands of murders, forced disappearances and countless other crimes linger in impunity.
At a memorial held last weekend for the 15 young people gunned at a party celebrating a football team’s victory back in January 2010, Juarez’s debt with justice was once again sounded out when victims’ relatives declared that only four of the 15 or 20 assassins involved in the Villas de Salvarcar Massacre had been apprehended and family members not compensated under Mexico’s General Law of Victims.
In short, the structural forces that brought Juárez to its knees a few years back are still quite at play. Such will be the context of the upcoming June 5 election, when Juarenses go to the polls to elect a new mayor and city councilors. Even before the campaigns get off the ground, the 2016 contest promises to an energetic and wild one that will also impact the United States.
Unlike municipal presidents of most Mexican entities, the mayor of Juárez has to be something of an international diplomat in his or her dealings with neighbors across the border in Texas and New Mexico, as well as in official interactions with a host of U.S. actors.
To the surprise of no one, members of the elite families that have dominated politics and economics in Juárez and the state of Chihuahua for the better part of a century are entering the race, but this round they are joined by an array of disaffected insiders along with a sprinkling of outsiders.
Thanks to changes in Mexican election rules, political hopefuls can now vie for power outside the blanket of political parties. Adding to the new electoral landscape are the 44,000 new voters on Chihuahua state’s rolls, with 18,000 of that number in Juárez.
Writing in El Diario de Juárez, columnist Arturo Mendoza Diaz called the June 5 elections, which will also elect a new governor and a fresh crop of state legislators, an “unprecedented political process” that “will serve as a reference point for future political developments.”
Juárez’s political culture certainly has its own particularities, but the trends, issues and concerns that will likely resonate and reverberate in the upcoming election reflect broader shifts across the national Mexican political spectrum — voter rejection of traditional politicians and parties, innovations in campaigning, and the impact of non-party candidacies which have sprung up throughout the country during the last two years due to reforms in Mexican election laws.
A big question is whether Juárez voters will snub the so-called “partyocracy” of the established political institutions and join the state of Nuevo Leon and the city Cuernavaca in electing “independents” to high political office.
Meeting a Jan. 31 deadline, seven independent hopefuls have registered with state electoral authorities for a shot at the mayor’s office. Of the seven independents, five are men and two women.
The prospective candidates include Javier Melendez Cardona, Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, Alejandro Ramirez Guerrero, Edna Lorena Fuerte, Armando Cabada Alvidrez, Antonia “Tonita” Hinojos Hernandez, and Andres Carbajal Casas.
Complementing their bids, 10-person slates of city council candidates were also registered alongside the mayoral hopefuls. Under Mexican election rules, the independent candidacies must be registered as a civil association eligible to handle funds.
Many of the names tossed into the mayoral hat have past or present ties to the political and economic machinery that has governed Juárez for decades.
For instance, Alejandro Ramirez, an ex-member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), served as internal affairs chief during the administration of Mayor Jesus Alfredo Delgado (2002-2004).
Javier Melendez is an ex-section president of Samalayuca, a rural community outside the Juárez city limits where plans for a new mine in a fragile desert ecosystem previously declared a national protected area stoked recent controversy.
Arriving “like a rock star” with a musical group and a busload of supporters to register his pre-candidacy, Armando Cabada Alvidrez is fresh from a 27-year career as a news anchor and media personality for his family’s Channel 44 station. His face beaming almost daily across both sides of the Paso del Norte borderland, Cabada, who retired from newscasting for politics, became a household name in region.
Cabada’s family has historic relationships with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and his father served as an official under the first mayoral administration of Hector “Teto” Murguia Lardizabal, a PRI politician who is making an unusual third bid for the Juárez mayor’s job in 2016 after reportedly getting bypassed for his party’s gubernatorial nomination.
Armando Cabada’s “suplente,” or subsitute for office, is another figure with previous connections to Teto. Alejandro Loaeza Canizales served as chief of the muncipal parking department during one of Murguia’s stints in city hall.
For his part, Andres Carbajal Casas steps up to the field after decades with the PRI and a short flirtation with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Morena party.
