By Mark Potter, NBC News Correspondent
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- For more than a year, the headlines from this historic city just south of El Paso, Texas, were horrifying. Drug-related violence, including torture and beheadings, had consumed the area, forcing many citizens, police and local officials to live in fear for their lives.
Last year alone, 1,607 people were killed in Juarez as rival Mexican drug cartels fought among themselves and against the authorities for control of the lucrative smuggling routes from Mexico to the United States. Last month, the average murder rate had climbed to as high as 10 a day. But a tipping point was reached recently when the brazen traffickers forced the Juarez police chief to resign. They did it by following through on a threat to kill a city officer every 48 hours until the chief stepped down. The assassins also posted signs in town saying the mayor was next.
That last threat is where the traffickers seem to have made a critical error. Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz (pictured below) wasn't backing down and wouldn't go away. Instead, he fought back.With his city spinning out of control, Mayor Ferriz called for help and got a quick response from the federal government in Mexico City. President Felipe Calderon ordered 5,000 military troops to head immediately for Juarez, reinforcing 2,000 more soldiers already in the area. Some 2,000 federal police officers were also sent in. Their first mission was to take over the local police departments, where corruption ran rampant and more than half of the 1,700-officer force had already been fired and replaced.
Photo by Carlos Rigau
Click here to watch Juarez Mayor Reyes Ferriz and University of Texas El Paso Professor Howard Campbell discuss the drug war being fought on the streets of Juarez, Mexico and the drastic measures being taken to stop it.
Today, the city is under virtual military occupation, but is also a much safer and quieter place. A retired military commander has taken over the police forces and his troops are everywhere, patrolling the streets day and night.
During a visit to Juarez last week, photographer Carlos Rigau and I met with the mayor at his heavily guarded office at city hall. We, along with his bodyguards, also watched as Mayor Reyes talked with residents at a city bus stop downtown. The feedback Reyes got from those commuters was that they felt more at ease now, freer to go about their business without fear, especially at night.
The numbers tell an interesting story. As noted earlier, the average murder rate has skyrocketed to 10 a day. But, according to the mayor, as soon as it was announced the troops were on their way, the killing rate plummeted to one a day, and after the soldiers arrived two weeks ago, there has hardly been any killing at all.
While there is much to celebrate about the violence being ended, there are also many concerns and questions to answer. First and foremost is the fact it took military force to bring order in a neighboring democracy. The situation in Juarez was so out of control and the corruption so widespread that civilian authorities and the criminal justice system had been rendered powerless.
Photo by Mark Potter
There are also worries that soldiers often don't make the best policemen, because their training is for a more brutal mission. Human rights activists are on alert.
Mayor Reyes promises the troops will be in Juarez for no more than a year, serving there only until the local police department can be retrained and doubled in size. He argues that it was absolutely necessary to regain control of the city and to reduce the violence--a mission that only the federal government and the military could have performed.
Today there is a calm in Juarez and a sense of relief. There are also grave concerns about how long it will remain quiet and about what happens when the troops finally pack up their weapons and leave town.