CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Many residents of the Mexican border city of Juárez are eager to say goodbye to one of the bloodiest eras in the city's history. This city was the epicenter of a vicious drug war that resulted in the death of more than 10,000 people. Now things are improving.
The new mayor of Juárez, sworn into office just a month ago, said in his inaugural address that the city will no longer be distracted by bullets. Instead he announced a $23 million investment in infrastructure improvement projects.
"The storm is behind us now," Enrique Serrano said. "Juárez has a promising future ahead."
Indeed, much of Juárez is breathing a sigh of relief. The murder rate back in 2010 averaged eight people a day. Now it's less than two per day. Local police have reduced the number of kidnappings and car thefts. Once-abandoned sections of the city are now alive with new businesses.
But by no means is Juárez absolved of its violent past.
On the far west side of the city lies a collection of former squatter communities known as Anapra. Drive down one of the few paved roads and instead of sidewalks are margins of golden desert sand littered with potato chip bags and threadbare socks. Women push rickety strollers and lug grocery bags across a mostly treeless terrain. This place is notorious as a birthplace of cartel hitmen.
This is also the place where 46-year-old Lourdes Contreras is trying to make a difference.
Anapra is a place of little opportunity. Rampant poverty accommodates the presence of organized crime. A year ago Contreras, a product of these streets herself, decided to open up a study center for troubled youth. It's called Los Soles, named after the sun in the sky.
Inside, children sit at a tiny table scribbling with markers. Others practice multiplication tables. In the kitchen, a volunteer mother heats up tortillas for lunch. As many as 70 kids can come through here in a day.
"These are the children left behind by the violence," Contreras said. "They are the children of addicts, prostitutes and smugglers."
Many of the children were abandoned and abused. In some of their notebooks they draw pictures of bleeding hearts and stick figures shooting bullets from a car.
One of the more extreme cases is that of Kimberly Torres, a curious 4-year-old who wears black Mary Janes.
In an interview, she innocently offers fragments of the horror she lived. Her story was pieced together by police and her grandmother. Kimberly witnessed the murder of her parents earlier this year. They were found tortured and bound inside their home. Kimberly spent the night hugging their corpses. In the morning she turned up at her grandma's house, soaked in their blood.
"Now," she said, "My parents are in heaven."
Los Soles survives off individual donations and fundraising by its volunteer staff. When drug violence in Juárez reached its peak the federal government invested $250 million to support violence prevention programs like it. But that money has mostly run out.
Howard Campbell is an anthropology professor in neighboring El Paso who has written and researched extensively about Juárez.
"The longstanding problems of Juárez, lack of opportunity, poor schools…remain, and are only improved by the actual efforts of private citizens themselves," he said.
There's only so much the volunteers at Los Soles can do. Most are mothers and grandmothers who never finished school. They help the kids with their homework, provide a little food and encourage them to stay out of trouble. But the odds are against them. As long as there's profit to be made smuggling people and drugs across the border, these children will continue to be courted by organized crime.
"Consequentially you have fertile ground for another round of violence and social problems in Juárez," Campbell said.
For now the people of Anapra are enjoying a tenuous peace while the volunteers at Los Soles work in hopes of a better tomorrow.