Juarez Christians face violence, disunity
"Juarez is not Bagdhad," Valles emphasizes. "People aren't dodging bullets in the streets. You don't even see police around like before. You can see life here is not bad."
Nationally, murders have been dropping slowly since October of 2011, though InSight Crime analysis indicates that at the present rate of decline, Mexico won’t be back to pre-2006 levels of violence until 2018. And in a worrisome turn, killings in April were at their highest levels since October of 2011, and violence seems to be shifting to the east to the region closer to Monterrey, according to MSNBC.
By early 2011, near what would turn out to be the peak of the violence so far, Valles had enough. In March, 2011, Valles and his pastor Gustavo Arango founded Defendamos Juarez (Let’s Protect Juarez), based out of JOPE church.
In the past year, Defendamos Juarez has mobilized some 1200 Juarenses in teams cleaning up derelict properties in violent neighborhoods and in public demonstrations including street preaching, all aimed at “making hope tangible” in the city.
In a city where for the last few years sunset had become an unofficial city-wide curfew confining families to their homes, merely being out and physically present sends an important signal to the city.
It’s not just the context of violence that Valles is working against. This sort of community action is not part of Mexico’s cultural tradition, he insists. JOPE Christian Center with its 150 congregants, however, has rallied around Valles and Arango’s vision.
“Juarez is in crisis, and the city needs the work that we’re doing,” remarks Andrea, a very articulate 12-year-old on the site of a Defendamos Juarez project, pausing from stretching on her tip-toes to paint the top of a windowsill. “People wonder what we are doing. They want to know why we would do this, if we’re not getting paid. They sometimes ask if we’re from the government, or if we are campaigning.”
“No one is doing anything like this,” Valles says. “In Mexico, this sort of thing is unheard of.”
On this day, Defendamos Juarez is sprucing up a decrepit funeral home, painting it their signature color of white. The volunteers are decked out in white, as well.
“White is a color you see a lot in Juarez, on trees, to prevent infestation of bugs, for example,” Ricardo, another longtime member of JOPE, explains. “It’s pure and clean. And we’re helping purify the city.”
As important as the work of Defendamos Juarez is, debiliating systemic problems in Juarez make the vicious cycle very difficult to escape.
A bridge that Defendamos Juarez decorated with posters reading “La paz comienza creyendo” (Peace begins with believing) was later fouled by cartel hitmen who hung a body from the overpass. And the vast majority of murders in the city will never be solved, or even investigated, due to incompetence or corruption in the law-enforcement institutions. There is also evidence that Mexican federal troops have been the beneficiaries of extortion schemes, some targeting pastors, in the city.