CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - Their home city has become famous as the most violent in Mexico and their key striker is a former gang member who has spent time in prison and worked illegally in the United States. Welcome to Ciudad Juarez, the first division club that has humbled Mexico's top-flight giants, despite paying the league's lowest wages and playing in a border town embroiled in the country's gruesome war on drugs. Usually known by their nickname Indios (Indians), Cuidad Juarez have emerged the unlikeliest of success stories in their first season in division one, ousting power clubs America and Guadalajara on their way to the semi-finals of the national championship. Their Sunday defeat of champions Toluca in the quarter-finals upstaged the weekend's estimated 20 murders as the town's main talking point. Indios will host Pachuca, another established club, in the first leg of their semi-final on Thursday. "For us, they're champions already," said housewife Adelina Terrazas as she queued to buy tickets for the game. "We needed an escape from so much violence, and from living behind closed doors." Patrolled by the federal police and some 10,000 army troops, Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso in Texas, has become a flashpoint in Mexico's drugs war, which claimed 6,300 lives last year, a quarter of them in and around the city. Shootouts on street corners are part of day-to-day life and few people venture out onto the streets after dark. Indios fans call themselves The Cartel in a nod to the city's reputation. INFLUENTIAL BUSINESSMAN Unlike Mexico City-based heavyweights, Indios cannot afford big-name foreign signings and their top scorer is the once little known Daniel Frias. "I was involved in gangs, I spent time in a youth prison ... then I went to work illegally in the United States and afterwards I was given a chance with Indios," the 30-year-old striker, who has scored five goals in the championship, told Reuters. Formed in 2005, when influential local businessman Francisco Ibarra bought and revamped second division franchise Pachuca Juniors, Ciudad Juarez won promotion last year but initially appeared to be out of their depth. Facing relegation until about two months ago, a late rally saw them scrape into the quarter-finals. Now cars drive around the town with Indios flags hanging from windows and the Koyero, a red headband worn by the Tarahumara Indians who inhabit the region, has become the latest fashion accessory. Fans hope Indios will not just be a one-season wonder. Success in Latin American soccer often quickly breeds failure, particularly among small clubs, as top players are sold off to bigger rivals or to European and Middle Eastern clubs. Locals hope Ibarra, who made his fortune in the construction industry, will keep investing in the club. "If Ibarra doesn't put in the money, then the club will disappear and it's the only fun that there is here in Juarez, the only good thing," said 46-year-old burrito cook Jaime Meraz.
21 May 2009
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