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7 circles of Juarez: killing with impunity

Why can't Mexican police and soldiers stop the killing in Juarez?

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.