Juarez's Biggest Booster Is An Irish-American Congressman

Rep. Beto O'Rourke represents El Paso, Texas — which shares a border with drug-destroyed Juarez. One of the strangest congressional districts in the United States.

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — If you ask U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke for a bar recommendation in Juarez, he's quick to tick off his favorite spots.

There's Recreo, with its dark-wood bar and tuxedo-clad bartenders serving up cold beer and tequila shots to businessmen and leather-clad members of the Bandidos. Club Quince, with its '50s pinup paintings, is worth checking out too, the Democratic congressman says — it's just up the street from the infamous Kentucky Club, purported home of the original margarita.

O'Rourke represents El Paso, the Texas city that shares the U.S.–Mexico border with Juarez. The separation between the two cities is more or less a fiction: tens of thousands of families straddle the border, and each day countless more Mexicans and Americans commute from one city to the other.

The intertwined nature of the cities' fortunes is why O'Rourke has done something highly unusual for a U.S. congressman: He advocates strongly for the economic renewal of a non-American city. In short: He's the unofficial captain of the Juarez tourism board.

When Juarez succeeds, so does El Paso, he says. And the travel warnings against visiting Juarez, he argues, hurt El Paso.

"You had Anthony Wayne, the ambassador to Mexico, who was here in Juarez two weeks ago. And he said, 'This city is wonderful, you guys have really turned around your security problems, Juarez is really coming back to life,'" O'Rourke says over a steak lunch at Tragadero, a local steakhouse where the staff know the American congressman by name.

"And then the following day, you get an advisory, a travel warning from the State Department saying you shouldn't necessarily travel to Ciudad Juarez. It's not necessarily safe for Americans." And that, O'Rourke insists, can hurt El Paso.

The two cities are certainly connected. Mexican students from Juarez attend school at the University of Texas-El Paso — on in-state tuition, O'Rourke says. The blended nature of the region is physical as well: Looking down on the cities from the surrounding mountains, it's nearly impossible to tell where Juarez ends and El Paso begins.

Earlier that day, O'Rourke held a town hall of sorts on a city bus, fielding questions in Spanish and English from morning rush-hour riders. It seems kind of gimmicky, and perhaps it is. But it is an undeniably easy, and effective, way to reach poor constituents.

"I was on the bus today with a kid who started his school day in Juarez, comes over to go to school at University of Texas-El Paso. He gets in-state tuition, which was a conscious decision by the UTEP system," he says.

The 42-year-old O'Rourke may seem like an unlikely candidate for American champion of Juarez. Tall, lanky, and white, O'Rourke is the son of a local judge and a graduate of Columbia University, with a degree in English.

But O'Rourke is also a fourth-generation El Pasoan who's fluent in Spanish and, like most residents his age, spent time in high school and college in Juarez, before the cartels turned the city into a war zone.

Even the decidedly Irish-American O'Rourke's name is an example of the interconnectedness: Born Robert O'Rourke, he has, like many Anglos in El Paso, adopted the Latino nickname for Roberto: Beto.

For his part, O'Rourke seems just as at home in the cluttered steakhouse, where the walls are covered in paintings and magazine clippings of bullfighters, as he is in the halls of Congress.

He can — and does — rattle off the economic reasons for looking out for the interests of the 1.5 million Mexicans living a stone's throw across the border.

Last year the series of bridges that connect the two cities into the largest bi-national community in the world recorded over 23 million crossings — the vast majority of which were people from Juarez and the state of Chihuahua visiting El Paso.

"A lot of them [are] shoppers. It's a huge driver for the El Paso economy," O'Rourke says, adding that combined with international trade done across the border, economic activity with Mexico accounts for nearly one quarter of the jobs in El Paso.

"That's a real basic reason for me in my job to be interested in this," he says.

The neighborhood where Tragadero, the steakhouse in Juarez where O'Rourke is eating carne asada, was once a destination for American tourists looking for cheap steaks, burritos, and other Mexican fare. After a decade of violence it has been abandoned to the locals — even as it has become as safe as many American neighborhoods.

"If you say Juarez is less safe, by extension you're hurting El Paso. Because if you have less investment, less travel, less opportunity here, you see less on the other side in El Paso," O'Rourke argues.

Juarez's brutal history of drug cartel violence looms large over the region. O'Rourke argues it's getting better. And it is: The murder rate has plummeted over the last several years, and a new round of maquilas — factories operated by international corporations — have begun opening.The city is spending millions to revitalize traditional tourist areas and the downtown areas surrounding the city's cathedral (though few Americans venture over the bridges for pleasure), and the University of Juarez has opened a new high-tech campus in the desert outskirts of town.

Signs of the city's recovery from the drug wars are evident. Downtown outdoor markets are full of shoppers, and a new Walmart has opened. Murders are still common, with as many as 30 in a month. But for a city of 1.5 million residents, the murder rate is roughly the same as many major U.S. cities not considered particularly dangerous. In more affluent neighborhoods, new American-style grocery stores, complete with in-store coffee shops, have opened.

That's not to say the city isn't still struggling. A plaza down the street from Tragadero was once a popular spot for residents and tourists to eat lunch or pass a Saturday drinking beer. It was all but deserted on a beautiful April Sunday this spring, save for a few stray dogs lying in the sun.

The city's soccer team — once a rallying point for Juarez — has been beset by corruption, so much so that it was pushed out of its league in 2010. Corruption remains a problem for the city government — half-completed demolitions and construction projects dot the downtown, abandoned after city funding dried up.

And the city's violent past is never far from mind. Families still post missing posters for loved ones in high-traffic areas, and activists have painted pink crosses on buildings across the city, somber reminders of the thousands of women who were brutally raped and murdered over the last two decades.

On the eastern edge of the city are miles of half completed homes, started as part of a plan city officials concocted to address the violence, according to Pablo Hernández Batista, a former reporter and journalism professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez. They'd build thousands of small, cheaply constructed homes in the desert along the outskirts of town as quasi-safe havens from the violence. But few could afford the cost of one of these new "homes," and many of the development now are empty, ghost town testimonials to community's struggle with drug violence.

"Our whole way of life is predicated on our connection with Mexico and the border," O'Rourke says. "So in my role as a representative for El Paso, I've got to take into account what's going on in Juarez. If Juarez is hurt, it hurts El Paso. If Juarez is thriving, El Paso is thriving. And vice versa. So we have a selfish interest in what happens in Juarez economically, and we have a human interest because it's who we are."

Walking through downtown back towards the Paso del Norte bridge, O'Rourke notes the midday traffic with frustration. "See this? They don't even have a dedicated lane for the buses," he says of one of the many daily inconveniences of having a heavily militarized border in the middle of a binational metropolis. It's one of a number of areas O'Rourke is working on with the Department of Homeland Security to help reduce tensions between those protecting the border and the communities on both sides of it.

O'Rourke also sees himself as an ambassador of sorts for the city to Washington and has made it a point during his time in Congress to bring lawmakers visiting the border to the city.

O'Rourke says he "understand[s] why colleagues from South Carolina Pennsylvania and other parts of the country see the border as a source of fear and anxiety. Versus what I think all of us realize, which is that it's this amazing opportunity, whether you measure it culturally, economically, even just how unique our way of life is. I feel like it's part of my mission in Congress help other members understand what is so special and unique about this."

And that, O'Rourke says, starts with showing the world that Juarez isn't the dangerous place it once was.

"You wouldn't have a travel advisory to Detroit, or New Orleans, or Washington, D.C., and yet the State Department issues one for Ciudad Juarez," he says.

"Personally, I feel very safe here, my friends feel very safe here."

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