Chef Oscar Herrera. Deborah Bonello/GlobalPost
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Like many thousands of his well-heeled neighbors, gourmet chef Oscar Herrera fled across the Rio Grande to Texas as gangland savagery engulfed this border city five years ago.
Now like many others Herrera has returned to Ciudad Juarez, determined to sink deeper roots in a community and country he’d never fully appreciated.
“When you realize that they have taken what is yours. That starts to make you feel like a coward,” Herrera says of the decision to return to his still-violent hometown.
“We were tired of it," he says of exile. "You could see this new sense of citizenship.”
As Juarez's violence steadily declines, the renewed dedication of merchants and investors like Herrera might yet seed its rebirth. With luck it will become the prosperous, peaceful and pleasant city they crave.
Watch GlobalPost video: Seeing hope in Juarez
Most of the more than 10,000 people murdered in Juarez’s gangland warfare have been young men from impoverished barrios. But kidnapping, extortion and murder stalked wealthier residents as well. Shootouts happened in even the best neighborhoods, where some of the gang bosses lived.
As the violence spiked, panic spread. By late 2010, tens of thousands of residents had fled this city of nearly 1.3 million, whose population had exploded in recent decades.
Poor working families returned to their homes in southern Mexico. As many as 30,000 people lucky enough to have US visas or passports took refuge in El Paso, then ranked the safest large city in the United States.
“When the only thing you hear is people being afraid, you start being afraid,” Herrera says of the atmosphere then. “It’s like a disease. It’s transmitted.”
Restaurants, shops and other small businesses suffered as they were directly attacked by the criminals or their terrified customers avoided going out. Revenues fell by two-thirds at Maria Chuchena, the restaurant Herrera owned with his brothers.
Herrera says he finally decided to leave in late 2008 after arsonists torched another restaurant the brothers operated in Ciudad Chihuahua, the state capital.
“It wasn't something that was happening to a friend of a friend. It was happening to us,” Herrera says. “We felt so close to being threatened.
"Have they identified me? My wife, my kids, my brothers? Let's just go.”
Lots of Juarez's upper-class families are bilingual and bicultural. They've looked north as often as south for their sense of place. Crossing the border to escape the violence didn't seem a major move.
“We feel very Mexican, but we don't know Mexico,” Herrera says. “When I was a little kid I was always told that the southern part of Mexico was not worth [visiting]."
Jorge Contreras, a manufacturer who heads a citizens’ council monitoring security efforts, recalls the day when 10 people he knew were being held hostage by kidnappers. A cousin was murdered by his abductors. So was a woman who lived in the house over his back wall.
Contreras sent his wife and children to live in El Paso, but he stayed on in Juarez. He never went anywhere without a team of bodyguards. Families remained in only two of the 20 houses on his street, he says.
While logical, the mass flight delayed Juarez’s recovery, Contreras says. The lack of sustained citizen pressure delayed officials' crackdown on the corruption nurturing the gangs.
“In Mexico people don’t give a damn," Contreras says of attitudes that fostered Juarez’s crisis. "One in 100 want to get involved in improving their community.”
The years of criminal siege may have changed such thinking.
The Herrera brothers kept Maria Chuchena running with a skeleton staff, managing it from north of the border. The branch they opened in El Paso never really took off.
Herrera says he finally decided to return to Juarez in late 2011. Six gangland murders a day still were being notched at the time. But Herrera bet that things were improving.
He did not do it quietly. Herrera organized an eight-course dinner for 180 people, featuring dishes from across Mexico. A handful of celebrity chefs from Mexico City and elsewhere flew in to help.
“All of a sudden you start to get amazed at new things that are so old,” Herrera says of the border city's growing interest in regional Mexican cuisines.
“Customers were so happy. They said what a good thing that we can go out at night for dinner again.”
It took months for the restaurant's business to recover. But Herrera sees that dinner two years ago as the tipping point in the return of both Juarez and his faith in the city’s future.
Violence continues — the city may clock nearly 500 murders this year. Yet Herrera's optimism seems matched by many others.
Some foreign-owned factories, the “maquiladoras,” allow managers to sleep in Juarez hotels and venture out after dark. Kids and their parents, including from across the border, have begun choosing Juarez for a night out.
New restaurants have opened along the street near Maria Chuchena and in other upscale areas. Nightclubs have reopened even in areas that had suffered massacres in the worst times.
Crowds flock to local festivals and live broadcast screenings of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Juarez's annual 100-kilometer “Chupacabras” bicycle race through the mountains and desert drew a record 5,000 contestants last month.
“People want to be involved. They want to be part of whatever there is,” Herrera says. “I see it within my family. I see it within my friends.
“We feel safe,” he says.