By Tim Padgett
A Mexican soldier patrols the scene where U.S. consulate staff were killed in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 13, 2010.
The three murders that occurred at two locations in the violent Mexican border city of Juárez on the afternoon of March 13 were themselves horrifying enough. Jorge Alberto Salcido, 37, a Mexican citizen whose wife works for the U.S. consulate, was killed at the wheel of his Honda; his two young children were wounded in the gun attack and were rushed to a hospital.
Minutes later, say police, gunmen in another part of the city chased down the Toyota SUV driven by Lesley Enriquez, 25, who also worked for the consulate, and her husband Arthur Redelf, 30, both U.S. citizens who lived across the border in El Paso, Texas, and shot her in the head and him in the neck as their baby watched from an infant car seat in the back.
Mexico's powerful and bloodthirsty narcomafias, facing a U.S.-backed antidrug offensive by Mexico's military, have in recent years flirted with attacks on American officials. Two years ago, for example, drug gangsters hurled a grenade at the U.S. consulate in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey.
No one was hurt. But if the March 13 murders were an announcement that the warnings have ended — that the narcos now consider U.S. authorities to be targets just like the local police and politicians they've been gunning down for years — then the Mexican drug war has entered a dimension not seen since the Colombian drug cartels' wave of terrorism 20 years ago.
"It proves that we've yet to see the worst from the narcos," who are already responsible for almost 20,000 killings in Mexico over the past decade, says Lucinda Vargas, head of the community-development organization Plan Estratégico de Juárez.
But civic leaders like Vargas, who is a dual U.S.-Mexican citizen, say the Obama Administration and the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderón need to pay closer attention to what many believe is the real reason the narcos are turning even more vicious. And it has less to do with Calderón's military crusade than with a murderous blunder the drug cartels made shortly after midnight on Jan. 31 that may well have changed the course of the drug war.
That night, narco gunmen massacred 15 Juárez teenagers at a party. After apologizing for initially suggesting that the victims were somehow involved with drugs themselves, Calderón has since made two visits to Juárez, which saw some 2,500 drug-related murders last year. He is making another visit on Tuesday. But rather than throwing more troops onto the city's streets, as he did last year, Calderón is pushing social and financial reform — including the kind of judicial modernization that tends to spook drug lords more than soldiers do. Last week, for example, the legislature in Chihuahua state (which includes Juárez) passed an asset-seizure law, similar to U.S. RICO statutes, that if enforced could seriously drain the cartels of the cash and property that lets them buy their guns and launder their profits.
What worries the narcos perhaps even more is that the January massacre has prompted Calderón to seek heightened U.S. assistance in specific areas — from more sophisticated intelligence-gathering on the politicians and businesses that aid the cartels to a re-engineering of the judicial system in drug-beleaguered states like Chihuahua. That might go some way toward answering critics of the Mérida Initiative, a bilateral pact that is supposed to deliver more than $1.5 billion in U.S. antidrug aid to Mexico, a plan some see as too wedded to tired and often failed U.S. drug-war staples like Black Hawk helicopters instead of less corrupt and more professional Mexican police. As a result, says Vargas, "Juárez could be an example of how to reverse this situation in Mexico."
President Obama said he was "deeply saddened and outraged" by the weekend slayings in Juárez, and the White House promised to "continue to work with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his government to break the power of the drug-trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico and far too often target and kill the innocent." Calderón for his part called them "grave crimes" and pledged a thorough investigation — though most narco killings in Mexico today go unsolved. Because of recent narco-related threats, U.S. consulates in Mexico had already begun letting employees take their families out of the country, and that process is being stepped up this week.
Emptying the U.S. consulates, of course, won't brake Mexico's ever spiraling drug violence. But like January's teen massacre, the March 13 assault on Americans may well turn out to be another big mistake by the narcos — especially if it gets both Washington and Mexico City to work together on the less militaristic but more effective long-term strategies that could eventually leave the cartels crying for once.