Monday, April 5, 2010

Dark days in Juarez Routineness of execution scenes is only first among the ills that criminal cartels have visited on city life

This piece was researched and written by UT Professor Ricardo Ainslie.

Note that José Reyes Ferriz, mayor of Juárez, will be in Austin on April 12 for a panel discussion on the violence in his city.

The event is free and open to the public. 2:30 p.m., Santa Rita Room, Texas Union 3.502.


Dark days in Juarez
Routineness of execution scenes is only first among the ills that criminal cartels have visited on city life

By Ricardo Ainslie
Updated: 1:27 a.m. Sunday, April 4, 2010
Published: 10:07 a.m. Saturday, April 3, 2010

Last year, approximately 2,660 people were murdered in the streets of Juárez. Most of the victims are linked to the war that is raging between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels, but facts are elusive; in Juárez it is all but impossible to know the reasons why any particular person has been executed or who killed them.

Despite the presence of 10,000 army soldiers and federal police agents, the executions continue to run at a high pitch. And the cartels kill with near perfect impunity: Only a handful of the nearly 5,000 executions that have taken place in Juárez since December 2006 (when the current Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, took office and launched the war against the Mexican cartels) have been solved. This only fuels the sense of vulnerability, helplessness and anger that most Juarenzes are living with on a daily basis.

Two of the three people with ties to the U.S. Consulate in Juárez who were executed last month were murdered in broad daylight within yards of the ever-congested International Bridge. The killings take place all over the city, from forlorn, trash-strewn lots to upscale shopping malls. Everyone feels the violence, and most have witnessed it in one of its myriad manifestations, from highly choreographed, disciplined operations carried out by well-trained hit teams, to raw, chaotic AK-47 encounters on neighborhood street corners. They range from macabre, narcoterrorist beheadings to simple walk-up-to-the-car-and-blow-them-away murders. Whatever the form, the executions always translate into dozens of onlookers gazing warily past the yellow crime-scene tape at the victims (all too often in plain view) and their mourning families, not to mention the collection of army, federal police, municipal police, and forensics teams that form the ever-present backdrop to these sorrow-laden tableaus.

Fear is ever-present and palpable in this city. One day I called a priest's cell phone to schedule an interview. The priest's parish ministers to a part of the city known for its poverty and for numerous shooting galleries — the rundown houses that increasingly service local addicts now that the cartels have started dumping product locally. The voice on the other end said I had the wrong number. The next day I called the church and the woman who answered put the priest on the line. Of course he remembered me, he said, and he'd be delighted to continue our conversation. "May I get your cell number again," I asked, summarizing the wrong number incident of the previous day. "No," he said, "It was me. I just didn't recognize your number on the caller ID or your voice, and I've had so many death threats recently that I have to screen my calls."

Seventy percent of the streets in this colonia are unpaved and 40 percent of the homes lack running water. It is also known for being a narco stronghold, one of many in the city. The cartels do not look kindly on the priest's community activism. His vision competes with theirs; the cartels incubate in all of this misery and feed on the desperation it yields.

The cartels have turned up the heat on the city's population in other ways as well. As it has become more difficult for them to move product across the border, and as their operations are disrupted within Mexico by the government's actions, the cartels have diversified their business model to include kidnapping and extortion, in addition to retail drug sales, in order to make up for lost revenue.

Juárez is dotted with businesses that have been burned down for not paying the so-called cuota, the fee that local gangs affiliated with the cartels are charging businesses to operate. When Calderón visited Juárez on Feb. 17, business leaders complained that they were being eviscerated by the city's climate of violence and insecurity. High on their list of concerns was extortion: It has become an ever-present fact of life for businesses large and small. I was present at a meeting of the city's business community with Calderón's secretary of economy, Gerardo Ruiz Mateos. Those in attendance represented a broad range of business interests such as hotel owners, restaurant owners, car dealers, assembly plant owners and the small business association. Their common refrain: "We can pay our taxes, we can pay our employees, or we can pay the cuota, but we can't pay all three. We need protection for our businesses to stay open."

A few days earlier, El Norte, one of Juárez' newspapers, carried the following headline, "Even the juice and candy vendors in the street are having to pay the cuota." Everyone in Juárez feels at the mercy of the criminal elements that have swept the city.

One day in January, I arrived at the scene of a triple execution in a rundown neighborhood of dusty unpaved streets and bleached out, cinder block homes. Beyond the yellow crime-scene tape I could see a rather dilapidated auto repair shop where a man, his son, and the man's two sons-in-law worked on neighborhood cars. A group of hit men had entered the shop and killed all but one of the men: Only the son managed to escape alive, the other three lay dead inside the shop. Now, within the area that the army, federal police and municipal police have sealed off, the son stood staring blankly in the direction of the shop.

Most of the neighborhood appeared to be standing along the edges of the crime scene — children, their parents and grandparents, even the neighborhood dogs. The crowd peered toward the shop where the forensics team set out about a dozen yellow markers with bold black lettering that from a distance looked like oversize bumblebees hovering near the darkened entrance (the numbered markers noted the location of shell casings on the ground in front and inside of the shop).

Three soldiers walked past the son, and at that moment he lost control and lunged at the soldiers, shouting that they were worthless, that they were protecting no one, and hurling all manner of epithets at them. He was enraged in his state of shock, mourning and fear. Two friends restrained him as the soldiers stared back, braced for a confrontation. There was great tension in the air, and then the moment simply evaporated. The soldiers, fully acclimated to the horror, went about their crime scene routines. A woman next to me, a neighbor of the victims (they all lived on the same block), leaned over and whispered: "Too bad, they were good, hardworking people. The narcos got them because they couldn't afford the cuota."

In recent months, a growing number of the Juárez victims have been people killed for similar reasons. It is a reality that further erodes people's confidence in the institutions that are supposed to organize lives and protect people. I was struck by the observation that children were now playing with a ball at the crime scene, while some of the adults grew bored and drifted off into conversations about work and neighborhood chit chat, as they stood there idly, just 20 yards from the entrance to the shop where three victims of Juárez' violence lay dead. It was as if everyone was both horrified and yet strangely detached at the same time.

It makes me wonder if perhaps it is the only way for life to go on, the only way not to be overwhelmed by the ever-present tragedy, the tragedy that has enveloped this once proud city so thoroughly and completely, threatening to choke its vitality off once and for all.

Juárez mayor to visit

José Reyes Ferriz, mayor of Juárez, will be in Austin on April 12 for a panel discussion on the violence in his city.

The event is free and open to the public. 2:30 p.m., Santa Rita Room, Texas Union 3.502.

The author

Psychologist-psychoanalyst Ricardo Ainslie is a professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Texas. His most recent works include the documentary films 'Ya Basta! Kidnapped in Mexico' (2007) and 'Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder in Jasper, Texas' (2004). He is working on 'Calderón's War: Mexico at the Crossroads,' a book about Mexico's war against the drug cartels. Ainslie has made six visits to Juárez in the past year as part of his ongoing work on this project.

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