Mexico’s rural Juarez Valley is said to have the highest murder rate in the country, if not the world, the Texas Observer reports. Farmers proudly say it was once known for its cotton, which rivaled Egypt's. That was before the growth of Juarez's factories in the 1990s left farmers downstream with nothing but foul-smelling sludge to irrigate their fields. After that, the only industry that thrived was drug smuggling. Because of the valley's sparse population and location along the Rio Grande's dried up riverbed, a person can easily drive or walk into Texas loaded down with marijuana and cocaine.
For decades, this lucrative smuggling corridor, or “plaza,” was controlled by the Juarez cartel. In 2008, Mexico's largest syndicate—the Sinaloa cartel, declared war on the Juarez cartel and moved in to take over the territory. The federal government sent in the military to quell the violence. Instead the murder rate in the state of Chihuahua exploded. So much blood was shed in Juarez that few outside the region noticed the violence spilling into the rural valley to the east, where killings and atrocities began to occur on a daily basis. Police officers, political leaders, and community activists were shot down in the streets. By 2009, the valley, with a population of 20,000, had a shocking murder rate of 1,600 per 100,000 inhabitants. In one gruesome stretch in 2010, several valley residents were stabbed in the face with ice picks, and a local man aligned with the Juarez cartel was skewered with an iron bar, riddled with bullets, then roasted over an open fire. Newspapers began to call the rural farming region the “Valley of Death.”