It could be said that Enrique Serrano became mayor of Juárez at the perfect time – in the previous six years, at least.
Elected by 52 percent of the voters in the city of 1.2 million last year, he took office in July at a time when the drug war violence in his hometown had bottomed out, though not disappeared, and the economy was on the mend.
Just few years earlier, of course, Juárez was getting bashed for being the most dangerous place in the world. It had seen 200,000 to 300,000 of its residents flee the bloody war between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels that took its toll on the Juárez’s people, business community and reputation.
Now Serrano and other Juarenses seem determined to put as much distance as possible between their city and those memories as quickly as possible.
Drive around Juárez today and you’ll see areas, especially on the eastside, that are booming with new stores, restaurants and watering holes.
Still, there are neighborhoods on the outskirts full of abandoned homes and areas of downtown that look like, well, they need a lot of work.
At 55, Serrano is ambitious for himself and his city, experienced in the public and private sectors, seriously educated and surprisingly candid.
Unlike most politicians, his career in elective politics started from the top when he won a seat in Mexico’s national congress. Then he was elected as a representative in Chihuahua state congress and, three years later, mayor of the country’s sixth largest city.
While he talks up Juárez, he says he’s not in favor of starting a new ad campaign aimed at bringing tourists back, “until we have a very strong consolidation of security for the public.”
“Publicity generates expectations that are bigger than reality,” he said. ‘I just prefer that we take a little time and not start a campaign to bring tourists who will be disappointed.”
Having said that, Serrano tops the guest list at the March 15 open house for the new official Juárez Information Center at El Paso Saddleblanket, where he’s bound to urge El Pasoans to rethink Juárez.
Serrano will also be boosting business opportunities in Juárez when he addresses the El Paso Central Business Association at its March 26 luncheon.
He touts the new regionalism when it comes to economic development but is quite willing to jab at Juárez’s sister city from his spacious office atop the Palacio Municipal, which stands at the foot of the Paso Del Norte International Bridge.
Asked why Juárez exploded in violence while the city across the tiny Rio Grande is now America’s safest big city, Serrano served up a zinger sure to get people talking.
“It’s because all your criminals from El Paso work in Juárez, that’s why,” he said.
That wasn’t the only one he let loose in the interview, during which questions were posed in English, and his reponses in Spanish were tranlated by El Paso Inc. staff.
Serrano discussed big railroad plans that bode well for Santa Teresa, how the Borderplex Alliance is on the right track and where he thinks the region’s best hope for economic development lies.
Q: When will you know things are back to normal in Juárez?
Right now, everything’s normal. The crime index for the city is low. From Chicago, New Orleans, possibly Miami and Washington, our crimes are low now compared to cities of comparable population in North America. So Americans can understand, there are crimes here, but they are common crimes, like any other part of the world.
We’re well below the national median in Mexico. We were, like, the most dangerous city in the world, but now we’re like 37th or 38th. There are still homicides and holdups, but it’s normal for a city of this population.
In El Paso, there’s less but a lot of the criminals from El Paso come over here because they found fertile ground to work in, like the leaders of the Aztecas, for example. It’s a very dangerous gang that has committed a lot of crimes, and they live in El Paso like ordinary citizens.
El Paso’s a smaller city and we have, like, 600,000 more people. It’s fine that they compare us a lot to El Paso, but it’s a lot smaller with a higher level of living, and their criminals are operating here.
Q: Why do you think it all happened? Why did so many Juárez boys and men join the drug war?
It’s because all your criminals from El Paso work in Juárez, that’s why. You have one or two criminals, but the leaders are the ones that organize everything.
Q: I was here with friends on a recent Saturday. We spent the entire day and I did not see any tourists, even though there were many people out on the streets. It seems to me the city will be back to normal when the tourists come back. What is the city doing to start attracting tourists again?
We haven’t done anything major up to now because we just finished getting through a difficult time and we’re trying to reach a security level that is more acceptable. I haven’t wanted to do strong promotion of the city until we have a very strong consolidation of security for the public.
Q: The old entertainment district, known to many as the Mariscal, was torn down during the last administration, leaving blocks of vacant property. The neighborhoods around it are in bad shape. What’s going to happen to that area and when?
There is a 15-year plan, not just for that area where there’s nothing now but a lot of blocks. We’re going to start doing projects this year. We’re going to remodel Avenida Juárez, which is the major south to north route. That’s where there is more possibility for commercial development.
And the Avenido Lerdo, which is the entrance to the city. That’s two streets, Juárez and Lerdo, both of them we’re going to remodel. Then, we’re going to fix up that area where everything’s gone and other strategic points within the downtown area more toward the cathedral. All of that’s going to get fixed. It will be federal money, everything’s federal.
