To be honest, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about visiting Ciudad Juarez. Perceptions can do that to you. Color your opinions. Sway your feelings. Paint a picture in your head that may, or may not, have anything to do with its reality.

That’s how it was between me and Ciudad Juarez. Here’s the thing. I’ve binged on The Bridge on television. I sat in my local multiplex for a matinee showing of Sicario. I’ve listened to the music of At the Drive-In. I’ve been on more than one Southwest flight leaving El Paso and flying directly over one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. And I’ve seen the news reports over the last 10 years of drug cartel violence throughout Mexico, but especially within Juarez.

It all added up to a pretty scary picture. A picture I was more than willing to hold as the truth until I learned that we had signed Ciudad Juarez as a client. It was now our job to take the perception I just described and turn it around. Mold it into a narrative that describes today’s realities while acknowledging yesterday’s reputation.

  1. Perception and persuasion are what we do, after all. But this was uncharted territory for me. Did I have the wrong idea about the city? Was the reality of Juarez in direct opposition to my media-fed beliefs? I was about to find out.

The project began last December in a conference room in our Las Vegas office. I spent the better part of a day with 11 representatives from Juarez (and probably 10 or 11 of us – the room was pretty crowded) talking about challenges, goals and aspirations for their city. The day was a revelation. The people from Juarez were a joy – smart, friendly, articulate, open, and most importantly – honest. They were under no illusions. They knew their city was suffering from a problem of perception. And they fully acknowledged that, during the worst days of cartel violence, their reputation was well earned.

But in the course of that day, while we worked on the messaging strategies to begin convincing business owners and site selectors that Juarez is a hard-working city that deserves a closer look as a smart, and safe, place to do business, they managed to convince me that the situation in their city is changing. While still not perfect, the violence and the threats have decreased significantly over the past five or six years. And the attributes that make the city a strategically solid location for certain types of businesses (primarily manufacturing and distribution, with aspirations to high-tech in the near future) were still very much in place.

So on that day, we all agreed: Our first priority is changing the conversation from what’s wrong with Juarez to what’s right with the city.

Jump forward in time a month. The initial strategic work was done. Now it was time to travel to Juarez and present our recommendations. And as I’ve already stated, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about traveling into the city that once had the highest murder rate in North America. But there are times when you just have to journey into the belly of the beast − only to discover the beast isn’t so scary after all.

IMG_0272 The day began in a conference room inside the city’s sparkling new children’s museum. That facility alone almost re-wrote the entire narrative for me. It is a children’s museum that any city – I repeat, any city – would be immensely proud to call their own. It was staffed by a professional and courteous team and by 10 that morning, was filled with the voices of hundreds of school kids there on field trips to learn about their city, their history, their environment and their heritage. It was no coincidence that this beautiful new facility was the site for our meeting. It was stunning physical proof of all arguments we will soon be making on their behalf.
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After the presentation came a tour of the city. I would never go so far as to describe Ciudad Juarez as beautiful. But it isn’t frightening or depressing either. It’s clear that this is a city that works for a living. We saw wide streets, working-class neighborhoods, familiar brand names (Buffalo Wild Wings, McDonald’s) and many of the horizontal two- and three-story factories, or maquiladoras, that are the center of its economy. And throughout, there were people out and about, going about their daily lives. The fears of six or seven years ago were nowhere in evidence. We ended the day driving past the university and touring an exciting new technology center that will help lead them into the future. I never felt less than completely safe.

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The day ended with an hour-and-a-half wait at the border checkpoint to get back across the Rio Grande (or the Rio Bravo, if you’re on the Mexican side of it) and into the United States. While we were waiting, I asked the polite and well-spoken young woman who had been tasked with driving me back to El Paso what exactly had happened to quell so much of the violence. She said that the law-abiding leaders of the city and its business community had simply decided enough was enough and slowly but surely, they were taking their city back. Showing my natural skepticism, I asked if it was also the result of one of the two warring cartels actually winning and driving their rivals out of the city. She admitted that was a big factor as well. I’m guessing it’s some combination of the two.

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But in the end, does it really matter? The fact is, that while still battling many issues, Ciudad Juarez is definitely a city on its way back. Its citizens combine a powerful work ethic with resilience and pride that have allowed them to create a new reality that lies in stark contrast to the violent and negative perceptions.

I was able to see that on my day in Juarez. Now it’s time for us to help them show that reality to the rest of the world.