Though not a member of the elite Juárez club, academic and columnist Edna Lorena Fuerte was a leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Chihuahua and the coordinator of Lopez Obrador’s 2006 presidential campaign in Juárez.
Dr. Arturo Valenzuela Zorilla emerged as a public figure during the wave of citizen activism that emerged in response to the Great Violence of 2008-2012. He went on to serve as a member of the semi-official Security Roundtable established to provide citizen oversight of security policies.
Quoted in the Juárez press, Dr. Valenzuela said an independent candidacy is the perfect remedy to cure the deep cynicism that typically yields very low voter turnouts in Juárez, especially in state and local elections.
“There is going to be a very big difference in terms of the abstentionism that has happened in other elections,” Valenzuela predicted. “(Independent ballot choice) is going to create an electoral enthusiasm among Juárez citizens, who when given the opportunity of a genuine election are capable of anything.”
Valenzuela’s family has had previous ties to the PRI and PAN parties, and he’s reportedly enlisted former PAN politician Clara Torres as campaign coordindator.
Arguably, the independent pre-campaign for mayor bearing the potential for far-reaching changes in Juárez’s political culture has been launched by a new civil association called Maquiladora Workers of Juárez.
On Jan. 31, the movement’s mayoral pick, 45-year-old Antonia “Tonita” Hinojos Hernandez, registered her name as a potential vote getter. A native of Camargo, Chihuahua, Hinojos is a long-time resident of Juárez who counts about 20 years’ experience as a factory worker.
A mother with a middle school education, Hinojos joined the protest movement of Lexmark maquiladora workers last November. In registering her candidacy, Hinojos was accompanied by two dozen workers who had been fired from Lexmark, Foxconn and Eaton allegedly because of their support for the new movement demanding labor rights and independent unions in Juárez.
In announcing her run, Hinojos proposed to be a voice for the working-class and an elected official who would make sure that local workers are listened to and “their rights defended.”
Until now, the maquiladora workforce has been the sleeping giant of Juárez society, as its women and men silently go to work every day and struggle hard to support families and better futures. All this could be changing.
In about a six-month time frame, the fight of the maquiladora workers moved from the shop floor and plant gate to the political arena-another unprecedented development in the annals of Juárez history.
Yet Hinojos and the other independents must pass two additional hurdles before their names are placed on the ballot. The Chihuahua State Electoral Institute (IEE) is expected to notify the Juárez Seven on Feb. 6 whether the filed paperwork and campaign financing plans pass muster. Hopefuls who get a green light from the IEE wil then have to collect 30,000 valid signatures between Feb. 7 and March 7 in order to get on the ballot.
Physician Arturo Valenzuela welcomes the challenge, telling the local press that it gives him an opportunity to get out among the people.
Any independents who survive the signature shake-out will then take on Teto Murguia and Vicky Caraveo Vallina. For the first time, a woman could be elected as mayor of Juárez.
In addition to two terms as mayor, Murguia has the huge advantage of the ruling PRI’s well-heeled political machinery and legendary hard-core vote. But Murguia is held in low esteem by many Juarenses. As he was leaving office in late 2007, the time bomb of crime and corruption that was ticking away under his watch was primed to explode.
In January 2008, the operational commander of the Juárez municipal police under Murguia, businessman Saulo Reyes Gamboa, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for attempting to bribe U.S. officials into allowing a ton of marijuana through the border.
As reported by FNS at the time, the arrest whipped up polemics, with Murguia denying he was aware of Reyes’ extracurricular activities and pinning the responsibility for the disgraced ex-official’s appointment on the Coparmex employers’ association.
“(Reyes) was a successful businessman, he was a businessman with many enterprises,” Murguia said, “a man with a master’s degree who was participating in various business organizations.”
“We categorically reject that we would have influenced such a decision, since it is public knowledge that the appointment of top and middle level public officials is made directly by the municipal president,” Coparmex declared in a statement published in Juárez newspapers.
Coparmex, however, acknowledged that Reyes had been a member of the employers’ group until August 2007. Originally sentenced to an eight-year prison term, the former police commander was released from U.S. lock-up in January 2015.
