On the Bloody Border: Mexico's Drug Wars

By chillinwill · Apr 27, 2009 ·
  1. chillinwill
    Pedro Rojas is the sort of wealthy Mexican who's usually in control of his world. "I don't panic or scare easily," says Rojas, a business owner and rancher from the Mexican border city of Juarez. But last year narcos, or drug traffickers, moved into his upscale neighborhood--punks in cowboy attire and sparkling pickup trucks buying expensive homes.
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    Rojas and his neighbors were awakened at night or horrified in broad daylight by assault-rifle fire and the screaming of tires as cars raced away after kidnappings. One afternoon, local children watched as a pickup rammed down the door of a house, sparking a gun battle that left four people dead in the street. Out at Rojas' ranch, the situation was worse.

    The drug gangs, whose trafficking route for marijuana, cocaine and heroin passes near a cluster of haciendas that includes Rojas', demanded protection money from the ranchers.

    When they balked, the gangs burned down the ranch houses, then abducted and executed one of Rojas' best friends.

    Since then, the gangs have dumped the severed heads of other victims in front of suburban town halls.

    So Rojas ( not his real name, which he asked to be changed for security reasons ) took his family across the Rio Grande to live in an apartment in El Paso, Texas. "I feel fearful, impotent," he says. Worse, he adds, is the realization that the police in Juarez not only are incapable of stopping gangs but are "working with them. Our police institutions have been overrun by narcos. Changing that will take many years and some very big cojones."

    It has taken many years for Mexico to finally make that admission, decades in which the country's powerful and violent drug cartels have been allowed to terrorize far too many neighborhoods in too many cities like Juarez. Summoning his army to fill in for unreliable cops, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has brought the fight to the gangs, but their furious backlash has left more than 7,000 Mexicans murdered since the start of last year -- almost 2,000 in Juarez alone. Still, through the fog of the drug war, especially on the bloodied border, it has become clearer to see what needs to be done to rein in the drug-related crime that, as President Barack Obama said in a visit to Mexico this month, is "sowing chaos in our communities" -- both American and Mexican. For starters, Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, who has received death threats from the gangs, is trying to purge the city's corrupt, 1,600-member police force and hopes to build a more professional department twice the size. "We have no choice left," he tells TIME.

    Mexico's recognition that it has to reform its law-enforcement system coincides with a belated U.S. confession. An insatiable demand for drugs north of the border, the Obama Administration concedes, together with rampant smuggling of guns and laundered drug profits into Mexico, is just as responsible for the crisis.

    Obama is sending 500 new federal agents to the border this year to snare more weapons and money moving south, and last week he appointed a border-policy czar, former federal prosecutor Alan Bersin. The U.S. Administration also intends to put more emphasis on reducing demand by expanding programs like drug courts that mandate rehab.

    Solutions on the Front Line

    In El Paso, which is receiving a stream of Juarez exiles like Rojas, plenty would like to see an even broader shift in policy.

    The city council recently voted unanimously to ask Washington to consider legalizing marijuana, whose casual use is widely considered no more harmful than that of alcohol.

    The move would seriously crimp the drug cartels' cash flow, estimated at more than $25 billion a year. El Paso's mayor vetoed the resolution, but "the discussion is changing," says council member Beto O'Rourke, who insists the U.S. has for too long relied too heavily on military aid to producer and trafficker nations and on stiff sentences for drug possession at home. "If you live on the border, you see that the old drug-policy emperor has no clothes."

    The border suffers the bulk of the drug war's carnage -- and perhaps because of that, it's where some of the freshest ideas for fighting the war can be found.

    A tragic wisdom has emerged at this dusty junction of developed and developing worlds.

    On one side of the Rio Grande is Juarez, whose maquiladora assembly plants fuel dreams of modernity but which is now one of the hemisphere's most dangerous cities. On the other side is El Paso, which is one of the U.S.'s safest communities ( 16 murders last year, compared with Juarez's 1,600 ) but which nonetheless knows that its future is linked to that of Juarez. "Washington and Mexico City need to know the solutions to this crisis are here on the front line," says Lucinda Vargas, head of the community-development organization Plan Estrategico de Juarez.

