Monday, December 7, 2009

Riding in the Combat Zone

Jittery police, military unite to cope with chaos

El Paso Times


JUAREZ -- Tension and uneasiness stifle the city.

Clubs, corner food stands and the streets are nearly empty when the sun sets. The few people roaming about after dark keep to themselves.

Not many vehicles travel the roads. Those that do seem to be in a hurry.

Most roadways run along shopping centers that are shuttered, the targets of vandals. Their facades are covered with graffiti.

These hollow shells used to be businesses with pulses that pounded at any time of day or night.

Now Juárez -- a city of 1.5 million -- is paralyzed.


The unrelenting violence caused by rival drug cartels has robbed it of vitality and more than 3,800 lives. That is the murder toll since January 2008. Many others were wounded or maimed.

Along with a nervous citizenry, Mexican police officers and soldiers responsible for keeping the peace are jittery, too. They know 20 or more murders can occur in one shift. It has happened.

One moment the city is calm. The next it is chaotic. Shooting sprees erupt. Bullet-riddled bodies fall in streets and night spots. There seems to be no law.

Or is there? I rode with a Juárez police officer one recent night to try to get an understanding of life in a combat zone.

Officer Francisco Avila Guevara has worked for the Juárez Municipal Police Department for five years and is well aware that he can get caught in a deadly situation at any moment.

"We know this is a dispute between them (the cartels) because of drugs. We try to only prevent" crimes from happening, he said while driving his patrol vehicle. "If we happen to fall into those situations when we arrive, well, we coordinate. There have been confrontations."

Avila said a key for him is to be aware of his surroundings. He said he has prepared himself emotionally, mentally and physically for anything.


His wife of six years knows the dangers all too well. But his children, ages 4 and 2, are too young to understand his job.

My wife "doesn't worry because we are both convinced of what I'm doing. She doesn't worry more or less now (because of the rise in violence). I just tell her to be alert. We know what the job entails, the responsibility and what can happen during my shift. Right now, homicides are what is happening."

Before leaving for work, Avila said, his wife kisses him, recites a prayer and tells him she will see him after work. Then he gives his children a little talk.

It goes like this: "I'm going to work, little ones. I'll see you. If God permits, we'll see each other at night when I get out. Behave."

During this shift, the streets are relatively calm. Still, within an hour, Avila is called to a neighborhood dispute, a church robbery and a warehouse fire.

Earlier, gunmen had shot two men and two teenage boys execution-style. Their bodies were left at an intersection in the Del Real colonia. Police collected 26 bullet casings near the bodies.


Less than 10 minutes later, a woman seven months preg nant and a man were shot many times while they drove in a vehicle. They landed in a hospital.

Dispatchers sent officers to two clinics. Two men, 18 and 28, had been shot in different cases. Both died.

In Casas Grandes, which is out of Avila's patrol sector, a 75-year-old man was shot several times at close range. His body was found along a street.

No neighborhood is untouched by killings, Avila said. Ambush- and execution-style murders occur any time of the day.

"When I started, there weren't many homicides," Avila said.

In recent times, he has responded to his share of murders. As a municipal police officer, his job is to secure the scene along with soldiers while state police investigate.

Officer Denise Espinoza has worked for the municipal police department for 11 months, but she already has a veteran's viewpoint -- nothing surprises her.

"I have seen everything. ... It doesn't get any worse," she said.

Espinoza said one of her colleagues was recently shot dead. That case showed how uncompromising and dangerous her job is.

"It's sad when you lose someone who you knew and shared so much with. It hurts when something like that happens because we're doing our jobs. We're not doing anything wrong. We are just doing our job."

The day after Espinoza's interview, four Chihuahua state police officers were shot and killed in separate cases. Two others were wounded.

Two of the fallen officers were ambushed by a group of men while on their way to work. The other officers, who were on duty, were attacked by two groups of armed men in vehicles at a gas station.

Espinoza begins each workday with a goal of making it home alive. She said her religious faith helps her. She prays for her safe return to her parents and two children.

"More than anything, I put my life in God's hands. I just do my job and serve the people."

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