Drug dens v safe houses: the fight over Ciudad Juárez’s abandoned houses
At the age of 14, Alan has already been given the nickname El Botellas (Bottles) by his friends. The teenager dropped out of school and now drinks heavily, spending much of his time at a dilapidated home on the outskirts of the Mexico border city of Ciudad Juárez.
On a particularly hot Saturday afternoon, a former gang member turned community activist, Israel Ríos, appears at the house. “You are too young for this!” he scolds. Ríos promises to give the assembled kids English classes, despite El Botellas’ insistence that he is not interested in learning.
Through his work in many abandoned homes, Ríos has become something of a father figure to the young men and women of Parajes de San José, a rough neighbourhood on the edge of the desert. In fact, in a city with so few recreational areas, the tapias, as the abandoned houses are known locally, have become central to a new form of community work reclaiming these often dangerous, violent spaces, transforming them, and putting them into the hands of the young.
One in four houses in Ciudad Juárez have been left empty, according to Mexico’s National Statistics Institute – 115,000 in a city with a population of 1.3 million. Combined with the area’s high murder rates and its place as a key transit point in the drug and human trafficking trade, it has meant many abandoned homes have become drug houses, criminal hideouts or squats.
The abandoned home where Ríos meets El Botellas has become key to a new violence prevention programme, Del Barrio a la Comunidad (From the Neighbourhood to the Community). The project is inspired by the Chicago-born Cure Violence “interrupters” model, which invites former gang members to remain in their neighbourhoods and help detect any upcoming danger – gang fights or feuds – and intervene preemptively.
When Del Barrio takes over a home, they transform it into a place where young people can safely meet, take part in graffiti workshops or play music. The group also helps to clean, decorate and find old furniture to make it comfortable.
Taking ownership of these abandoned areas helps young people interact with the rest of the community, according to Ríos. “Eliminating gangs altogether is impossible because belonging to one is necessary if you live in a neighbourhood like this one,” he says. “But what you can do is show people what these these kids can do. For example, they willingly clean up these areas and take care of them.”
The tapias tell the story of the rise and fall of Ciudad Juárez. Following the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement – which is now threatened by US President Donald Trump – there was a boom in maquilas, the manufacturing plants that receive raw materials from US companies to assemble products at a low cost and export back duty free.
As a result, there was a sharp rise in migrants moving to Juárez from the rest of Mexico and Central America in search of jobs, and in turn, real estate developers saw an opportunity and the city expanded towards the desert. Cheap prefabricated homes sprung up in new neighbourhoods that lacked access to hospitals, schools and sometimes even basic services. Factory workers were given access to affordable state-run mortgages. Between 2005 and 2010, the urban surface grew at a rate of 16.4%, while the rate of the inhabitants grew by a mere 1.4%, according to a study based on the latest census.
But the apparent bonanza was short lived. The 2008 financial crisis led to many layoffs and workers left the city or stopped paying their mortgages. Between 2008 and 2011, close to 10,000 people were killed; many fled out of fear.
This shift took a heavy toll on the city’s young people, who make up the largest section of the local population. “Youth don’t have many opportunities here, not even to have fun,” the city’s mayor, Armando Cabada says. “There are no public spaces for them to practise sport, or to meet up with friends in a healthy context. We have a big deficit.”
Another youth organisation, Casa Promoción Juvenil (Home Youth Promotion), focuses exclusively on recovering tapias in a neighbourhood close to Parajes de San Juan, hosting working groups with young people and their parents, who have tea and chat while their children play or watch films in the reclaimed homes.
But it’s not always easy. The tapias residents say they are being targeted by the police, who regularly shut down the recovered houses, claiming they are drug dens. Ríos and his group say they run away every time they see a police patrol because they feel threatened.
Ultimately, the biggest fight is to have young people recognised for their worth and not seen as a threat, says Fernando Sandoval of Casa Promoción Juvenil. “Youths are being persecuted simply because they are young and they come from poor neighbourhoods. They are seen as potential threats and associated with drug traffickers or criminals,” he says. “Projects like these help a lot because young people obtain a voice, express their opinion, and people have to stop to listen to their views. In the end they are the majority but they are the ones that are rarely listened to.”
Irene Caselli and Melissa Lyttle were in Ciudad Juárez thanks to a grant by the Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archiveInternational Women’s Media Foundation.