View attachment 28443 CIUDAD JUAREZ is the busiest and most important drug corridor on the US-Mexican border, and averaged around 10 murders a day in 2010, writes TUEN VOETEN.
THEY call him the Photographer of Death.
Lucio Soria works for El Diario, the biggest daily newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso in Texas.
He reckons, during the bloodiest years in the most dangerous city in the world, he photographed 500 murders a year.
“Sometimes even 20 on a day,” he recalls about the years 2009 and 2010 when the killings peaked as the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels went to war.
Once in a while, I’d be with him. We used to race through town together, Soria working three phones at the same time, his knees at the steering wheel, with me working the gear stick, speeding from crime scene to crime scene.
The trick was to be there before the authorities had arrived before the place was taped off with yellow ribbon and the victims could be photographed without the need for the telephoto lens.
He had mastered that art. But things are much calmer now, as Soria says: “Tranquilo, hombre.”
Of course, he is happy his city has become safer. But he also sounds a bit disappointed. The wild years seem to be over, at least in Juarez. At least for now.
The city is the busiest, most important drug corridor on the US-Mexican border, the arrival point for an estimated 70 per cent of the cocaine entering America.
With four border crossings, it is of crucial strategic importance to the drug cartels running tons of cocaine from Columbia through Mexico to the States. They know whoever controls the plaza in Juarez has won America.
But the battle to rule the crossing points led to bloody massacres as heavily armed gangs went to war with guns and bombs on the city’s streets. The body count, already high, went through the roof after the powerful Sinaloa cartel moved to strike a fatal blow against the weakened Juarez cartel in 2008.
There were 3111 officially recorded murders in 2010. Others say it was more like 3600, an average of nine or 10 murders a day.
It was not only the bloodiest year in the history of Juarez, the city officially became the most violent in the world.
View attachment 28444 But there were only 2000 “intentional deaths” – as murders here are officially known – in 2011. As in previous years, ninety-eight per cent were never solved.
In the first months of 2012, this trend continued, with now approximately two or three murders a day. There was even a weekend without a single killing earlier this year, a fact so rare that it was headline news for El Diario. Cynics say there is no one left to murder.
Up to 50,000 have died since 2006 when outgoing Mexican president Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug gangs and deployed 40,000 troops and police to crack down on the warring cartels.
The people on the streets say the gun smoke has only cleared because the Sinaloa cartel have won the battle and Peter Hinde, an American missionary who has worked in Juarez for 20 years, believes the city is enjoying “the peace of a graveyard”.
But the authorities are happy to hail new police commissioner Julian Leyzaola. Karin Villareal, a spokesperson at Juarez city hall, said: “We only had 60 murders in February. Now in August, we had 38.
“Still a lot for a city of one million people but we are heading in the right direction.”
Villareal says this is because of the work done by Chief Leyzaola, who was assigned as troubleshooter a year ago.
The hardline ex-army officer divided the city into small sectors before launching intensive patrols.
The cholos – small-time hoods in bandanas, low-hanging trousers and tattoos – were stopped on sight, frisked and arrested.
Meanwhile, 300 of the 2300 city police were purged in a corruption crackdown. The police and judicial system are not only overworked but notoriously corrupt as well.
This is not necessarily because they are bad people but most likely because the average officer has been classmates with the average gangster and there is not much of a choice – cooperate for a small extra fee or be killed. “Plata o Plomo,” as they say in Juarez, silver or lead.
But Leyzaola is caught between a rock and a heavily armed hard place. In January, he received threats from the Juarez cartel, who accused him of siding with their deadly Sinaloa rivals.
He was warned that a policeman would be murdered every day until he resigned. He stayed and put his officers up in hotels, where they could be better protected.
But, after an exodus of 300,000 driven out by the violence in recent years, the city is shrinking.
View attachment 28445 Not much is left of the bustling Juarez that once attracted droves of tourists who crossed the bridge from the US every weekend to party in the notorious red light district, where the laws on alcohol and prostitution are so much more liberal than in the States.
Roberto Lopez, owner of La Cucaracha, a bar literally 10 steps away from the bridge that divides Mexico and America, says two out of three bars have now closed. He has hardly seen any clients these past few years. The couple of times I visit him on weekend nights, the place is empty.
At The Yanquis, one of the last remaining bars still operating on Avenida Juarez, Fletcher, an expat American, drinks cheap beers and chats to the prostitutes.
The Yanquis made the headlines a year ago when a commando armada – what the crews of armed thugs are called in Juarez – stormed the place and executed eight people. It was a settling of scores between criminals.
Fletcher, who has seen six people killed in front of his eyes, said: “You get used to it.”
It’s been a quiet day in Juarez, just one decapitated body and another mutilated – both dumped in ditches. In the city’s prison, a huge weapons depot is found buried in the ground.
The director is arrested and accused of allowing inmates to leave the jail during daytime to moonlight as sicarios – assassins.
But in the city centre, once deserted, shoppers are back on bustling streets enjoying the musicians and street artists.
Juarez is breathing once again. The war is over. For now.
[Pictured: Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera 'El Chapo']
Cartels in border warfare
Paramilitary drug gangs wage the bloody war for dominance of the border with the US.
La Linea were one of the most notorious enforcer units wreaking terror for the Juarez cartel.
With ex and current police officers among the founder members, the outfit were brutal, professional and trained in urban warfare.
Their leader, José Antonio Acosta Hernandez – nicknamed El Diego – was arrested in July 2011 and suspected of personally ordering the death of 1500 people.
Despite the violence, the Juarez cartel failed to crush their Sinaloa rivals, who are suspected of feeding information on their enemies to the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
Last March, the Juarez cartel went public with their suspicions that the police were favouring the rival cartel by hanging a narco manta across a bridge. Narco mantas are messages on banners or by graffiti and are, besides gory YouTube videos, the favourite way of communication for the cartels.
Referring to the 5ft 6in boss of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera – El Chapo – and the Juarez police chief, it read: “Leyzaola, you son of a whore, you are an errand boy for El Chapo.”
El Chapo is No55 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people and, after the death of Bin Laden, is top of the FBI’s Most Wanted Men list. They believe he is the biggest drug lord of all time.
Sunday 23rd September, 2012.
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On the drug war frontline: The world's most dangerous city