Known as the Paso del Norte -- "Pass of the North" -- Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, home to 1.5 million, will host Pope Francis Feb. 17, closing his six-day visit to the country. It's a city notorious for a recent four-year battle among local cartels, which resulted in more than 10,000 killings, and a city where hundreds of women were either murdered or disappeared in the early '90s.
Though the past few years have seen a significant decline in violence, Juárez remains a major point of entry from the Mexican border to El Paso, Texas, and is far from losing its spotlight.
"If you look at 2010 or 2011, it was absolutely the eye of the storm," said Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "Large sections of the city had been abandoned, the murder rate was stratospheric, the surrounding area was occupied by military. ... That hurt the city in many ways, but it's really important to know that's not the case anymore. Juárez has come roaring back, and there's a lot of hope in the city."
Meade attributes much of this progress to human rights committees that have held the government accountable for its worst abuses. However, impunity has protected the military from accountability in some of its most egregious crimes, he added, such as participation in or toleration of mass killings of women, forced disappearances, and confiscating property.
The defining question now, Meade said, is finding the balance between justice and reconciliation -- "a social pact that allows its people to move forward."
"It can't be one or the other. It must be both, and that's the hardest thing."
Divided by both the U.S.-Mexico border and the Rio Grande, El Paso and Juárez are neighboring cities connected by four bridges, forming one of the busiest crossings in the world.
But traffic at the border hardly reflects political speech one might have heard from several of 2016's presidential candidates -- many of whom have made immigration control and closing the border a priority issue.
Meade, who also testifies as an expert witness in asylum cases for Mexico, said that lately his research team has focused on separating spectacle from reality, emphasizing that the numbers don't support the mania.
According to a November 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigration to the U.S. is at a 40-year low, and roughly a third of its peak in 2000, when the U.S. was apprehending about 1.8 million a year. Between 2009 and 2014, Pew found that Mexican migration hit negative, with more people returning to Mexico than coming to the U.S. -- an "end to one of the biggest migrations in world history" that began in the mid-1960s, Meade said.
"It came with all kinds of long-term consequences, but the major shift is over. That's not reflected in the political rhetoric, which is all about controlling the border and the physical entry of people. But that's not the debate we should be having. We should be debating about integration."
Throughout history, anti-immigrant language typically gains traction about 15 years after the actual influx, he said. The Irish who immigrated in the 1840s experienced this around the Civil War period, and the Polish, who arrived in the 1890s, saw a similar backlash after the turn of the century, he said. African-Americans also witnessed a "vitriolic response" about 10-15 years after they began migrating north. Why?
"It's not about the people coming, but their full incorporation into society -- as they become voters, PTA members, homeowners, or start their own businesses. It's as their language becomes mainstream, and their kids start forming mixed families," Meade said. "There's such a gap between the actual reality of migration and the debate, that it's created this space for the really ugly stuff to exist. We need to counter that with the facts and have a discussion on what's really going on, which is a problem with integration, not immigration."
But south of the border, immigration is, indeed, a problem.
"In El Paso, the work is being done right. But not in Juárez, and that's backwards," said Cristina Coronado, a community activist and Columban missionary who helps coordinate a shelter for adolescents in El Paso and Oaxaca, Mexico.
Once they get to Juárez, she said, migrants don't have a place where they are protected, nowhere safe enough to wait until they can figure out their options. Taxi mafias, for example, coax immigrants with low cab fares, offering a quick ride across the border, only to kidnap and hold them hostage.
In an effort to make both authorities and residents more cooperative with these incoming populations, an immigration forum took place Jan. 28-30 in Juárez, and El Paso, just a couple of weeks before the pope's arrival. The idea, Coronado said, was to debate the subject of immigration specific to the city, as well as the Southern Border Plan -- an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to detain immigrants, which Coronado said has backfired and caused more violence, as people turned to alternate routes where mafias and criminals had already established themselves.
"The topic is buried here as if it were a foreign issue to us, when in fact we are a city of immigrants. The immigrants that go through Ciudad Juárez are subject to violation of their human rights, robberies, kidnapping and crimes that take place because no laws protect them," Coronado said. "The goal of this forum is to work in a more coordinated way, because Juárez comes prior to El Paso."
Understanding who and why migrants seek refuge requires some uncomfortable American introspection.
In 2014, Mexicans did not constitute the majority of apprehensions at the border. Central Americans did, and they largely weren't seeking economic opportunity and education; rather, they were fleeing violence or reuniting with family.
"The most pressing angle is how the violence that people are fleeing is in great part due to the U.S.'s culture and history," said Fr. Bob Mosher, director of the Columban Mission Center in El Paso. "They're fleeing countries where government has become corrupt with a history of U.S. intervention -- Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala."
Meade said U.S. policy has been clear through the last two presidential administrations: keep things from crossing the border.
