Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Burials Routine in Juárez

Burials become sadly routine at Juárez cemetery as Mexico's drug war takes its toll.

The Dallas Morning News


CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – In the glow of a brilliant orange and red sunset, watchman Jesús Ibarra locked the towering white gates of Panteón San Rafael cemetery, closing out another day as eight more bodies settled into damp graves.

Among the freshly buried: Gilberto Compean, known as "Betito El Bonito" or just Beto, a local mechanic with high cheekbones and a neatly trimmed mustache. He was the stabbing victim of a local gang.

Earlier, friends and family members swayed to music from a silver cellphone held by Fernando Compean over his brother's grave, piled with red roses and white and orange carnations.

"This is my eighth funeral here this year, and the saddest one," said a composed Compean, 50. "My brother loved music, and he's probably dancing in his grave now."

Battered by months of unrelenting violence, the people of Ciudad Juárez are responding with grim resolve as burying the dead becomes numbingly routine.

Panteón San Rafael offers a glimpse at the staggering human toll in Juárez, where criminal violence has killed more than 4,000 people since January 2008, including more than 2,400 this year.

At this municipal cemetery, victims and villains are buried side by side, and the many nameless, unidentified victims have their own section – fosas comunes, common graves – where 38 freshly dug graves await new arrivals.

About 90 shooting victims are buried at Juárez's 20 cemeteries each week, so many that gravediggers, watchmen – even friends and family – become inured.

About 90 percent of the dead were involved in organized crime, law enforcement officials say. But that means 10 percent – hundreds of people, including children from both sides of the border – were innocents.

"The unfolding slaughter in Juárez should chill us all," writer Vanessa Johnson said in an opinion piece in The El Paso Newspaper Tree, an online publication she once edited. "We need to be reminded that each death diminishes us all."

"Even those in the fosas comunes section have a loved one," Ibarra said, predicting that a new section for the unidentified will be needed by year's end. "Someone, somewhere misses them."

Panteón San Rafael, located in the southern outskirts, is owned and operated by the city. The cemetery opened in 1995 to accommodate Juarez's poorest. More than 40,000 people are buried here.

Most of the 4,000 killed in the drug cartel turf battles are young men, but there are a growing number of women, 140 this year. Most of the dead share these traits: They are poor, and they die before they are 30.

"They're killing our young ones, the most vulnerable ones, who want instant wealth because the government can't provide enough jobs," said Juan Carlos Ramírez, a mechanic. He said he had been to six funerals this year, mostly for teens, who in times of recession increasingly turn to cartels for paying jobs.

"Wealth is instant, but so is death," Ramírez said, "and in the end the neighbors collect donations door to door, enough to give them a decent burial."

One neighborhood teen, identified only as Mario, traded dreams of working in Texas and instead became a cartel hit man. He earned enough to buy his mom a new TV, and he drove a late-model SUV. He was especially fond of the car stereo and showed it off by blasting songs. The fun lasted just a couple of weeks. In August, Mario was gunned down just blocks from his mother's home.

"He's buried over there," said Ramírez, 44, motioning to another section of the cemetery.

"More will follow," predicted Ramírez's sister, 19-year-old Claredine. "Temptation is too high, and what other jobs are there for them? They're killing the most ambitious, and the poorest, a bad combination. We're losing an entire generation of people my age."

By day, the cemetery is alive with activity. Families sell flowers arrangements, headstones and soft drinks. Musicians offer their services, and strains of forlorn music mix with intermittent wailing. Hearses speed in and out, followed by lines of vehicles, including pickups packed with kids in the back.

By dusk the place is eerily quiet. Gates usually close by 6 p.m., but Ibarra said that with so many dying and final goodbyes so prolonged, he's flexible, as he was with Beto's family.

Gathered around the grave, the family traded stories and spoke proudly of the 300 or so friends who showed up to say goodbye. So many wanted to pay their respects that donations were gathered to rent a bus to transport them.

Even Beto's former girlfriends showed up, family members joked, and among those snickering was Natalia García López, 43, Beto's widow.

"None of the women even shook my hand," Natalia noted, as those around her applauded. "Cowards."

"Damn, he was the most handsome brother," Fernando Compean added. "Women were crazy for him, and he for them."

Then the conversation turned serious, with talk of avenging Beto's death. In a country where more than 90 percent of all crimes go unpunished, people have little faith in authorities.

Family members passed around a photograph of a group of men, all mocking the camera with gang signs. Eyewitnesses, they said, all pointed to a man whose smiling face appears in the picture – a man with ties to the Juárez cartel – as the one who stabbed Beto after he tired of paying the monthly extortion.

"We'll lynch him," Fernando assured.

"That's Mexican-style justice," Natalia said

By nightfall, trails of dust swirled as the family departed, at least six squeezed into an old black Mustang convertible, its tattered top half torn off.

Coyotes howled in the distance, but Ibarra seemed fearless. He had his dog "Negro" to protect him, he joked, as Negro rolled lazily in the dirt.

Besides, he said, human predators pose the greatest danger – specifically the bands of hit men who roam the streets of Juárez and have at least twice violated the sanctuary of the cemetery to finish off rivals attending funerals.

Even the dead fear these killers, Ibarra said.

"They're afraid the living might kill them again," he said. "In Juárez, not even the dead are safe, nor do they ever rest in peace."

REACHING INTO EL PASO
 
The violence in Ciudad Juárez has a direct impact on neighboring El Paso in several ways:

HEALTH CARE: More than 116 victims of crime in Juárez have been treated at University Medical Center, El Paso's county hospital, since the beginning of 2008. Of the 64 people treated this year, 51 were U.S. citizens and 13 noncitizens. The bill to taxpayers is nearly $400,000 for 2009. Figures for 2008 were not available.

BUSINESS: At least a dozen Juárez businesses have relocated to El Paso, in part sparking what residents call the burrito war along the city's main thoroughfare, Mesa Street. The reference is to popular burrito restaurants that operate on the U.S. side.

MIGRATION: A state senator estimates that at least 10,000 Mexicans from the northern Mexican region call El Paso home, including Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz and his family. Reyes Ferriz commutes to work in Juárez, where he also keeps a home. Some of those "security migrants," have moved farther inland to places such as Albuquerque and Dallas. The new arrivals include doctors, lawyers, journalists, police and even Mexican hit men, some of whom have worked as informants for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

CARTEL RECRUITING: Mexican cartels have recruited gang members and teenage hit men from El Paso.

DRUG TRADE: A number of El Paso homes have been transformed into stash homes to store illegal drugs, guns and cash. The same phenomenon exists in Dallas, authorities say.

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