Residents of Mexican city learn to live with death as industrial hub turns into battlefield

By Julie Watson, AP
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fear dominates life in Mexico’s deadliest city

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — “Not one person murdered yesterday,” Ciudad Juarez’s leading newspaper proclaimed in a banner headline. It was big news in this border city, ground zero in the drug war — the first time in 10 months that a day had passed without a killing.

But by the end of that day, Oct. 30, nine more people were riddled with bullets.

Violent death is a part of life in Ciudad Juarez, a seedy, dust-cloaked metropolis on the banks of the Rio Grande. Bloodied bodies hang from overpasses, and children walking to school stumble across hit men filling targets with lead.

While there’s no definitive comparison of murder rates in cities around the world, there’s no question Ciudad Juarez is now among the deadliest. It has had about 2,250 killings this year, a rate of 173 per 100,000 residents. That compares with 37 in Baltimore, the deadliest U.S. city with a population of more than 500,000.

The violence began in earnest in early 2008, when Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Juarez Cartel boss Vicente Carrillo Fuentes launched a deeply personal fight over drug routes their organizations had long shared. Both have lost family members in the fight, and have adopted increasingly brutal tactics as it drags on.

Thousands of troops and federal police rolled into the city by May 2008 to stop the violence, and this year President Felipe Calderon sent in even more, with more than 7,000 soldiers in place by March. The killings tapered off, but soon rebounded: As the drug seizures hurt traffickers’ incomes, they turned to kidnapping, bank robberies and carjackings.

“The city is dying,” said Daniel Murguia, president of the local chapter of National Chamber of Commerce, who uses thick steel bars and surveillance cameras to protect his chain of laundromats.

“For Rent” signs cover the doors of the cavernous nightclubs that once drew thousands of revelers across the border from El Paso, Texas. Most Juarez youths — spooked by the shootouts at malls, bars and discos — socialize only in the safety of friends’ homes.

The only businesses that are thriving are funeral homes, opulent two-story buildings with mirrored-glass facades and gilded caskets that have handled twice as many victims of violence as they did in 2008 — and seven times more than in 2007.

Mothers tell daughters to run stoplights at night rather than risk being carjacked. Even in daylight, drivers dare not glance over at the next car, especially if it’s an SUV with tinted windows and no plates. Newspaper hawkers hold front-page photos of tortured bodies to their windshields as a reminder to mind their own business.

This year’s dead include university professors, an honor student and waiters caught in the crossfire when their customers were shot.

Even emergency rooms, where doctors try desperately to save the victims, are not immune. Dr. Alberto Rios was in surgery last month when gunmen barged in with assault rifles drawn, looking for two men wounded in an earlier shootout.

Doctors and nurses ran screaming for cover. Patients scrambled from their beds, taking their IVs with them. Some fainted.

The gunmen left after they couldn’t find the men, who were armed and hiding in a bathroom.

“We all have a relative, a friend who has been killed,” said Rios, whose 17-year-old nephew died in a shootout in July. “This won’t end until one gang is in power.”

For decades, Ciudad Juarez has been a magnet for poor Mexicans seeking work at massive factories that make flat-screen TVs, steering wheels and other goods bound for the U.S. That mix of opportunity and poverty fueled the killings of hundreds of women whose bodies were dumped in the desert, earning Juarez notoriety in the 1990s.

But the level of drug-related violence remained at a simmer until two years ago, when Mayor Jose Reyes told federal authorities about a conversation overheard in a bar: the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels were going to war.

That war broke out on Jan. 5, 2008, when five men were shot up with high-powered assault rifles in a span of hours. Within days, several police officers and nearly two dozen others were dead as well.

As the cartels moved beyond drugs, crime rates doubled in some cases, overwhelming the city’s small, poorly equipped and corrupt police force, Reyes told The Associated Press.

Mexico’s justice system was not ready either. Judges threw out cases for lack of evidence or because confessions were extracted by torture. Innocent people were jailed while murderers served time for lesser crimes such as arms and drug possession because prosecutors could not present convincing cases.

A retired general has since taken over the police force, purging it of corrupt cops and then doubling its size with military-trained officers who hit the streets about a month ago.

But residents are fed up. Civic groups are organizing a massive march Sunday to demand local and federal officials take drastic actions to get results.

The Chamber of Commerce, which says 6,000 businesses have closed this year alone, has asked the United Nations to send in peacekeepers. Calderon rejected the idea, saying Mexico can handle its own problems.

Even so, the president acknowledges his anti-drug strategy has seen spotty results.

“There are areas of the country where we are clearly imposing the Mexican government’s law, like Tijuana or Michoacan, for example,” Calderon told the Televisa network. “There are other areas where that is not happening, like Ciudad Juarez.”

On a recent afternoon, at one of the city’s busiest intersections, four police officers from the state capital of Chihuahua City stopped for gas before heading to testify against Sinaloa Cartel members.

Hit men pulled up and fired nearly 100 rounds. Bullets ricocheted off the front of a convenience store across the street as some bystanders cried. An attendant at the gas station was killed, along with two of the officers.

A pair of students in school uniforms walked over to get a better view of the bodies lying next to the gas pumps.

“I’ve seen bodies near my house, on the way to school, outside my work,” said Jose Luis Chavez, 17. “It’s no longer weird to see dead people.”

will not be displayed