"That's it, just containment -- no real sustained or serious effort to get at the underlying phenomenon at all, or to develop alternatives to people who get sucked into it, or to deal with victims and survivors in a humane way," Meade said.
The migration corridor from Guatemala to the Mexican border, Meade added, is likely the most dangerous in the world, where thousands, if not tens of thousands, have disappeared, been kidnapped, extorted, raped or tortured.
Smugglers whom immigrants are forced to pay increasingly work for organized crime and cartels, and Meade said that one thing is clear: A good share of immigration authorities get a cut from the migration business.
"There is an expectation of abuse and exploitation on the way to Mexico, and it hasn't changed one iota," he said. "And the U.S. hasn't asked Mexico to change that, because our priority is to prevent another surge of kids. It's a major moral failing of our policy, and not a very good security policy, either."
How Central America became a hub for violence goes back to the Mexican drug cartels. In 2008, the U.S. passed the Merida Initiative, a funding mechanism boosting Mexican drug enforcement. A crackdown on the country's five biggest cartels eventually led to the capturing and killing of much of their leadership, which Meade said led to fragmented, harder-to-predict and more violent cells. They then moved their operations to Central America, which destabilized the region.
In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, enforcement and institutions were weaker. Land and big labor were cheaper. The military was easier to buy off. Once El Salvador switched to the U.S. dollar, it became a money launderer overnight, Meade said.
"It's not some vague conspiratorial thing. You don't have to believe that anybody acted in bad faith. But [the U.S.] priority was, whatever happened south of the border doesn't matter as long as it doesn't get here."
And though such an approach might worsen the situation in the long-term, it behooves the short-term, headline-friendly process. The Obama administration can tout that the number of unaccompanied kids at the border has fallen by half, Meade said, because it's not held accountable for what happens to those kids in Mexico, or why they came in the first place.
"Maybe that's a message for the pope, too," he said.
Dr. San Juana Mendoza Bruce, a family practitioner, runs Dispensary Cristo Rey, a charity clinic located in the impoverished region of Anapra in Juárez.
Anapra, she said -- home to roughly 35,000 -- does not have a gym, library, maternity clinic, nursing home, or clothing and food banks. The area does have maquilas (manufacturing operations), where workers commute every day to a minimum-wage job, a "hamster-wheel" existence, according to Mendoza Bruce.
Depression, insomnia, anxiety, stress and diabetes are rampant in her clinic. Parents often become anxious from the routine uncertainty of whether their kids will come home safely from school, lest they get kidnapped or assaulted on the walk. Those who live far from their families, unsure about their chances of reuniting, might suffer insomnia or extreme stress.
And depression usually settles on those working low-wage factory jobs, who earn an average of $50 a week for 10 hours of daily work. Diabetes, meanwhile, has started afflicting younger children, who are left to figure out their own meals while both their parents are gone at work.
Last year, Mendoza Bruce's practice took care of about 4,000 patients, and she sought people to visit the sick or elderly, or anyone who could offer counseling. And almost every time, the invitation was denied when people learned it would be unpaid work.
While Mendoza Bruce was working in a "garbage town," where the majority of people get by rummaging through garbage, a young woman approached her with 5-month-old baby, sick with a fever. Mendoza Bruce took the baby to examine him, and found that he was swaddled in several layers of garbage bags. Her first reaction, she recalled, was to scold the woman for wrapping him in plastic.
The woman began crying and told her that the baby's father had recently left them, and the two had been sleeping on the floor of a garbage truck for several nights. Her baby was crying from the cold, and, not having any blankets, she wrapped him with the only thing she had in reach: plastic trash bags.
Mendoza Bruce apologized, assuring the woman that she did the right thing in listening to her maternal instincts. "I felt ashamed, so then I came to El Paso and started knocking on church doors asking for blankets."
She was quickly disappointed, as several told her they "don't do those kinds of programs."
"There are many Catholics in Juárez who regard themselves as 100 percent Catholic, and they're willing to work inside the walls of the church," she said. "They're willing to work and help in the Communion ministry, Sunday school, or assist with Mass. But they're not willing to go outside and reach out to a poor person. Hopefully, Pope Francis can encourage that spirit."
Pope in town
Despite its recent history of institutional and drug-related violence, and its ongoing struggles with poverty and refugees, on Feb. 17, the troubled city will be fit for Francis, who frequently has called for humane treatment of migrants and refugees.
"We are confident that the pope's visit will open a door, some channels that will help us coordinate forces," Coronado said. "But I see it as very hard and difficult. Unfortunately, the policies in our country always benefit the powerful, and the people are always left out.
"It is difficult to say this about our damaged city, but hopefully the pope's visit is not a lie, or a show. I hope the government does not take advantage of the diocese and then things don't change, or that they use this visit to bury what is going on in our city. ... The pope's visit is an opportunity we have to find another way."
[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]