Mexican drug war capital renames itself "heroic"

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico Fri May 20, 2011 12:39pm EDT

People carry a placard in the shape of a skeleton with a gun made out of carton during a protest outside the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez March 5, 2011. REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez

People carry a placard in the shape of a skeleton with a gun made out of carton during a protest outside the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez March 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Gael Gonzalez

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico's most violent city, Ciudad Juarez, where more than 9,000 people have died in a horrifying drug war since 2008, is renaming itself Heroica Ciudad Juarez, or Heroic City of Juarez.

Without even a hint of irony, the Chihuahua state Congress, which legislates for Ciudad Juarez, has voted in the name change to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the border city's role in the downfall of a Mexican dictator and the revolution it fueled.

In a ceremony on Saturday due to be attended by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, state and city leaders will celebrate the city's new name as part of three weeks of festivities to mark the decisive battle on May 8, 1911 when rebels defeated troops loyal to strongman Porfirio Diaz.

The past glories contrast with the forlorn, desert city's image not just for the drug war but for the unresolved murders of hundreds of young, poor women since 1993. Ciudad Juarez's desolate streets and prison-like houses are a world away from the glittering shopping malls of El Paso, Texas, visible through the through the wire fence marking the border between the world's richest nation and its struggling southern neighbor.

"This is an alternative to the defamatory way the city has been treated," state lawmaker Enrique Serrano, who voted for the name change, told reporters this month.

It was not immediately clear if the new name will be used on maps of Mexico and on official federal documents.

The city was named by Diaz himself in honor of Mexico's most famous president, Benito Juarez, who in 1865 briefly took refuge here with his republican forces during the French invasion of the country.

A marble plaque on a museum restored for the celebrations describes the city -- a dismal mass of assembly plants, slum housing and shop fronts emblazoned with graffiti -- as "the indomitable land of opportunities, friendly and generous."

But in a place beset by executions, where children have been beheaded by deranged teenage gunmen and where blood is scrubbed off the sidewalks on a daily basis, many residents find the whole thing offensive.

"These politicians are trying to manipulate things so that the violence doesn't see the light of day. They want to straighten things out, but they are not going to do it like this," said 30-year-old electrician Carlos Martinez, standing by a recently restored building from the Diaz era.

A war between the rival Juarez and Sinaloa cartels over control of Ciudad Juarez's smuggling routes into the United States has reached terrifying levels since early 2008, when Calderon sent thousands of troops and police to try to contain the violence.

Efforts have so far been unsuccessful, and more than 230,000 residents have fled the city over the past three years. This has ended a growth boom fueled by U.S. free trade and reduced Ciudad Juarez' population to around 1.3 million.

(Writing by Robin Emmott: Editing by David Lawder)

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