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When Alfonso is out of earshot, his mom, Laura, says, "He's become very nervous. When his older brother or I am late coming home, we find him in a corner, shaking." She attends a grief support group for parents and is thinking of taking him to one for children. Alfonso says he's willing, but he's also clear: "I want to leave Juárez."
He's not alone. A recent survey shows more than 60 percent of high-school-age youths say they plan to leave Juárez as soon as they can. Since 2007, nearly 250,000 residents have fled the city. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it's estimated that 100,000 have moved a few miles north to neighboring El Paso. Most remain there but maintain ties to the city that was once their home. Others inevitably head north or west, deeper into Texas and the Southwest.
Those who can afford to take the short trip across the bridge have the money to keep the family afloat. These wealthier juarenses also have more reason to flee, because they are increasingly victims of Juárez's other two main crimes: kidnapping and extortion. Small and large business owners alike must pay for "protection" to be left alone. Dotting the city are the charred ruins of businesses that don't pay; the common punishment is to burn the store down, often with the owner inside.
"Here, people trade in fancy cars for crappier ones," Almada says, because an expensive new car is a kidnapper's magnet. Walls around houses go up daily, and security guards multiply on sidewalks, but nothing seems to discourage the abduction-for-ransom schemes. "See this four-block radius?" Almada asks while driving through a particularly nice part of town. "Eighteen kidnappings in one week earlier this year."
Those who can't make it north go south. Many return to their hometowns. Juárez boomed between 1980 to 2000, when its population ballooned by nearly 1 million as the maquila factories — North American Free Trade Agreement-spurred manufacturers of everything from dresses to car parts for ready U.S. export — became one of northern Mexico's most reliable employers.
Now the recession has claimed more than 90,000 jobs, and the violence has spread. Lacking work and living in fear, 150,000 have headed south — some with the help of other Mexican state governments. During the '90s, factory owners sent buses south to transport workers to Juárez by the thousands. These days, states such as Veracruz send buses to Juárez to bring their people back.
Those who stay live an altered reality. "I am scared most of the time," Alfonso says just above a whisper. Pablo's murder was not the first time death came to the neighborhood; two years earlier, there was a drive-by shooting right across the street. "That didn't really matter," Alfonso says, shrugging off the incident. But ever since Pablo's April killing, Alfonso doesn't leave the house unless he has to.