CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — A little-known infusion of American tax dollars has played a part in the fight against organized crime in two Mexican border cities: Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.
The money comes from the $1.9 billion Merida Initiative, a multinational aid pact signed by the United States and Mexico six years ago.
In a neighborhood not far from the border fence in Ciudad Júarez, a family of four staff a welding shop in the backyard of their home. Husband, wife, son and daughter work side by side.
"The day starts with me cutting the material over here,” said daughter Sonia Chavez.
Sonia is an impressive 20-year-old. She handles an electric saw like a butter knife. The slender iron beams she slices will become window frames and storm doors.
"I cut the materials,” she said. “Then my mom and my dad assemble it and when it's all done my brother paints and then we go deliver the stuff."
A series of micro loans dispensed by a local nonprofit in Ciudad Juárez made this business possible. The extra cash helped the Chavez family build a roof over their outdoor workshop and invest in better machinery that cut their electric bill in half.
The business, in turn, provided job security during the recent economic crisis and helped keep Sonia and her brother off the streets during the worst years of drug violence.
"I think it's really good because I didn't have to go outside and be in danger,” she said.
The nonprofit that finances these loans gets money passed down from the U.S. government via the Merida Initiative. One of the Initiative's goals is to counteract crime with economic opportunity.
To grow their business, the Chavez family had few options. They live in a neighborhood ruled largely by an informal economy and the black market. A commercial bank would likely dismiss them as too risky. Husband Jose Chavez said the micro loans made all the difference.
"We are very united because of the work,” he said. “We can stay one step ahead."
The Merida Initiative’s most recognized mission is to combat drug trafficking. The U.S. has sent Blackhawk helicopters and drug sniffing dogs to aid Mexican police and military. The money also goes to support judicial reform and modernize infrastructure at the border. A tiny fraction, $35 million, is going toward social welfare programs in three key cities: Juárez, Tijuana and Monterrey.
At a cell phone store in Juárez, store manager Osvaldo Velez showed off ring tones to customers.
At 26, this is the beginning of a new life for Velez. Three years ago he had given up on Mexico. He lost his factory job and his uncle was murdered. Velez fled to Dallas on a tourist visa and worked illegally remodeling homes.
After two years he got homesick and returned to Juárez where he stumbled into a leadership workshop headed by the International Youth Foundation.
“The program helped me regain my confidence and belief that I could succeed,” Velez said.
As a store manager, he doubled the salary he made as a factory worker. Now he's considering going back to school.
The workshop Velez attended also receives Merida money. A 2013 evaluation of the program by the U.S. Agency for International Development states that 70 percent of participants were either employed or in school less than a year later.
Still, the Merida Initiative remains controversial.
"When I look at what the Merida Initiative is trying to accomplish on counter drug efforts, I don't think it has been successful," said David Shirk, a Mexico scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
While the Merida Initiative has shown some success in places like Juárez, Shirk said it’s failed on one of its primary missions: reducing the availability of illegal drugs in the U.S.
“If you look at any of the measures on drug use, on supply, availability, etc. there hasn't been a huge shift,” he said. “If anything it's gotten worse.”