Voting in Juarez Valley's shadow of death
Juarez Valley, Mexico – It's considered a virtual no-go area. Barren strips of burned-out houses and dry fields populated by unemployed workers and well-armed gangsters living adjacent to the US border and its ever-stretching fence.
As the location for the world's largest drug market, coupled with government neglect, the Juarez Valley is fertile territory for gangsters - and little else.
"There is a lot of insecurity," said a voter in Guadalupe, a town in the valley, who didn't want to give his name. "There are many people out of work and they have to go to [urban] Juarez." Or beyond.
Visiting polling stations in the area on Sunday, a colleague from the local press in Chihuahua State and I seem to have been the only reporters who ventured outside of urban Juarez, which itself is no picnic but remains immensely safer and better governed than its rural hinterland.
'Deadliest place in Mexico'
The Juarez Valley is "the deadliest place in Mexico", according to a February cover story from the Texas Observer magazine. With more than 50,000 killed across the country since 2006, that's quite a claim. But with a murder rate of 1,600 per 100,000 residents, according to government estimates, the valley, with its small population, has likely been the most dangerous place in the country - and in the Western Hemisphere more generally. The area has long been a haven for outlaws, with Billy the Kid using it to escape US lawmen back in the Wild West era.
Today, it's a key battleground between the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful trafficking organisation, and the Juarez Cartel, who are fighting for control of smuggling routes. Both groups routinely murder and harass the local population. Some analysts believe gangsters are waging an active campaign to depopulate the region, to make smuggling more convenient. If that wasn't enough, the valley is facing a series of environmental problems.
"Farming is bad right now. There is no water and no loans. If there was more water for agriculture, there would be more work," said Manuel Vega, an election observer in the valley.
"A lack of work contributes to insecurity," his colleague, Rosa Vasquez, added.
With a population of less than 3,000, the Juarez Vallery town of Praxedis made international headlines in 2010 when Marisol Valles, a 20-year old criminology student, was named chief of police.
Before she took over, about half the force had been killed, their heads sometimes left on park benches as grim reminder of the cartels' power. Many of the police who weren't killed simply fled. Gunmen also made sure to kill two city councilors.
A mass exodus from the town intensified in 2010 and even Valles, dubbed "the bravest woman in Mexico", was forced to flee to Texas with her family after receiving multiple death threats.
Meanwhile, voter turnout was above 60 per cent in Praxedis and 40 per cent in Guadalupe, local officials said.
"There is 60 per cent unemployment here and this increases violence," said Manuel Orantia, president of the local social-democratic PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) chapter, as he stood near the town's polling booth. "Many people from here migrate to work in the maquilladoras," the low-wage assembly plants churning out car parts, fridges and other consumer goods in Juarez.
Some environmentalists say the lack of water for irrigation can be blamed on the maquilladoras, which use significant amounts in manufacturing and then return polluted sludge to local eco-systems.
When voters and official observers from the various parties in Praxedis heard my discussion with Orantia about the maquilladaors, a lively debate ensued.
"We need more maquilladoras in the valley," said a member of the Workers Party (PT), who commutes to Ciudad Juarez to work in one of the factories. "Factories don't want to start here because of the violence, but if we had more jobs then people could stay here and make a living."
When she heard this, Pamela Chavez from the PRD, became incensed. "No, we don't want this," she said, as everyone in the polling station looked on with interest. "The maquilladoras start a vicious cycle. The salaries aren't enough to live on. Parents work all day, the kids are left at home [with little support] and they become sicarios [hitmen]."
Cynthia Torres, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), agreed that "work is the biggest issue" in the valley, but she wasn't sure maquilladoras were the best option.
My guess is that local residents have similarly strong opinions about violence, the turf war between the Sinaloa cartel and the Juarez cartel, corruption in the security services, and the role of US drug consumers in fanning the flames of violence. But the economy is a safe subject, though the war is not - and anonymity is impossible in these rural backwaters.
"There are no police, no authorities [here]," Manuel Vega said. "We want municipal police. They are better than soldiers or federal police."
In many jurisdictions, low-level officials – including municipal police – are the easiest people to bribe. Across Chihuahua however, most people – rural and urban – spoke highly of the local cops, but despised the federal police and army.
In 2010, many of the federal troops patrolling urban Juarez were pulled off the streets and sent back to their bases. This did not happen in the valley, according to the Texas Observer, where soldiers have manned checkpoints along Carretera Federal 2 – the only paved road into and out of the area.
I saw almost no police presence on the main highway or walking in the small towns.
Residents in Praxedis said the situation has improved slightly since the mass exodus of 2010, but it's unclear whether that is because of better policing tactics or because the Sinaloa cartel beat back its Juarez rivals for control of the area - allowing for single party dominance and thus less conflict.
Either way, Mexico's new president will have a difficult time re-establishing security, trust and social cohesion in the war-ravaged Juarez Valley, even though voters have a keen interest in honest politics and an improved economic future.