Other Voices

Pope’s visit: Border cities ready for spotlight

A resident walks past a mural in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso. Pope Francis visits neighboring Juárez Wednesday.
A resident walks past a mural in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso. Pope Francis visits neighboring Juárez Wednesday. AP

It is a story of redemption and hope. A comeback tale. A tale of two cities.

The city on the north side of the river was recognized as the safest city of its size in the country — not once, but four years in a row.

Across the river sat a city that earned the unfortunate title of murder capital of the world three years in a row.

Then the southern city began turning things around. Its murder rate plummeted, more factories opened and foreign investment returned. In five years, it went from being the most violent city in the world to not even in the top 50 most dangerous.

Even the Vatican took notice.

The cities are the Borderplex towns of El Paso in Texas — still one of the safest cities in the United States — and Ciudad Juárez, directly across the Rio Grande in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

For a few bad years, gang warfare and the economic downturn drove Juárez’s murder rate up and earned the 350-year-old city an unfortunate reputation for violence, a reputation that tarnished its neighbors as well.

Now those days are fading into a dark spot in Juárez’s long history, a history that contains many bright moments.

There is, after all, a reason that the city sits on the second-largest border crossing between the U.S. and Mexico, and a reason that so many international companies turn to Juárez’s more than 300 maquiladoras to make their products.

Last year, Pope Francis announced that Ciudad Juárez would be the final stop on his five-day visit to Mexico.

On Wednesday, he is scheduled to become the first pope ever to visit the region, and Juárez could not be more excited to greet him.

Earlier this month, the Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, the same organization that called Ciudad Juárez the most dangerous city in the world just a few years ago, announced that Juárez has fallen off of its “top 50” list altogether.

Its murder rate has plummeted more than 90 percent from its peak.

When the eyes of the world turn to Juárez for Pope Francis’ visit, they will see a city that is open for business with more than a quarter-million people employed in local factories, and a city that is ready to again welcome tourists.

Travelers looking for a warm destination with a lot of culture and relatively low costs should take note.

The Citizens Council says Juárez’s murder rate today is on par with that of New Orleans.

Crime statistics do not deter the Mardi Gras crowds and festival-goers from the Big Easy, nor should they dissuade a visitor to the Borderplex region.

Pope Francis’ visit will also highlight the unique character of the Borderplex region, a bi-national, bi-lingual economy where issues such as immigration, trade, natural resource management and the history of the Americas form a rich tapestry of common interests and local identity.

These issues can pose challenges to local business, political and civic leaders; the pope knows that. But as with any good story, in these challenges are also opportunities for local leaders, and we are working hard to seize them.

The pope knows that too — and so, after his visit, will many more people.

Richard A. Castro is an El Paso businessman and philanthropist.