Q: What about private investment?
We’re going to leave lots for private development. The federal money will go to infrastructure. Private money will be for restaurants and clubs.
Q: When will all this get moving?
By the end of the year.
Q: This surprised me. The city has taken 16 de Septiembre Avenue under the train tracks and built a tunnel that goes for some blocks, creating a huge pedestrian area leading up to the plaza and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The tunnel turns and comes out five or six blocks later onto Avenida Juárez heading toward El Paso.
When will it be finished, and what are your hopes for that pedestrian area?
In about 90 days. That area will be the pulse of the city because it will create a public area for commercial development and pedestrian traffic, not automobiles. So, it’s going to revitalize and beautify the area, and it will be more appealing.
Q: What is the status of the plan to move rail traffic out of Juárez and around the city to San Jeronimo and the Santa Teresa Port of Entry? What impact do you think that will have on Juárez and the San Jeronimo area?
This is a project that has been planned for many years – since 1986 – to move the railroad out of the city. But it’s a big investment and there are Mexican and American railroad companies that would have to change to receive traffic and freight here and over there. It will take a lot of authorization and it’s a very complex situation, but I think it can be realized in three or four years.
Why? Because there are some big projects for development coming that will put pressure on the railroad here. They are projects to develop San Jeronimo and Santa Teresa with a very heavy, intensive industry – automotive industry. So, there’s going to be a necessity to move the railroad to Santa Teresa. Once the move is made everything will have to move over there and out of Juárez.
But then again, the railroad will never change because it’s going to cost them a lot of money. Here in Mexico, we only have one railroad company – Ferromex. But there is a really big railroad project that’s coming from the state of Nayarit all the way to Santa Teresa.
This railroad will bring a lot of products from the Orient and that will pressure the railroad to move because the railroad needs to go with the private investment.
Q: This is all about trade with Asia, right?
Yes. This has a lot to do with commerce from China, Japan, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, all of the Orient. The commerce is with the United States, not that much with Mexico. But they want to unload in the ports of Mexico, not San Diego and Long Beach because they are very crowded and they don’t have any place to grow and the volume of products from the Orient is growing and they don’t have any more capacity.
So it will be sent to Mexico and then we’ll send it to the U.S. by train. It’s going to be less expensive.
Q: The Borderplex Alliance is trying to become the agency for regional economic development involving Juárez, Northern Chihuahua, El Paso, Santa Teresa and Southern New Mexico. How do you see that working?
The interesting thing is that this effort is initiated by business, not by government. Some efforts of the past were not done to promote El Paso, Juárez and Last Cruces as one region because they were done by the governments.
And the governments changed the interests, the perspective and the situation and that had made it harder to promote the whole region. But now, this is different because it’s being done by business, and that gives us more security in the long run. I think this is the most serious effort that we have made so far.
This will be to the advantage of El Paso and Juárez and any change in one city will benefit the other. If we join together, we can compete perfectly well with other states in the U.S. and Mexico, even with other countries.
In fact, since we started with the maquiladoras, Ciudad Juárez has competed with other Mexican cities, states and countries, and if we join with El Paso we will grow and have a more vibrant economy.
Q: What do you see being the biggest economic driver for this area in the future?
I think the economic future of the city in economic matters has to be the automotive industry. We already have a big presence of foreign corporations. Maquilas in Juárez are making automotive parts, and if you put all those parts together, you have a car. Everything is done here. The only thing we don’t do is build the cars.
So, a big part of our industrial future and our focus will be on the automotive industry and also on the aeronautics industry. We have maquilas that make parts for that industry, too, and we are interested in the industry’s conversion to more sophisticated processes.
First, because they pay the workers much better, and we need that. We are transforming Juárez industry. There were maquilas that used to count coupons. Now, we don’t do that. We used to have industries that made clothes and paid very low salaries. We still have some of those maquilas that pay 600 pesos or less than $50 per week.
We need three times that or more. That kind of money can only be paid by companies with more sophisticated processes and require more qualified people.
Q: Where does the new international bridge project stand and how long will it be before the infrastructure is complete and that bridge is up and running?
It will be finished by the end of next year. It’s a federal issue and has nothing to do with the local government. There’s no coordination between the two governments because the same thing happened in California – but the other way around. The Mexican portion was done but the American wasn’t, so we’re not the only ones that are behind.
Finally, we will have it and it will be forever. That bridge will resolve commercial traffic problems between the two countries. The majority of cargo is coming from the south and it won’t have to go through Juárez to get into the U.S. That will help the city and it will generate economic development in all the region.
We also have the little towns of Praxedes and Guadalupe that need economic development, and Juárez is interested in that because we will grow economically with them. People in those towns are coming to Juárez because they don’t have opportunity there. If there are businesses there, it will create a new town on the Mexican side that can generate economic activity in the region.
