7 circles of Juarez: killing with impunity

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — On the rare days when there are no murders in this brutal border town, editors see it as worthy of the front page.

In the June 17 edition of El Norte newspaper, when the country was transfixed by the national soccer team beating France in the World Cup, editors took notice of a stunning sight on the streets of Ciudad Juarez: peace.

“Zero Assassinations During Match,” it proclaimed on its front page the next day.

On the vast majority of other days, the killings are so routine they are often tucked under the fold or buried in the police section.

Five being gunned down in a bar or a policemen being kidnapped and decapitated is not a big story anymore. Only new levels of brutality, such as the massacre of 13 high school students at a party, can lead the local bulletins.

All these killings are tallied up by the media and put into sanguinely named “Execution Meters,” which are sometimes displayed with special graphics like sports scorecards. By June this year, the meters’ macabre count reached 5,500 murders since January 2008.

In response to the new high, observers, residents and business lobbies are all asking a single question: Why are police and soldiers so incapable of stopping this bloodshed?

“There have been more homicides than in some wars. But where are authorities?” asked Leticia Chavarria, who leads a group of Juarez doctors lobbying to fight crime. “There is so much impunity. And obviously when criminals see others go unpunished they are encouraged to commit more and more crimes.”

The murder rate has continued to rise despite various military and police interventions.

The violence first exploded in January 2008, when the Sinaloa Cartel kicked off an all-out war with their old partners in the Juarez Cartel over the billion-dollar drug smuggling routes through the city.

“I received confidential information that the war would come and it would be very cruel with a lot of deaths,” said Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes, talking in the back of an SUV as he drove between civic events. “Our source said it would start on Jan. 6 right after the vacations. In fact it began on Jan. 5.”

In the following months, gangsters started killing their rivals in record numbers while also gunning down dozens of agents of the Juarez police force.

Watch a video about who is to blame for the meltdown of Juarez:

“They were killing police all over — many because the officers were themselves involved with organized crime but others as a strategy so they could operate more easily in the city,” Reyes said. “It worked. Police were scared to patrol or even go outside.”

By March 2008, Reyes conceded that city authorities were overwhelmed and called in for the federal government to take direct control of all law and order in the city — a mandate it has had since.

As soldiers and federal police poured in, the local force was “purified” of 600 suspect officers.

But the anti-corruption drive may have only added to the mayhem, with unemployed crooked police becoming full-time criminals on the street. One former commander was arrested for kidnapping and extortion.

As violence continued to spiral over the next two years, the federal government sent more and more troops until a total of 10,000 soldiers, federal police and agents moved through the city.

However, one high-ranking federal agent said the forces are limited because a lack of investigative work. Only about 100 troops, or 1 percent, specialize in criminal investigations and developing intelligence, he said.

“The soldiers and federal police can search cars and kick down doors but that will not have a big impact on the cartels,” said the officer, who asked his name not be used in case the federal government castigated him for the criticism. “You need intelligence and investigation to net the big fish.”

Another problem, he conceded, is the huge social base that the gangsters have in Juarez.

The cartels enlist killers, lookouts and smugglers from a seemingly endless pool of recruits, especially in the depressed slums that spiral up hills on the west side of the city.

After carrying out rapid execution-style hits, the assassins can melt back into their own neighborhoods and hide in a vast array of safe houses at their disposal.

“The social fabric here makes it very very complicated,” said the federal agent. “And it is a problem that is only getting worse. The more the city falls apart, the more people turn to organized crime for money.”

Finally, some critics allege that federal forces could themselves be working on behalf of certain gangsters.

Several Mexican academics, journalists and a federal deputy from President Felipe Calderon’s own party have pointed the finger at the administration for being soft on the Sinaloa Cartel and failing to round up its leaders.

One of the Sinaloan kingpins, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, recently appeared on the front page of Mexico’s leading news magazine Proceso, despite having a $5 million U.S. reward on his head.

Calderon has personally denied these allegations, saying his government hits all criminals wherever they find them.

On the Juarez streets, many go further alleging federal forces may actually be killing on behalf of gangsters.

“It is highly suspicious when there is a massacre and the troops always arrive late,” said Alberto Dominguez, of the National Front Against Repression — a leftist group that is calling for federal forces to pull out. “Some people are last seen being taken away by soldiers and then their bodies are found or they are never seen again.”

Human Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have pointed to several cases of disappearances at the hands of troops in the city, including the Dec. 29 case of three young people who were last seen being marched away by soldiers.

Enrique Torres, spokesman for the government operation in Juarez, assures that any troops accused of torture or disappearances are thoroughly probed and punished when necessary.

“In any operation you can find some misconduct. And we investigate it all,” he said. “But there is no evidence at all of any systematic corruption. The troops are facing a very challenging environment.”

Mayor Reyes argues that the federal forces are doing an effective job at hitting gangsters from both cartels. The arrests, he says optimistically, will bear fruit in the long term.

“We are reaching a turning point. Things will change,” he said. “In the past, many people in Juarez let the gangsters gain strength and power. But now society is coming together to fight against them.”

7 circles of Juarez: a series

Who is fighting, who is dying and why

How cartels have turned youth into hit men

Timeline: the meltdown of Juarez