epa-efeCiudad Juarez, Mexico

A stairway of tires leads to a pair of small, improvised houses made from wood, cardboard and plastics: a common sight in the shantytowns springing up around this city just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

More than a hundred such ramshackle homes make up this informal settlement on Arroyo del Muerto Street.

The two homes that belong to Blanca Garcia and Margarita Sanchez, respectively, sit amid rusty car parts, old chairs, abandoned toys, boxes with clothes and a washing machine that shakes violently when it's in use.

Margarita, 32, who has been living here for more than five years with her husband and their five children, told EFE that they took possession of the territory "because we wanted a piece of land, a house for ourselves and to stop paying rent."

Blanca, a 24-year-old mother of three children, said that she spent the last year living in the house, which previously belonged to her mother.

Sitting on a wooden bench outside Blanca's home, in the shade of a lone tree, they said that only last December did the city install lighting on the still-unpaved street.

Though no longer in the dark, the families of Arroyo del Muerto still lack basic services such as water and sewers, electricity, garbage collection, direct access to public transport and security.

The women say that the neighborhood's leader has already started the process to get water and sewer service. In Mexico, that process can take years, especially for neighborhoods built without permits or authorization.

Set at a discreet distance from the homes is a small wooden structure that serves as a communal latrine and both mothers blame the lack of sanitation for the chronic gastrointestinal distress that afflicts their children.

Due to lack of money, Blanca says it is difficult to take the kids to a specialist for treatment. While Margarita says she is in a similar situation after her husband lost his job due to an illness that remains undiagnosed and untreated

With her husband out of work, Margarita puts food on the table by selling second-hand clothes at a local flea market, but the most she has ever made in a day is 200 pesos ($10.60).

According to the Atlas of Natural Risks, a document prepared by the Municipal Research and Planning Institute, irregular settlements began to form in the city in the 1990s, while 2001 marked the start of "uncontrolled growth" eastward from Ciudad Juarez.

The director of the civic group Strategic Plan of Juarez, Sergio Meza de Anda, told EFE that while the city has at least 110,000 abandoned homes, the municipal government continues to authorize the construction of new developments, complicating the work of bringing basic services to the shantytowns.

Favia Lucero