Some Look to Medellin As a Model, and Others Say Decriminalizing Drugs Is the Answer
Seemingly impervious to any treatment, murder has settled into the sinews of this border city like a pestilence.
The thousands of federal soldiers and police injected into Ciudad Juarez haven't proved a cure. Neither have the remedies of sociologists, economists, criminologists or psychologists. Nor have the prayers, potions and petitions of its haggard citizens.
Gunmen claim dozens, sometimes scores, of new souls each day, hundreds by the month. There's no end in sight.
Bolstered by U.S. encouragement and money, President Felipe Calderon has made Juarez a laboratory of his strategy to militarily end the bloodshed and the drug trade alike. But rather than a showcase of success, Juarez has become, by many accounts, the poster child of failure.
"We saw the army come in and not finish anything," Hugo Almada, an economist who's written books on Juarez's haphazard growth, said of this year's military offensive to end the slaughter. "So the question is now what?"
Almada and some 2,600 other citizens last week packed a hall to hear the prescription of a former mayor of Medellin, the pacified Colombian city that half a decade ago was as famous for narcotics violence as Juarez is today.
The crowd murmured and applauded as the confident and convincing Sergio Fajardo --- a U.S.-trained mathematics professor turned politician --- sketched the formula by which he and other civic-minded colleagues reclaimed their streets. Once one of the Earth's most violent corners, Medellin's murder rate has been slashed to a level that would be acceptable in many U.S. cities.
"Oooh," the transfixed citizens gasped as Fajardo flashed pictures of gleaming new schools, libraries and parks planted on what had been Medellin's poorest and deadliest terrain. "Ahhhh!"
Use the police and army to close the door to organized crime, Fajardo counseled, but open a window of opportunity through education, respect and public honesty. Otherwise, he stressed, the frustrated poor have no option but perfidy.
"How do we take that momentary enthusiasm and transform it into a genuine civic movement?" asked Lucinda Vargas, a onetime U.S. federal reserve economist who directs the Juarez foundation that sponsored the speech. "That is our challenge." Will it translate?
But Fajardo's gospel left much unsaid. Before he took office in 2003, right-wing killers already had scraped leftist militias from Medellin's teeming slums, government jobs and money had bought off those gunmen, and a single crime boss had gained control of the narcotics trade.
Fajardo could employ his recipe of redemption precisely because a semblance of order had been forged through fire and blood.
"Here in Juarez we don't have that," said Almada. "There is no control."
Add to that a wealth of poverty, a dearth of education and a scarcity of living wage jobs. Parents lucky enough to have work are rarely home, leaving even the youngest children to fend for themselves.
In one squat 6-year-old community of factory laborers, a single junior high and one high school serve nearly 7,000 families. Scores of the homes have been abandoned as families flee Juarez's violence or head to southern Mexican towns after losing their jobs in the city's mostly U.S.-owned factories, said Alfredo Aguilar, 28, who runs a day-care center.
Gunmen have slaughtered some 3,200 of Juarez's 1.3 million people in the past 20 months --- more than 10 a day so far in September --- as a local crime syndicate battles another ( from the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa ) for narcotics smuggling routes to U.S. consumers and the city's own drug users.
As the fighting grinds along, several thousand Juarez families, including the mayor's, have fled across the Rio Grande to El Paso.
People have been gunned down by the handful in bars and car washes, by the dozens in drug rehabilitation centers. Dirt-poor addicts, street performers and gang-banger teens have been targeted. War on drugs
Many on both sides of the border argue that as long as narcotics remain outlawed in the U.S., the world's biggest illicit narcotics bazaar --- Juarez --- much of Mexico and the Texas borderlands will serve as a blood-soaked trampoline.
"Drug prohibition is causing all of this," said Terry Nelson, a retired U.S. anti-drug agent who spoke at a conference last week at the University of Texas --- El Paso that called for narcotics decriminalization as a means to end the violence. "The global war on drugs is probably the greatest public policy failure of all time."
The latest atrocities include the Sept. 15 attack of a rehab clinic on Juarez's poor southeast side. Gunmen tossed grenades through the front gate of the low-slung compound and charged in firing.
Ten of the 38 people inside the small dormitories and meeting rooms were killed, including the center's director and a doctor who was treating a patient. It was the fourth such massacre in 13 months at a Juarez rehab center; more than 40 people have been killed.
Days after the assault, the clinic stands empty, its victims' blood whitewashed over, the streets of its once boisterous working class neighborhood deserted.
But among the refuse strewn on the clinic's floor lies a small plaque bearing the prayer that long has encouraged addicts and others without hope: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change," the prayer goes, "the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
By DUDLEY ALTHAUS
September 28, 2009