CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico -- In the violent city of Ciudad Juárez, one industry is making a strong and sudden comeback: nightlife.
Thanks to police protection in certain parts of this Mexican border city, business owners have decided to reopen. That means recently abandoned hot spots for clubs and bars have come alive again.
On a recent Saturday night, there is new life on the streets. Months ago, all that was left of these ultra chic clubs on Avenida Lincoln (Lincoln Avenue) were crumbling walls, boarded up windows and empty sidewalks.
Now there are swarms of young women in high heels and young men in sleek slacks outside an entire block of new clubs with flashy neon signs that read: Nebula, Bulldog, Buffalo's and The Red Queen.
Joining the throng are taco vendors hollering from behind greasy grills; parking attendants in cotton hoodies who usher drivers into packed lots with flashlights; and street vendors heckle couples offering flowers and gum.
Outside one of the larger clubs, a long line of young people snakes around the building. Near the center of the line a giggling group of friends say they've been in line for far too long.
“Una hora (One hour),” says a girl with flat-ironed hair. It's cold out and she shivers in a short skirt and platform pumps. Her friend, Luis Nuñez, 22, says this is the first time he's been out in months.
“I stopped going out after I witnessed shoot outs at two clubs last year,” Nuñez says in Spanish. But like most of the young people out tonight, he got sick of hiding. It's that kind of attitude that investors in Juarez are betting their money on.
“Nightlife is an important business sector because it means other basic needs are being met when people can go out and enjoy themselves,” said Guillermo Soria, director of the Juárez Chamber of Commerce, in Spanish.
“It also generates jobs like waiters, cooks, taxi drivers,” Soria added. “People go get their hair done and buy clothes.”
The economy has picked up in this border city. Thousands of factory jobs - the city's lifeblood - have returned since a major downturn in 2008. On Avenida Lincoln, the federal police set up checkpoints, which gave some business owners enough confidence to reopen.
But the city hasn't fully recovered and violence is still a problem. In January, a wave of cop killings forced the mayor to move police officers into guarded hotels. And some businessmen are still paying an extortion fee or “cuota”.
“The cuota is what you have to pay to the drug dealers,” said one local businessman. He asked not to be identified because he fears for his business and life.
He manages a successful chain of restaurants and clubs in Ciudad Juárez. But in order to stay open, he must pay a weekly extortion fee. He didn't want to say how much.
“If you don't pay that fee you can be kidnapped or they can burn the place or kill somebody inside,” the unidentified businessman said.
The bloody battle between two rival drug cartels for control of the lucrative smuggling route into the United States has cost Juárez more than 10,000 lives. There have been bodies hung on overpasses, massacres at house parties and a deadly car bomb. Thousands of residents fled the city. Those who stayed barricaded their neighborhoods with boulders or cement blocks. Businesses suffered terrible losses, none worse than the restaurant industry, which saw a 70 percent drop in customers.
Even though extortion has not been eliminated, businessmen say police are slowly getting better at taking reports and making arrests they can defend before a judge. And the number of customers at restaurants keeps growing month by month.
The motivation for many to invest in what some consider Mexico’s most dangerous city comes from a desperate hope for change. Sergio Mendoza is a doctor who has invested the better part of his savings into restoring the old Don Quintin club on Avenida Lincoln.
Inside, the club is massive. He's torn off part of the ceiling to open the space up, added cool incandescent lighting, and built a giant stage where a live band will play just below a second floor VIP section.
“The economy is coming back," Mendoza said. "People just got tired of staying at home...and they want to enjoy a great place. And that's what we're going to offer them.”