    Juarez civic leaders like Vargas have long called for the kind of Mexican police and judicial reform that both countries are only now starting to make a priority.
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    Meanwhile, Americans like El Paso County sheriff Richard Wiles want the U.S. to renew the assault-weapons ban that George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress allowed to expire in 2004. If it doesn't, they fear, the few Black Hawk helicopters that Washington ships to Mexico's antidrug warriors won't make up for the thousands of AK-47 rifles and even rocket-propelled grenades pouring into the hands of the gangs. "It's a shame," says Wiles, "that it's taken so many killings in Juarez to make Washington consider that."

    El Paso itself has been relatively unscathed by the drug wars, in part because the cartels don't want to jeopardize their trafficking corridors on the border's U.S. side. Still, cartel-associated violence is beginning to reach into U.S. cities from the Sun Belt to the Pacific Northwest. Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited Mexico City in April with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has called Mexico's drug savagery a "national security threat."

    A long-term antidrug strategy doesn't need the sort of hysteria that has had some in Washington comparing Mexico to failing states like Pakistan. "Obama needs to throw a bucket of cold water on that kind of rhetoric," says Tony Payan, a Mexico expert at the University of Texas at El Paso. "He needs a Mexico approach for the next 20 years, not 20 days." Mexico is making some progress.

    Juarez saw violence spike last year when at least three cartels started a pitched battle for its valuable trafficking turf. ( Most of the drugs from Mexico enter the U.S. through Juarez. ) Spin-off crimes like kidnapping and extortion mushroomed as well. But the city has been safer since Reyes agreed in March to let 5,000 army troops and 2,000 federal cops take over police duties for the time being.

    Just before Holder and Napolitano arrived in Mexico, federal agents captured an alleged top boss of the Juarez Cartel, Vicente Carrillo Leyva. Juarez's murder rate dropped from a horrific 10 per day in the final months of 2008 to just five in March. The gangs are lying low for now, and the city's 1.5 million people are venturing back out to the streets. Waiters at the ornate Kentucky Club are thrilled to see visitors walk in again for the bar's famous Rio Grande margaritas.

    The level of violence is still shocking.

    Close to the Kentucky Club, heavily armed police escort an ambulance ferrying a gang member with bullet wounds to a hospital and sit guard in case his rivals try to come in and finish him off. "You watch what's happening, and you burst into tears," says Vargas. "Your spirit lives in the gutter." Severed heads are often left on roadsides and at police stations; the bodies they were once attached to are sometimes hung from bridges and overpasses. A mass grave holding nine corpses was recently discovered outside the city, and in November students found seven bullet-torn bodies outside their elementary school.

    The next month, the narcos even began extorting Christmas-bonus money from teachers, warning they'd kidnap pupils unless they were paid.

    It is not only obvious gang members who have died in the mayhem.

    More than 50 Juarez cops were murdered in 2008; in February the police chief resigned after the gangs made good on a threat to murder an officer every 48 hours until he stepped down. Among those killed was the director of police operations, assassinated by more than 100 heavy-caliber bullets.

    The sad reality, however, is that too many of Juarez's police die not in the noble line of duty but because they moonlight for gangs.

    Last month federal cops arrested a Juarez police captain for allegedly detaining people on the cartels' hit lists and then delivering them to their executions. And the rot goes even higher: in 2008, Calderon's former federal antidrug czar was arrested and charged with allegedly taking $450,000 to feed intelligence to the Sinaloa Cartel. ( He denies it. )

    Hitting a Hornet's Nest

    Mexico's drug plague is a product of both its authoritarian past and its new democratic present.

    When it ruled Mexico as an elective dictatorship, the Institutional Revolutionary Party ( PRI ) accommodated but regulated the drug cartels.

    But after the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 and its quasi-control of the cartels broke down, those groups split into more vicious gangs like the Zetas, a band of former army commandos who now head the Gulf Cartel. Cities from Nuevo Laredo to Cancun were soon reeling from turf battles.

    The Juarez Cartel, once Mexico's most powerful, is better known today for its bloodthirsty enforcers, La Linea ( The Line ), believed responsible for a wave of murders of young women in Juarez since the 1990s.

    When Calderon was sworn in as President in December 2006, the carnage had become too much to ignore.

    He began a military offensive against the gangs that now employs some 40,000 troops.

