CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The mother of four raised a finger, pointing out abandoned and stripped concrete homes and counting how many families have fled the Western Hemisphere's deadliest city on her street alone.
"One, two, three, four, here, and two more back there on the next block," said Laura Longoria.
The 36-year-old ran a convenience store in her working-class neighborhood in south Juarez until the owners closed shop, fed up with the tribute they were forced to pay to drug gangsters to stay in business.
Castaway's parents thought they would never see him again
- Scotland legalizes same-sex marriage
- Weapons deal strengthened Assad: US intel chief
- Outcry over the fate of Sochi's stray dogs
- Olympic construction leaves Sochi residents in the cold
- Castaway's parents thought they would never see him again
Her family vowed to stick it out. But then came the kidnapping of a teen from a stationery shop across the street. After that, Longoria's husband, Enrique Mondragon, requested a transfer from the bus company where he works.
"They asked, 'where to,'" he recalled. "I said, 'Anywhere.'"
No one knows how many residents have left the city of 1.4 million since a turf battle over border drug corridors unleashed an unprecedented wave of cartel murders and mayhem. Business leaders, citing government tax information, say the exodus could number 110,000, while a municipal group and local university say it's closer to 230,000 and estimates by social organizations are even higher.
The tally is especially hard to track because Juarez is by nature transitory, attracting thousands of workers to high-turnover jobs in manufacturing, or who use the city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, as a waystation before they slip north illegally.
But its toll is everywhere you look. Barely a week goes by when Longoria and her husband don't watch a neighbor move away. Then the vandals arrive, carrying off window panes, pipes, even light fixtures, until there's nothing but a graffiti-covered shell, surrounded by yards strewn with rotting food or shredded tires. That could be what's in store for Longoria's three-room home of poured concrete if her husband's transfer comes through.
Only on NBCNews.com
- From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
- US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
- China: One-child policy is here to stay
- New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
- 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
- China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
- French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali
Long controlled by the Juarez Cartel, the city descended into a horrifying cycle of violence after Mexico's most-wanted kingpin, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, and his Sinaloa Cartel tried to shoot their way to power here beginning in 2008. President Felipe Calderon sent nearly 10,000 troops to restore order. Now, the Mexican army and federal authorities are going door-to-door, conducting an emergency census to determine just how many residents have fled.
Many people, however, refuse to answer their questions for fear authorities are simply collecting information about neighborhoods so they can begin extorting residents — just like the drug gangs. "Soon," Longoria said, "there won't be many people left to count."
'Out of control'
While many Juarez residents fleeing the violence seek out more peaceful points in Mexico, others have streamed across the border into El Paso, population 740,000, where apartment vacancies are down and requests for new utility services in recently purchased or rented houses have spiked, according to Mayor John Cook.
Massacres, beheadings, YouTube videos featuring cartel torture sessions and even car bombs are becoming commonplace in Juarez, where more than 3,000 people have been killed this year, according to the federal government, making it among the most dangerous places on earth.
El Paso, by contrast, has had three violent deaths — and one was a murder-suicide.
Juarez Chamber of Commerce President Daniel Murguia said at least 6,000 city businesses have closed so far this year, according to Mexican Interior Ministry figures. There is no data available on those shuttered amid last year's and 2008 violence, however, or on scores of businesses targeted by arsonists.
Kathy Dodson, El Paso's economic director, said the number of fees paid for new city business permits there have not increased dramatically, but Jose Luis Mauricio, president of a group for new Mexican business owners in El Paso known as "La Red," or The Net, said membership has grown from nine in February to about 280 today.
"Maybe it's a bit sad for Juarez, but these are business owners who are moving here because they have no choice," said Mauricio, who leads weekly breakfasts for Mexican expatriates looking to set up businesses in El Paso.
One club member is a Mexican-American who owns a factory in Juarez but moved to El Paso with his family after he was kidnapped last year. The 50-year-old, who asked that his name not be published to avoid further repercussions, was held in a Juarez safe house — but managed to untie his hands and cry for help loud enough that neighbors called the Mexican army to rescue him.
