Sunday, October 4, 2009

Life and Death in Juárez, the World's Murder Capital

Ed Vulliamy reports from the Mexican city where death squads roam the
streets at night and criminal anarchy reigns

Ed Vulliamy | The Observer, Sunday 4 October 2009
Ciudad Juarez, 16 September

The executioners burst through the gates of the Anexo de Vida (Annexe
of Life) drug rehabilitation centre at almost the exact moment that
Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, and mayors across the country,
including the one in Juárez, rang bells to proclaim the 199th
anniversary of independence from Spain.

Next morning the courtyard was still full of the bittersweet stench of
fresh blood congealing in pools. The killers threw a grenade into the
first room on their right, occupied by a 16-year-old guard. They had
soaked up his blood into the soles of their boots and stamped it
around in footprints that anyone who cared to might examine. But no
one did care to.

The carnage divided, along each side of the courtyard. To their left,
the killers entered the room of the centre's director, who made it
outside, where the pond of his blood putrefied on the cement. Next
were the quarters of his deputy, a woman. Her blood was flecked across
a floral bedspread and smeared the sofa on to which she collapsed.

The death squad moved past the main dormitory, to which a former
patient returned to pick up the tools and shoes he left behind the
previous night. "I slept over there," he said. "We were watching the
boxing on TV. We heard the explosion, then shooting, and hid under the
mattresses. The whole thing took no more than about two minutes."

Outside the Enfermería, the medical centre, was another pool of blood
and the wall was pitted with bullet holes. Inside the infirmary was a
puddle of blood by the door, but whoever shed it forced a desperate
way out. His blood was splattered across the bullet-riddled wall as he
staggered outside to die in a spot now labelled Cuerpo F (body F). To
the rear of this clinic reception were bunk beds, more blood, and a
label reading Cuerpo H. There was no record of Cuerpos A, B, C, D, E
and G…

This killing of between 10 and 13 people (the number varied according
to the source ) on the celebration night of El Grito (the
"independence cry") helped take the number of executions in Juárez in
September above 300. That gruesome threshold was also crossed in
August, so that these became the bloodiest months in the city's
history, escalating the tally for 2009 to more than 1,800. In 2008 a
total of 1,600 died.

Another morning in Juárez, population 1.6 million and as of this month
the most murderous city in the world. Another 12 victims died on the
first day of October, five in one machine-gun attack.

Last April the mayor of Juárez, José Reyes Ferriz, pledged that this
city would become "a national model" in combating drug violence. And
last week at a conference in El Paso, across the Rio Grande in Texas,
he insisted that corruption was being rooted out and the killers were
being apprehended.

Juárez is supposed to be the showcase of Calderón's declaration of war
on Mexico's drug cartels, a city now occupied by 10,000 troops and
legions of paramilitary federal police, as well as the state and
municipal forces, columns of which have traditionally been aligned
with the Juárez drug cartel.

But the carnage has intensified despite successive military
reinforcements in March, May and June. What is going on in this border
metropolis?

Gustavo De La Rosa is a leading member of the team of investigating
ombudsmen working in Juárez for the Chihuahua human rights commission,
the state offshoot of a national government agency. Last week he
became the most senior public official to flee Mexico for El Paso,
after threats to his life.

Many people have fled Mexico's drug war to seek asylum in the US, but
they faced threats from the narcos; De La Rosa was threatened by, and
is in flight from, the Mexican army. On his second night in exile, De
La Rosa ate a meal with his son and daughter before bidding them
goodbye, across the bridge. "Thank God they haven't threatened my
family," he sighed. He is now planning his next move away from Juárez.

"I have to work out what to do," he said, "consider the risks, whether
to return or live with the fact that my work will disappear". The
"work" includes cases in which he believes the Mexican army is
responsible for some of the plentiful homicides and disappearances.

An intermediary in Juárez through whom De La Rosa communicates with
the military commander, General Jorge Juárez Loera, urged him to stay
away from the city.

