Special report: 7 circles of Juarez

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — If Dante had ever been to Juarez he would have placed it squarely in the seventh circle of hell, the one housing "violence" and "ringed by a river of boiling blood."

The city, which lies on the Rio Grande just across from El Paso, Texas, is the murder capital of the world, claiming more than 5,500 killings since January 2008. It is responsible for one-fifth of the more than 25,000 drug-related murders that have occurred in Mexico since 2006 when President Felipe Calderon officially declared war on the country’s heavily armed drug cartels.

That national war reached another dramatic turning point last month when the front-running candidate for governor in a drug-torn Mexican border state was assassinated by gunmen believed to have been sent by a drug cartel.

Nowhere is the violence more horrific than in Juarez, where 13 teenagers were murdered at a party and 17 recovering drug addicts killed at a rehab center.

But amid all the media spotlight on this butchery, the facts of who exactly is fighting, who is dying and why remain misty and confusing to many observers.

In this special report, “The Seven Circles of Juarez: The murder capital of the world and those who dwell in its unique hell,” GlobalPost features a series of videos and dispatches that explore the concentric rings of greed, lust, avarice and complicity that have made the town its own, living inferno. We also look at the human stories of the paramedics, priests and social workers trying to pull the city up from the fiery depths.

Here's a quick primer on the conflict. We hope it provides a way to navigate down into the reality and the complexity of life in Juarez.

Is Ciudad Juarez really the most murderous city in the world?

Most sources, including the FBI and various non-governmental organizations, find that it is. In 2009, Juarez had 191 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to Mexico’s Citizen Council for Public Security. In second place was San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with 119 killings. New Orleans, America’s most murderous city, had a rate of 69 killings, putting it in eighth place. The United States as a whole has an annual murder of about 5 per 100,000. Of course, many homicides both in Juarez and around the world are never reported.

Watch a video about the Herculean task of Juarez's paramedics:

Who is fighting in Juarez?

According to both Mexican and U.S. agents, the conflict exploded in January 2008 when the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman went to war with its old partners in the Juarez Cartel, led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, for control of the city. To fight this war, the Juarez mob recruited a street and prison gang called the Barrio Azteca while the Sinaloa Cartel recruited a rival gang called the Artist Assassins, or Double A’s. The alignment of these thousands of street gang members backed by the money and armed with weapons smuggled from the United States, has led to a major proliferation of the violence.

What are the cartels fighting over?

The main bounty of Juarez is its position for smuggling narcotics into the United States. Located in the center of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, Juarez has long been a strategic treasure for moving cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal methamphetamine toward American users. The gangsters who control this “plaza” can not only move their own drugs but tax other smugglers 20 percent to move their goods through the corridor. Furthermore, the Juarez plaza includes both the international bridges in the city itself and the ports and open desert that stretch out into the Juarez Valley. In total, it is worth billions of dollars.

Do many drugs stay in Mexico?

With narcotics long passing through the city and many migrants returning from the United States with addiction problems, Juarez has developed a major local drug market particularly in cocaine and heroin. The city now has thousands of tienditas, or “little shops” for drugs. Each of these small businesses purportedly collects thousands of dollars daily in sales. The fighting over these street corners has exasperated the war for the smuggling corridor. Many of those killed have been local dealers, who allegedly did not pay a certain cartel their “tax” to sell drugs.

Who is kidnapping/extorting?

Juarez has been plagued by hundreds of kidnappings for ransom as well as groups demanding protection money from businesses since the conflict broke out in 2008. People who don’t pay are often brutally murdered and many businesses have been burned down. This extortion is the No. 1 concern for the business community. However, it is unclear who exactly is behind it. The cartels themselves could be involved but some agents argue the drug bosses would not be messing with shakedowns worth as little as $200 per month. Gang members or killers with tenuous links to the mobs could also be making extra cash. In 2008, the city government fired 600 corrupt police officers. Some allege they are the main culprits of the extortion rackets. Others say that opportunistic criminals with no connection at all to the cartels have just taken advantage of the violent chaos to make quick cash.

How many of the killings are related to the cartel war?

It is impossible to say how many of the murders are really related to the broader fight for control of the drug trade. The vast majority of the homicides are never solved and even when there are arrests — including some hired cartel hitmen accused of hundreds of killings — the only evidence is a confession obtained under torture. Drug cartel operatives also murder many victims for personal beefs, including fights over lovers or questions of disrespect. And with such widespread impunity, it is easy for those with grudges in Juarez to think they can get away with murder. However, the vast majority of killings do have all the signs of gangland hits, including use of automatic rifles and ambushes involving several vehicles.

Why have the police and army been incapable of stopping the violence?

The Mexican government has pushed a force of up to 10,000 into the city including soldiers, federal police and agents, state police and a beefed-up local police force. However, the troop surges have only been able to establish temporary lulls in the violence. Analysts point to several reasons for their failure. First, the soldiers and federal paramilitary police often lack the investigative skills to go after criminals, who are often able to evade capture by hiding in local neighborhoods where they are provided cover and support. Second, the economic recession and continuation of drug dollars lead to a never-ending army of hitmen replacing those killed. Thirdly, the rot of corruption continues to spread through police officers, even as others are fired.
 

7 circles of Juarez: a series

How cartels have turned youth into hit men

Video: who's to blame?

Timeline: the meltdown of Juarez