Q: During the height of the bad times, there were reports that the city had lost well over 100,000 people and that many who had come to Juárez had gone home. Is there evidence that people are coming back?
Not a lot, but we are not interested in them coming back, either. It’s not in our interest because what happened was this: It was a coincidence that we had the security crisis and the recession in the American market at the same time.
Our economy depends on the American market. A lot of workers lost their jobs in an insecure city and there were no other jobs available. That’s why they left.
A lot of those people were from Veracruz and other southern states because Juárez grew in a very explosive way. The maquilas promoted the maquila industry, but it wasn’t that good for the city. It makes no sense to grow like that in any city and in any country. We have about 30,000 people unemployed right now. Our unemployment rate is about 10 percent. I think it’s closer to 8 percent.
Q: We have problems here because there is so little river water. El Paso has worked hard and spent a lot of money to meet its needs with ground water and desalination. What is the situation in Juárez?
We share the same aquifer, so for El Paso and Juárez, it’s the same. The water underground is the same. It’s just that the water is on this side. Here in Juárez, in a way, our problem is solved because there is water in Santa Teresa and Jeronimo, which is in Juárez. There is a very large aquifer. El Paso can’t use it because it isn’t in Texas, it’s in New Mexico. New Mexico doesn’t allow taking out water from that state. But we can use it because it’s also on the Mexican side, in Juárez and in Chihuahua.
We’re watering parks with treated sewage water. Here, the state water department handles it, but we coordinate with them. The state water department has its own politics about how to reduce water consumption. They have a lot of informational campaigns to help people reduce their water use.
Q: Would you tell us about yourself, where you grew up, where you went to school, a little bit about your parents.
My family is from the state of Sonora, a neighbor of ours. My parents came to live here when they got married, but I was born in the state of Sonora.
I went to school here, attended the Universidad Autónoma de Juárez and earned a degree in economics. From the Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua, I received a degree in public administration and political science, and from the Technológico de Monterrey, a master’s degree in business administration.
My mother did not work outside the home. They both have passed away. My father was a topographical engineer. He worked for the International Boundary and Water Commission for 55 years.
He was responsible for checking the boundaries between the United States and Mexico. It is a binational agency that is studied by other countries that share borders.
I married a woman from here, Juárez. We have a son and daughter. Our son is 29, almost 30. He’s single. He studied economics at UTEP, and then he received a master’s in administration in Seville, Spain. He’s living and working here now.
Q: And your daughter?
She is 27 and married. She’s an architect. They live in San Antonio, Texas, and have a baby who is 16 months old.
Q: What about you?
We’ve always lived here in Juárez. I was 24 when I got married. I graduated from the university and began working for the federal government in programs that no longer exist – programs that had to do with the development of the border, principally economic development, over a period of many years in different government agencies.
Q: How did you get into politics?
I studied public administration and political science at the university along with economics. That gave me a way into government, which is my career. I’ve always liked politics. In my early years, I worked for the government, but then I got into the private sector and dedicated myself to business.
I had a small business here in Juárez importing dairy products, like ice cream and popsicles. We had a lot of ice cream trucks that went around the neighborhoods selling the products. I had a lot of them. We also had a very nice ice cream store and a well-known restaurant. It was in the Pueblito Mexicano and was called ¡Viva Mexico! We had a lot of customers from the U.S., but it closed down. I left all my businesses in 2006 to become a candidate for the chamber of deputies in the Mexican Congress.
I won my election and went to Mexico City. I was there for three years as a congressman. There, I met César Duarte, who is now governor of the state of Chihuahua and established a lot of new relationships. I liked the ideas he had for Chihuahua and Juárez.
The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which is my political party, promoted me as a candidate for state representative in the Chihuahua state congress. I was there for three years and was president (speaker) of the state Congress and was coordinator (whip) of the PRI caucus in the Congress.
That was one of the most difficult times for Chihuahua. Violence reached high levels with kidnappings, homicides and hold-ups. In Congress, we passed a lot of state reforms – a lot. We changed practically every law. We approved severe sentences and life sentences for serious offenses – extortion, homicide, multiple homicides and kidnappings. Now, there are a lot of criminals who are going to be spending a lot of time in prison.
The political season came and my party advanced me to a municipal candidacy for mayor. We won the election, a clean election, by a good margin. So, I’ve been municipal president since Oct. 10, and I’ve been in three elections and I have won them all.
Q: For those who don’t know, what is the difference between the PRI and the PAN, the National Action Party?
The PAN is an ultra-conservative party that identifies itself with the U.S. Republican Party. The PRI is more Democratic, more liberal.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.