"The threat was direct," said De La Rosa. "I was told by soldiers
while pulling up at a traffic light that if I did not leave I would be
killed. Later I learned that the general had told my boss, 'Get that
man out of Chihuahua'."

De La Rosa's flight complicates a shorthand version of Mexico's drug
war, which began in December 2006 after Calderón dispatched the army
to try to break the cartels' power and end smuggling to the US – a war
that has since cost about 15,000 lives. The simple account is that a
federation of narco cartels, each with its own plaza, or turf, along
the border, broke up into rival syndicates, which violently contested
and divided up the frontier region bordering Texas and Arizona.

But in Juárez, the murderous kernel of the war, the city has imploded
into a state of what one of the few journalists left working seriously
here, Julian Cardona, has for some time reported as "criminal anarchy"
rather than a neatly mapped cartel war; what De La Rosa calls "martial
law, without the law".

Juárez has long been a laboratory for the entanglement of legal and
illegal markets. It was the pioneer city for maquiladora factories
that line the border – sweatshops manufacturing goods for US
companies, paying wages that create a developing world economy
conveniently across the river from Texas. A decade ago Juárez became
famous for the widely publicised kidnap, violation, mutilation and
murder of hundreds of young women, many of whom worked in the
maquiladoras.

And the city was the bastion of another pioneering multinational
corporation: the Juárez cartel – during the 1990s, according to the US
Drug Enforcement Administration, the biggest single trafficker of
narcotics in the world. The cartel and maquila managers were
neighbours in the richer neighbourhoods, their economies inseparable.

Recently both markets have changed dramatically. The quantity of drugs
smuggled across the border is now dwarfed by that to supply
catastrophic domestic addiction. The Juárez cartel thereby fragmented
into a federation of criminal enterprises called La Línea, running
street gangs called the Aztecas. Against them, other gangs contest
both the export and domestic markets.

The result is a lethal lack of order, even among the criminals of
Juárez. Antonio Brijones, former member of a gang called Calle Jon,
who now tries to redirect criminal energy into positive social action
after many of his friends were killed, said: "No one knows who they
are selling drugs for, who they are killing, or for which cartel."

This splintered market creates even more addicts cutting and selling
drugs to feed their own habits. The Juárez-born journalist Ignacio
Alvarado says, with hollow humour: "The collapse of the old narco
pyramids has made the drug business much more democratic. There has
been de-monopolisation, outsourcing to the street and stimulus to the
free market – which of course generates great freedom of opportunity."

Meanwhile, at the top of the tree, managers of the maquiladoras –
faced with recession and competition from Asia – needed fewer workers,
spewing their surplus humanity (which flocked here from all over
Mexico) into the new narco-economy of "opportunities" for murder,
extortion and kidnapping.

But who are the death squads and who are their victims? In hiding,
initially holed up at a motel near the border – the lights of Juárez
twinkling to the edge of the desert horizon beyond – De La Rosa sought
to give an answer. He noted that "the majority of those killed or
kidnapped are malandros: down-and-outs, urchins, petty criminals and
addicts" – waste products of the Juárez marketplace. "People of no
value in this war," he said, "no use to any cartel; desperate, below
poverty whose death has no explanation, except as part of (and he uses
this term limpia social, social cleansing) the extermination of the
lowest of the low."

Last April General Juárez Loera, commander of the 11th military
region, to which Juárez belongs, all but endorsed De La Rosa's view
when he urged the assembled media at a press conference: "I would like
to see the reporters change their articles and where they say 'one
more murdered person', instead say, 'one less criminal'."

De La Rosa mapped out what he saw as the dramatis personae of
execution in Juárez. "First, there are sicarios working for the
cartels – who fire a few bullets, or 60 bullets, through a small hole
at their specific target". Then there are barrio-based gang killers,
who federate against one another on behalf of the cartels.

But then, said De La Rosa, "there are execution squads, another breed
forensically killing malandros, planned assassinations of the
unwanted. And if we look at exactly how they are done, they are
experts in killing characteristic of training by the army or police.

