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Is Violent Juárez Truly Getting Safer?

Dancing In A Park Built From Grief

A group of teenagers regularly gathers at a sports complex in Villas de Salvarcar to practice their dance moves. It was built to honor 15 people who were killed at a birthday party in 2010. Basketball, baseball and soccer are also played at the park.

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Is Violent Juárez Truly Getting Safer?

Is Violent Juárez Truly Getting Safer?

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico -- Recent fatal attacks on police officers in this Mexican border city have officials on high alert. But despite this latest spike in violence, there's been talk around Juarez that the worst of times may be over.

The murder rate last year went down about 30 percent after steadily increasing for three years. More people are going out to restaurants, concerts and public events.

But many people question whether things in Juárez are truly getting better.

One recent evening in January, three middle-aged women in sneakers and fleece vests puffed warm breaths into the chilly air as they punched a volleyball with their forearms. Two years ago, the thought of being out after sunset in Mexico's deadliest city was almost ludicrous, especially in this neighborhood. These women live in Villas de Salvarcar, a working class neighborhood in the far southeastern side of Ciudad Juárez.

Villas de Salvarcar’s infamous reputation stems from the 2010 massacre of 15 people, most of them teenagers, at a birthday party. But now, just a block away from the site of those murders, an enormous modern sports complex rises above the tiny single story homes. It was built a year ago by the federal, state and local governments in honor of the murdered teens. It's here where the three women meet twice a week to play volleyball.

Ana Luisa Redilla is one of the women. She brings her two sons to the complex, where they play for basketball and baseball teams. If it weren't for the park, she said they'd all be at home in front of the television. Or worse, her boys might be out getting into trouble. But for Redilla, smacking a volleyball is like therapy. Just this summer her husband was murdered.

"He was a security guard for a construction company," she said. "Gunmen wanting to enter the building drove up and shot him. We don't know who did it. We don't know why they did it. He was a family man."

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Young people practice on a sports field in Ciudad Juárez. The new sports complex is dedicated to 15 people - mostly teenagers - killed in a mass shooting in a nearby neighborhood.

Redilla said the loss has hit her hard. Her husband was her first boyfriend and the two had been married 16 years. She said his recent murder shows that things in Juarez are not improving.

Professor Hector Padilla, who teaches political science at the Autonomous University of Juárez, agrees. He said the idea that things have gotten better is more illusion than truth.

"There's a problem," he said. "During the last four years, the murder rate has been rising, then in 2011, there was a drop. But it's still much higher than the average five years ago."

In 2007, before the wave of violence hit the city, there were 320 murders in one year. By 2010 that number reached more than 3,000. Last year, the killings went down to about 2,000.

Another ongoing problem Padilla highlights is that very few people are convicted of their crimes in Juárez and throughout Mexico.

"As long as those responsible for these crimes are still out there, this (extreme violence) could return at any moment," he said.

According to the security research firm Stratfor, the recent decrease in violence in this border city is likely due to the possibility that one drug cartel has solidified control of the city.

Back at the sports complex in Villas de Salvarcar, a group of elementary school kids did stretching exercises on a sports field made of artificial turf. Not far from there, Fernando Peña watched a couple of teens shoot hoops. Peña is a middle school teacher by day and a basketball coach in the evening. He coaches a group of 36 kids between the ages of 7 and 14. A lot of them he recruited directly off the streets.

"This is one of the small things that we all can do to rescue our city," Peña said of his after hours job.

All around Juárez, the city has invested in building new sports parks and is revitalizing older ones. And this summer, for the second year in a row, the city will host the Women's Pan-American volleyball tournament, which includes players from the United States.

EDITOR"S NOTE: The first paragraph of this story has been changed from an earlier version to report on recent events in the city.