Friday, December 25, 2009

Mexico's Drug War Brings More Carnage To Border

Mexico's Drug War Brings More Carnage To Border

Published December 25, 2009 7:10 PM

Mexico's brutal drug war has played out all across the country. But no place has been as hard hit as Ciudad Juarez, the industrial city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Juarez is a city torn apart by more than just murder. It is a city struggling unsuccessfully to find hope in a place flooded with heavily armed security forces, but where most people say they don't feel secure.

The wave of killings that has grown steadily over the last two years has spawned a secondary crime wave of kidnapping and extortion. The violence has left the city in a state of shock.

In downtown Juarez, Diana Martinez placed a small black cross with the name of her brother on a memorial banner to the thousands of people killed since 2007.

"I think we are now living in a state of paranoia," Martinez says. "All of the inhabitants of Ciudad Juarez, even the children. It's something that's completely upturned our lives. I don't feel secure in the street or even in my house."

Her brother, Rafael, sold used cars. He was gunned down in May in what Martinez believes was a robbery.

"He was a very young man — 24 years old," she says. "He leaves behind a family and three kids. It's a tragedy just like the thousands and thousands of tragedies that are repeating here every day in Juarez."

His twins, who are turning 6 this year, still don't really understand that their father is dead, she says. Even when they go to his grave they seem to think he is away on a business trip.

Unfulfilled Promises

Officials had promised things would get better in Juarez this year. Throughout 2008, two of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels fought for control of smuggling routes into El Paso.

In 2009, the Mexican military took over the Juarez police department. President Felipe Calderon sent in thousands of federal police and soldiers to regain control of the city of 1.5 million people. But the violence has only gotten worse.

Almost 2,600 people have been killed in Juarez this year, making it the murder capital of the hemisphere and giving it a per capita homicide rate more than 17 times greater than that of Los Angeles.

"The last two years have been just unbelievable — the level of violence we are living each day. The level of violence is just incredible," says Nelson Armenta, who runs a small seafood restaurant in downtown Juarez.

After Armenta was held up twice in one month, he hired a security guard to twirl a baton in front of his restaurant.

"These young guys, you know, 17 years old carrying guns. That got us worried. That's why we got the security guard," Armenta says.

Mexican soldiers with automatic weapons also patrol in front of his restaurant. Truckloads of federal police with machine guns mounted on their pickups roll through the streets, but the violence has been increasing.

Every day, Armenta reads in the paper about businesses getting shot up or burned down for not paying bribes demanded of them.

"As a businessman, I used to be afraid. I used to be afraid that something might happen to our families — kidnap, ransoms, extortions," he says. "And we just realized that we cannot be afraid of that. I mean, it's not about religion, but it's about faith. It's about, if that happens, well the least we can do is just move on."

City Of Dreams

To Americans Juarez may look like the ugly, dusty, beat-up stepsister of El Paso. But to poor Mexicans, it's a land of promise.

For decades people have flocked to the low-paying but plentiful jobs in the border factories called maquiladoras. Each day a long-line of job seekers extends outside the state attorney general's office as people apply to undergo mandatory criminal background checks for employment.

Other enterprising souls are hawking burritos, tacos and cold drinks to the people stranded in line.

Yet at the same time that the city's murder rate has skyrocketed, so has unemployment.

Jorge Podrosa, executive director of local association of maquiladoras, says the global economic downturn hit the Juarez factories incredibly hard.

"Since 2008 to 2009, we lost around 125,000 jobs," Podrosa says. That represents an almost 50-percent decline in factory jobs, the city's main source of legal employment.

Tourism is also down, a result of tighter border controls and the bad publicity generated by the deadly drug war. The U.S. military has ordered its personnel not to enter Juarez without special permission. Despite the restriction, a U.S. airman was gunned down along with five other people in a Juarez strip club in November.

The city is trying to confront the situation. The mayor has doubled the size of the local police force. He also has opened subsidized day care centers for the children of factory workers.

'A Trash Can'

But Clara Rojas, who teaches political rhetoric at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, predicts it will take decades for the city to recover.

The violence stems from deep social fissures, she says, and until those are fixed she predicts the killings will continue.

She traces the roots of the current violence to the murders of hundreds of women in the 1990s that are still unsolved. Most of the victims were young women, many of them factory workers or students, murdered and in some cases tortured and sexually abused.

Rojas says that impunity for that wave of killings sent a signal to the drug cartels and other thugs that Juarez is "fertile ground" for criminal activity.

"There is no way you can change anything if everybody thinks this city is a trash can for whatever they want to do," Rojas says.

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