"I do not think these killings are the work of sicarios, because I
don't think that anyone would want to pay the money the cartel
sicarios charge to kill malandros. Sicarios kill members of the rival
cartel; you wouldn't need a sicario to kill malandros in a
rehabilitation centre or abandoned house taking drugs.

"I'm not saying," insisted De La Rosa, "that the army is directly
killing these people. But, in a city living in a culture of
delinquency, soldiers become part of that culture. I kept a map and
watched how these squads move across the army checkpoints without
hindrance. Until I was told to stop."

De La Rosa was in effect fired. He had opened detailed investigations
into 10 homicides he believed were committed by the army and 14
kidnappings or disappearances. "These cases," he said, proceeded in
theory "from my office to the state prosecutor, thence to the military
authorities in the city and an internal army investigations office in
Mazatlán, Sinaloa. From there, not a single file ever got to the
examining judge".

By day Juárez is a city that appears almost normal – this is not the
Sarajevo or Grozny that visiting reporters expect. Shop windows are
prepared for Halloween, the local Indios football team struggles
against relegation, children shriek with glee at a fun fair and there
are custom car races across the parking lot of a Del Rio supermarket
making the air smell with smoke from screeching tyres, not gunsmoke.
The singer Sarah Brightman was performing in town.

By night, it was always a place of naughtiness and dancing girls. But
now they dance pretty much to one another, under Juárez's self-imposed
curfew, when after dark bars or rehabilitation centres are attacked by
gunmen and death squads respectively. Two weeks before the
Independence Day slaughter at Anexo de Vida, another 17 recovering
addicts were executed at a rehab centre called Aliviane. The previous
week, 40 were killed in three days.

The mutilation and torture of those kidnapped in the continuing drug
war – whoever it is between now – is ever more inventive:
decapitations are de rigueur and a certain Sergio Saucedo was brought
forcibly from El Paso a fortnight ago, had his hands chopped off and
carefully placed on the chest of his body, found next morning. Last
week even a waif washing car windscreens at traffic lights was
executed.

As the heat of a desert sunrise bears down on the breeze-block walls
of the Visión En Acción asylum, casualties and refugees from the most
dangerous city in the world begin another day.

Marisol was a topless waitress before drugs fried her brain, Becky was
a nurse, despite being raped at 14, before she killed someone and was
jailed, and another man was a serious gang banger. But all three are
now commanders of their wards, and take charge of morning showers and
changing the nappies of those who wander about the yard screaming and
muttering to themselves, like Lucio, made blind by the narcotic
cocktails he was taking.

Manuel is recovering from severe drug abuse: when I met him last year,
he was sliding back into visions in which "the rapper, Mr Bone, tells
me to kill my mother and shows me the four little witches". Now,
Manuel is trying to recover through an interest in Thai boxing, but
when asked whether he might one day knock out Mr Bone, replies: "Yeah,
but I want to fuck the little witches. They are gringas, blonde and
very cute."

This defiant, miraculous centre was established by Pastor José Antonio
Galván, once a street-fighter in El Paso. It is overseen with rigour
by an extraordinary man called Josué Rosales – one-time heroin addict
who arrived close to death, now transformed into an asylum worker
manager and role model "building back the lives of people who were
like me. You need to have been there, and they need to know you have
been there". He adds: "We are just the little guys. Whoever runs this
killing are big guys and only God can beat the big guys."

These are the kind of people – not the politicians and speech-makers –
struggling to save Juárez, who work and sleep in hope for the future
they want to build. But who also sleep in mortal fear of who might
arrive any night, as they have done elsewhere – whoever they are,
behind their ski masks and the automatic fire tearing this once
mighty, charismatic and vibrant city to shreds.

Amexica: War Along the Borderline, by Ed Vulliamy, will be published
next year by Bodley Head, London; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New
York; and Tusquets, Madrid

Life and death in Juárez, the world's murder capital
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 00.05 BST on
Sunday 4 October 2009. It appeared in the Observer on Sunday 4 October
2009 on p36 of the News section. It was last updated at 01.52 BST on
Sunday 4 October 2009.

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