CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — When this city was among the most murderous in the world, the morgue ran out of room, the corpses stacked to the ceiling in the wheezing walk-in freezers.
Medical examiners, in plastic boots, performed a dozen autopsies a day as families of victims waited outside in numbers sufficient to require a line.
It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.
But the fever seems to have broken.
Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.
Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.
Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.
From the beginning, Ciudad Juarez has been a key battleground in President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-backed drug war. It was here that Calderon poured 8,000 troops and police personnel, and millions of dollars in aid, in a surge that his security experts compared to the one in Iraq in 2007.
As part of the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, the U.S. government paid for police academies here, which included training programs for overwhelmed officers in “street survival” skills. The United States provided microscopes to the forensic lab, sent Juarez leaders to Colombia to learn how that country bested the drug cartels, helped create an anonymous tip line and supported programs for at-risk youths.
Calderon says that homicides across Mexico are decreasing, but suspicions linger because his government refuses to release nationwide data.
Juarez itself remains vulnerable. It has not escaped attention that violence began to recede after soldiers and federal police started to leave the city. Residents pray that the relative peace is maintained, while thousands of families that fled to Texas to escape the violence wonder whether it is safe to return.
At its most ferocious, when this industrial border city on the Rio Grande seemed consumed by a homicidal mania, the murder rate averaged almost nine per day.
Last month, homicides averaged 1.3 a day, the lowest rate since the war between the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels exploded here in 2007.
“It is a completely different ballgame now,” said Hector Murguia, the mayor. “Our city is no longer a town of ghosts.”
Families have begun to celebrate birthdays in restaurants again. At night, a few customers wander into the downtown cantinas, once a no-go zone after dark. The recession is over, and the assembly plants, which pay about $13 a day, are humming. About 20,000 jobs have been created, according to city hall.
To respond to the crisis that brought Juarez to the brink, the federal government built schools in poor barrios where there were none, as well as community centers, playgrounds and clinics. It has provided education scholarships and health insurance and given money and materiel — new pickups, bigger guns — to the municipal police, who a few years ago were not just employees of the criminal organizations but also the management.
Mexico’s interior secretary, Alejandro Poire, was recently in the city to tout Calderon’s achievements — a 50 percent reduction in the homicide rate here compared with the same period last year and a 70 percent drop compared with 2010.
“Thanks to the cooperation between federal, state and local governments, as well as public support, we are mending the social fabric,” Poire said.
Critics of the government strategy in Juarez, however, point out that the former governor of the state of Chihuahua, which includes Juarez, was himself named as a target of a federal investigation over alleged ties to organized crime, according to media accounts.
Internecine cartel war
Although often portrayed as a battle over lucrative narcotics-smuggling routes into the United States, law enforcement officials say the fight between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels was less about feeding America’s voracious appetite for drugs and more about control of Juarez.
“From my perspective, the violence had its origin in the sale and consumption of drugs here in Ciudad Juarez; that’s what caused the bulk of the crisis,” said Cesar Peniche, the top federal prosecutor here.
By some estimates, thousands of drug distribution points and as many shooting galleries were operating in Juarez when the cartels went to war.