"There's a lot of people afraid. I don't blame them. Even if they haven't had a bad experience, they don't want to be the next one to have one, so they run away," said the factory owner. He said he will never move back to Juarez but hopes the violence will one day calm enough for him to visit.
"It's a city that's dying," he said. "It's out of control."
'Juarez is mine'
Many of those who have not left want to, including Marta Elena Ramirez. She owns Restaurant Dona Chole, specializing in menudo, a clear soup made with beef stomach. Her cafeteria-style eatery is on the second floor of an indoor market of Mexican handicrafts.
Ramirez said sales are down 50 percent since 2007, when Americans used to head south for drinking and clubbing, or to stock up on Mexican knicknacks. Now they are too afraid to come.
Though she has held U.S. residency for 18 years, Ramirez lives in Juarez and had never considered moving — until now. She's stopped paying rent on her restaurant and is looking for investors to help her start a street food cart in El Paso.
"I've always been a fighter, and this is my Juarez. I've always said, 'No matter what happens, Juarez is mine,'" said the 65-year-old. "But too much has happened."
As commerce in the city dries up, even Juarez residents who do not move north cross into El Paso more frequently for services no longer available in their neighborhoods and spend $220 million a year in El Paso, said Murguia.
"Here it's a problem of opportunity, not just violence," he said. "There are no jobs, and that means there are more people who are becoming hit men and criminals."
Even for those not tied to drug trafficking, staying in Juarez means paying off extortionists — like a 43-year-old food wholesaler near the city's center who provides everything from bulk dog food to beer that smaller stores use to stock their shelves.
In September 2009, associates from "La Linea," enforcers for the Juarez Cartel comprised of hit men and corrupt police and soldiers, visited his store and said he would be required to pay 4,000 pesos — about $330 — a week "for protection."
"They came to see me in a very friendly way," said the business owner, who asked that his name and key details be omitted so he could not be identified. "Everyone is paying. Those who aren't paying are out of business, even dead."
As recently as 2008, he had 500 wholesale customers; now it's down to 200. Two storeowners who used to do business with him have been gunned down in their stores over the last year, and a third shot dead in his kitchen. Business got so slow that his extortionists recently reduced his weekly payment to 2,500 pesos, about $205, but warned him never to miss a week.
Every week, the wholesaler receives a call in which a distorted voice provides a bank account number where money can be deposited but not withdrawn. He takes cash to indicated bank branches and makes deposits.
The wholesaler's son-in-law was kidnapped early last year — the family put $230,000 on a debit card and exchanged it for his safe return. His store had also been burglarized previously. Since he began paying for protection, however, all crime around him has ceased and his customers have even stopped getting harassed by police for illegally parking in front of his business.
"At first, I used to say 'this will pass,' but now I'm resigned that there's no solution," said the wholesaler, who has applied for U.S. residency to move to El Paso.
Murguia said extortion payments are now so common that they've become known as "cobras del piso" or "floor charges" for doing business in Juarez — but that there's no measure of how much payoffs cost business citywide per year because few admit to paying them.
Abandoned and tagged
Many familiar Juarez restaurants have shut down only to pop up anew on the U.S. side. The high-end Mexican eatery Maria Chuhchena closed its original location in Juarez and resurfaced in El Paso, though the restaurant maintains a branch in Juarez's spiffy Campestre district. Another Juarez favorite, Aroma, was one of three eateries set ablaze by arsonists on a single night in June 2008 and now operates in El Paso.
Now parts of Juarez after sundown are all but deserted — even in the heart of downtown. Closed used car dealerships, taco and hamburger stands, pharmacies, ice cream parlors and muffler shops give way to a block of abandoned doctors' and dentists' offices, which stand forlornly next to a closed stereo outlet and across from an empty office supply store.
"Se renta" and "se vende," signs offering retail space for rent or sale are everywhere, plastered to the shuttered pizzeria, the closed and looted furniture store, the defunct locksmith and the empty facade of "Jersey Mechanic."
Other abandoned properties are tagged with a simple phrase in black spray paint: "How many more?"
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.