Mexico's top domestic security official said Friday that sectors of the general public have cooperated with drug cartels in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez, and the government is about to launch new social programs there to combat gangs.
The new anti-crime measures, to be launched in a matter of weeks, represent a shift from a military-based approach to one also addressing the social roots of organized crime.
Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez Mont says drug cartels and allied street gangs wormed their way into Juarez society, often through legitimate business dealings, while thousands of youths in poor neighborhoods were recruited to the gangs.
Since 2008, the government sent thousands of army troops to Ciudad Juarez to combat a wave of drug-related killings that have cost more than 2,000 lives so far this year, giving the city one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
While the troops will remain, the new government approach outlined by Gomez Mont to a group of foreign correspondents will focus less on policing and more in rebuilding communities.
"There are thousands of young people in marginal areas of the city linked to this (gangs)," Gomez Mont said. "Other sectors of the public had legitimate business relations. ... There were acts of cooperation with them (gangs) that were not perceived as an improper collaboration."
He said that attitude changed after violence spiked in 2006 and "the public realized it had opened its doors to people who posed a threat to their homes."
While Gomez Mont did not provide details of the plan, it is aimed at the street-level drug dealing that has provides much of the funds and foot soldiers for the gangs.
"In the next few weeks there will be an initiative for community rebuilding in Juarez, aimed at strengthening the social content of law enforcement, and rescuing marginalized sectors to strengthen society's defenses against crime organizations, especially street gangs," he said.
In Ciudad Juarez, street gang members often act as enforcers, dealers and hitmen for larger cartels.
Gomez Mont expressed confidence that a cleanup of police forces nationwide would eventually have an impact on the country's drug violence, but would not predict when death tolls would start dropping.
He rejected the idea that drug gangs, once dominant in a given area, could be relied on to reduce common crime on their turf. In recent months, some cartels have taken to killing kidnappers or extortionists operating in their territory, as part of a gruesome "clean-up" campaign.
"There is no pact possible based on the idea that criminal organizations could protect the public safety. That is a contradiction in terms."
As if to illustrate the challenges facing Gomez Mont — the Cabinet secretary who oversees domestic security and intelligence agencies — prosecutors reported that gunmen staged near simultaneous attacks on four police posts in the north-central state of Guanajuato late Thursday and early Friday, using guns and hand grenades.
The attacks led authorities to close all schools and universities in the city of Celaya, where the attacks were centered, and cancel a parade planned to commemorate the holiday marking 1910-1917 Revolution.
"There is a state of general alert at all public offices," said state prosecutors' spokesman Carlos Zamarripa
The assailants are believed to be linked to La Familia drug cartel, and the attack may have been in retaliation for the arrest of a cartel lieutenant, said state prosecutors' spokesman Carlos Zamarripa. One bystander was wounded in the attacks.