    Calderon's supporters insist the brutal counteroffensive by the gangs is a sign that they were rattled.

    Critics call the relentless violence proof that Calderon took a baseball bat to a hornet's nest but wasn't ready for the hornets -- and point out that the Mexican army is not particularly well trained for the urban-guerrilla nature of drug wars. Either way, by last year Washington had become alarmed at Mexico's slaughter: Congress approved $400 million in aid for Mexico's drug war, the first installment of what is supposed to be a three-year, $1.5 billion package known as the Merida Initiative.

    The Merida plan provides hardware like helicopters and intelligence technology. But only a third of the cash is directed at the more important software of police reform.

    It is police officers, not soldiers, who staff the kind of investigative bodies that bring down organized crime.

    Says Payan: "This effort is doomed to fail if it's not accompanied by effective [Mexican] cops, and Washington isn't treating that as a large enough piece of the puzzle yet." Reyes agrees. "The U.S. needs to assure that police forces along the border are sufficiently robust," he says, "precisely so they'll be the first line of defense for the U.S."

    American officials say privately they're waiting to see whether reform programs like that of Reyes are serious and whether other Mexican mayors and governors will finally join the effort.

    Juarez's mayor, who is shadowed by six assault-rifle-toting bodyguards, has ousted half his old police force through drug tests, polygraphs and other "confidence exams." Under his pact with Calderon, Reyes now has to recruit more than 2,000 new cops, who, he says, will be among Mexico's best paid and educated. ( Aside from a starting annual salary of $9,000 -- twice the usual pay for a local cop in Mexico -- they'll receive subsidized housing and other perks. )

    But changing a police culture can take years, and Calderon can't keep soldiers on Mexico's streets forever.

    Time rode with a nighttime patrol of federal military and an antigang unit called Lobos ( Wolves ) through some of Juarez's more dangerous barrios.

    Residents hailed the convoy as it sped through the canyon-like streets, but some had misgivings about the exercise.

    As the soldiers and police hauled suspected gang members into a patrol wagon, one woman noted that it wasn't exactly a display of due process. "I don't know if this is our answer either," she said as the patrol stopped outside her bodega. Human-rights complaints are on the rise, and the gangs have even bankrolled public protests against the military operations this year.

    It's not just U.S. weapons that are moving south.

    Many of the thugs being picked up by the military are from the Barrio Azteca gang, which is based in El Paso but whose members are recruited to work for La Linea in Juarez. That makes it all the more urgent for U.S. law enforcement to sap Barrio Azteca's strength on the U.S. side. Six Azteca bosses were recently convicted in El Paso on federal racketeering charges.

    Sheriff Wiles, a Democrat, believes that this attention to localized border strategies is deepening under the Obama Administration and Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona, a border state. "Our input is more of a priority now," he says. Before unveiling its new border-security plan in March, the Administration held conference calls with local law chiefs like Wiles. Until this year, the El Paso region had only seven agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to interdict weapons-smuggling. Under the Administration's new plan, it could have as many as 50.

    Still, until Juarez's crisis finally lifts, there are plenty in El Paso who will demand more and "weigh in on national policy," as O'Rourke, the city-council member, puts it. Talk of legalizing marijuana is growing; the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March heard prominent drug researchers argue that cannabis should be sold legally and taxed like tobacco.

    Ernesto Zedillo and Cesar Gaviria, former Presidents of Mexico and Colombia, respectively, have said the same. And Mexico's Congress is again debating decriminalization of marijuana use, after backing off the issue a few years ago under intense pressure from the Bush Administration.

    In the short term, of course, legalization of marijuana -- let alone any other drug -- is not going to happen.

    That explains why Juarez is such an interesting laboratory. More industrious than the border Gomorrah of Tijuana to the west but grittier than the pin-striped boardrooms of Monterrey to the east, the city has long been a Mexican forerunner: it was the site of the Mexican Revolution's first military victory, the nation's first maquiladoras and the first opposition mayor during the PRI's long rule. Can it now take a lead in the drug wars by pioneering police reform? "This is our opportunity," says Rojas, who is thinking of returning to Juarez soon. "I think we're taking the right road."

    It will be a long one.

    Author: Tim Padgett
    Pubdate: Mon, 4 May 2009
    Source: Time Magazine

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