Despite scandals like Reyes’ arrest, Murguia returned as the reelected mayor in late 2010. For more than another year, street executions, kidnappings and extortions and a renewed wave of disappearances of young women were the order of the day.
Teto shared power with a controversial police chief, Julian Leyzaola, who was praised by some for eventually turning around Juárez’s violence but sharply criticized by others for human rights violations. A survivor of a 2015 assassination attempt in Juárez, Leyzaola is now courting a run for mayor of Tijuana.
Due to the current national push by President Peña Nieto and the Mexican National Governors Association to neuter municipal police forces and centralize law enforcement authority at the state and federal levels, the next Juárez mayor is likely to have far less power over public safety functions than in the past.
Once a rival power to the PRI in Chihuahua and Juárez, a divided and weakened PAN is attempting a comeback in the Juárez mayoral race by postulating an external candidate, Vicky Caraveo.
While not a member of the PAN, Caraveo is a well-known figure in local social and political circuits.
A relative of Eloy Vallina, scion of one of the historic ruling families in Chihuahua and owner of the land on the Mexican side of the border that was the nest for the San Geronimo-Santa Teresa mega-development, Caraveo is best known for her involvement in movements for consumer rights and against gender violence beginning in the early 1990s.
The veteran activist was the first director of the Chihuahua Women’s Institute during the latter part of the term of PRI Governor Patricio Martinez (1998-2004); she remained in the public limelight as the leader of Mothers in Search of Justice, a grouping of mothers and other relatives of disappeared and murdered women in Juarez.
Besides the PAN and the PRI, several other smaller political parties are expected to field candidates. At an event in Chihuahua City on Feb. 3, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador presented Juan Carlos Loera as the choice for the Morena party’s Juárez mayoral candidate.
Still in its formative stage, the mayor’s race in particular is already generating a lot of commentary and mudslinging on Internet news sites and in social media. A Spanish-language Facebook page focused on the independents has even been set up.
A strong current of opinion holds that given the unprecedented proliferation of candidates, the PRI’s Teto Murguia will slip back into the mayor’s chair by benefiting from the super-division of votes.
Posting on Lapolaka.com, a writer identified as Sp. Carpintero cautioned about the independents. “These are measures of political parties for dividing people,” the writer contended. “The people have to be intelligent and see who is really an independent. People, watch out.”
Columnist Arturo Mendoza Diaz wrote, “Beyond the number of hopefuls and their quality… is the fact that the vote will be atomized.”
Glimpsing the packed field, independent Juárez mayoral hopeful Andres Carbajal Casas proposed that the seven independent pre-candidates unite behind one independent as a strategy to stave off another PRI victory.
Besides the Juárez city races, independent runs have emerged for the state governorship, state legislature and other offices. Abraham Monarrez Perez, a 26-year-old graduate of the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, announced he will seek the state legislative seat for Juárez’s District Five as an independent.
“We are tired of the lack of responsibility and committment from the political powers,” Monarrez was quoted.
Monarrez has a competitor: 21-year-old Angel David Silva Ramirez, a young man originally from the state of Oaxaca. In total, registrations for 46 independent candidacies scattered across Chihuahua have been accepted for review by the IEE.
Additional Sources: Arrobajuarez.com, January 26 and 31, 2016; February 1 and 2, 2016. Lapolaka.com, January 28, 30 and 31, 2016; February 1 and 4, 2016. Nortedigital.mx, January 29 and 31, 2016; February 1 and 4, 2016. Articles by Ricardo Chavez, Carlos Omar Barranco, Ricardo Espinoza and Don Mirone. El Diario de Juarez, January 30, 2016 and February 2, 2016. Articles by Arturo Mendoza Diaz, Gabriela Minjares and editorial staff.
El Sur/Proceso, February 2, 2016. Article by Anarsis Pacheco Polito. Frontenet.com, January 30, 2016. El Mexicano, January 29 and 30, 2016. Articles by Eddy Dominguez. La Jornada, January 31, 2016. Article by Rosa Elvira Vargas. El Sur/Reforma, January 26 and February 3, 2016. New York Times, December 25, 2009. Article by James C. McKinley Jr. and Marc Lacey. Frontera NorteSur/Newspaper Tree.com January 25, 2008.