Around-the-clock executions, routine kidnappings, burnings of rural homes, hangings of murder victims from overpasses, scatterings of body parts on public streets, a car bomb, and threats of more violence have all put Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua on extreme edge.
The violence boils as the administration of Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza, state legislature and municipal governments enter their last months in office and prepare to hand over political leadership to others from the same Institutional Revolutionary Party.
On Tuesday, July 20, more than 200 Mexican soldiers conducted an operation in the Ciudad Juarez neighborhood of Hidalgo, a district close to three international bridges connecting the border city to El Paso, Texas. Supported by a helicopter, troops accompanied by dogs reportedly set up checkpoints and scanned homes of nervous residents with a hand-held detection device used to find arms and explosives. No contraband was reported seized.
Three members of the street gang Mexicles found executed point blank with gunshot to the head. The three bodies were found on the side of the "carretera Libre to Juarez" in an area known as "Curvas del Perico," a common dumping ground for bodies.
A once-vibrant commercial and residential zone now splotched with economic decay and abandonment, Colonia Hidalgo was the scene of the deadly July 15 car bombing that killed three people, including Doctor Guillermo Ortiz Collazo.
Described as a respected physician, the 50-year-old Oritz also was known for his musical talent and membership in a one-time popular band. Ortiz was killed as he rushed to attend a wounded man who was dressed up as a policeman and left on the street as apparent bait to lure federal officers into an explosive trap. Hundreds attended the funeral of Ortiz, who left behind four children.
Three bodies found among the trash along a road in "Curvas del Perico" executed with multiple gunshots to the head.
Captured by a cameraman who was wounded in the course of duty, the bombing was posted widely on the Internet. A significant escalation in the so-called narco war, Ciudad Juarez’s first-ever car bombing recalled tactics previously employed in numerous conflicts across the globe including Northern Ireland, Colombia and Iraq, among others.
The initial accounts of the incident reported the material used in the bomb was the powerful explosive C-4, but unidentified sources within the Federal Police later said the car bomb was possibly constructed with the industrial explosive Tovex.
Followed by threats from the Juarez drug cartel to detonate another car bomb within 15 days if actions were not taken against federal officers allegedly supporting rival drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the bombing represented a significant escalation in the tactics and weaponry used in the 31 month-old conflict that’s gutted Ciudad Juarez.
A pattern of violence has taken hold across Chihuahua. In a 24-hour period from July 19 to July 20, seven men and a woman were kidnapped in public places by armed bands in the state capital of Chihuahua City.
On Monday, July 19, an executed man was found in the area known as “Curvas del Perico” outside Chihuahua City. Meanwhile, the bodies of three men slain execution-style were recovered along the highway south of Ojinaga bordering Presidio, Texas.
Like Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua City has been hit by extortions and kidnappings directed at merchants and businesspeople, especially since 2009. According to one report, victims are forced to pay turf “taxes” ranging from two or three thousand pesos weekly to 50,000 pesos (approximately $40,000) every month.
“(Extortion and kidnapping) began in Ciudad Juarez and continued in Chihuahua and the rest of the state,” reported the daily El Heraldo de Chihuahua.
In both Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City, a psychological war between the cartels (and against the state) is intensifying as the battling groups paint messages on walls, attach threats to murder victims and hang banners with demands against authorities.
Reportedly posted this week by Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel in Chihuahua City, one “narco-banner” called on Governor Reyes Baeza and state Public Safety Director Gustavo Zabre to remove Fernando Ornelas as operational chief of the state’s Police Intelligence Center (Cipol) or face the prospect of seeing “innocents” killed.
Jesus Armando Acosta Guerrero, the suspected Juarez Cartel lieutenant whose detention is said to have sparked the July 15 car bombing, said in a video released by the Federal Police that members of his organization paint narco messages on public walls right after it falls dark so the information can “go out on the ten o’clock news programs.”
Public spaces and the Internet have become battlegrounds in their own right as multiple conflicts between and within cartels skewer regions of Mexico.
In 2010, the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s War of Independence and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, some messages have even conveyed an ironic, politically-hued symbolism. Last weekend, for example, presumed members of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villareal’s organization displayed banners from statues of Independence hero Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon and iconic President Benito Juarez in the state of Morelos.
In Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, the July 20 military operation fueled speculation that the Mexican Army was once again locally back in charge of the Calderon administration's so-called drug war.
In a press conference, Federal Police head Facundo Rosas Rosas insisted his law enforcement agency, which assumed control of Coordinated Operation Chihuahua from the army last April, still maintained command over the local police, transit cops and city jail. “It is temporary until the municipal authority is established,” he pledged.
Until city police are up to par, Rosas said, the Federal Police will conduct 24-hour patrols of conflicted zones, circle two helicopters in the sky and beef up a special unit dedicated to fighting kidnapping and extortion.
The army, Rosas added, will be tasked with gathering intelligence, monitoring the entrances and exits to Ciudad Juarez and patrolling the embattled Juarez Valley south of the city and bordering the United States.
As of July 16, the latest report from the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico Project counted at least 1,665 people murdered in gangland-style killings in the state of Chihuahua since the beginning of the year. However, the number could be greater.
Approximately 6,000 people have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez alone since January 2008. More or less, the fatalities would be equivalent to 3,000 people killed in the metro area of Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the same time period. The Ciudad Juarez body count exceeds the total number of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in nearly nine years of combat operations.