By Milan Simonich
El Paso Times
Rarely do statistics tell the whole truth, but mark Juárez as an exception.
It accounts for 1 percent of Mexico's population and more than 20 percent of the country's murders.
Juárez is death city, the most dangerous place in North America, and it is getting worse by the year. It has had more than 3,000 murders in 2010, an average of almost nine a day. Sixty-four of its police officers were among those killed.
El Paso, by contrast, saw its number of homicides drop to five this year from 13 in 2009. Both totals were uncommonly low for a city of more than 620,000.
New York City probably will finish 2010 with fewer than 600 homicides, and it has six times the population of Juárez. The Mexican city is home to 1.3 million people.
With a week still left in the year, Juárez has exceeded its 2009 murder toll by 400, an increase of more than 15 percent. The city has almost doubled the 1,608 murders it had in 2008, when the first explosion of violence occurred.
Worse, there is little or no chance that the killings will be solved. Juárez police, who number about 3,000, and investigators from Chihuahua state simply cannot keep pace with the carnage, much of it attributed to gangs and warring drug cartels.
Even if the government in Juárez were 100 percent honest, something no one believes to be true, police could not begin to arrest all the killers in their midst. In an imperfect or corrupt system, criminals have the upper hand.
"One of the things lacking over there is a commitment to law enforcement," said Greg Allen, police chief of El Paso.
Allen said a murder in El Paso brings an immediate show of force and dispersal of vast resources. He and his command staff assign up to 16 detectives and officers to every homicide.
Allen empathizes with those trying to maintain law and order in Juárez, where kidnapping, extortion and murder are so common that even a day of double-digit killings may not make the front page in El Paso. He said his own department, with about 1,100 officers, is overrun with calls from crime victims, though most cases are mild compared with what is happening in Juárez.
"Everything we're doing right now is a Band-Aid effect," Allen said, citing a case in which his officers did not respond to victims of car thefts for more than five hours. He said such inefficiency in El Paso - the safest large U.S. city, according to a survey by CQ Press - is his greatest frustration.
For the conscientious cop in Juárez, knowing that murderers operate with impunity is the worst part of an impossible job.
Randolph Roth, a history professor at Ohio State University who has studied murder from colonial times to the present, said the crisis in Juárez is comparable to a handful of other places.
One was the mafia wars in Sicily during various stretches of the 1900s. France's outlying provinces during its revolution and the American South during Reconstruction were equally violent, as criminal gangs asserted their power, Roth said.
"In all of those places, the central government had not been able to establish its control," he said. "What's happened in Mexico is similar. The cartels have tried to become warlord governments on their own. It is very hard, as we are finding in Afghanistan, to root these factions out."
One commonality in all the most violent places was that law-abiding people fled. This has been the case in Juárez and its environs, said Arvin West, sheriff of Hudspeth County, Texas.
His deputies patrol just across the border from the Mexican towns of Guadalupe and El Porvenir, where an exodus occurred last Easter.
"All the little villages further in evacuated," West said. "Farmers and ranchers just let their horses and cattle go free when they left."
Their fears were legitimate.
One riverside shootout left three men wounded on the U.S. side and another dead on the Mexican side. West said murders in the rural towns of Mexico subsided after springtime. Still, vigilance is his watchword.
"It ain't no safer than it was two years ago. It's a ticking time bomb," West said.
A father and son with ties to El Porvenir died in October, killed by gunmen who invaded their home in Juárez.
The victims, Rito Grado Serrano, 59, and Rigoberto Grado Villa, 37, were perforated with 22 bullets. Though Rito Grado lived in Juárez, he was a government executive of El Porvenir.
Police Chief Allen said El Paso has a sizable shadow population because of people fleeing Juárez. He puts the figure at 30,000, but said "that number is conservative."
Tony Payan, an associate professor of political science at UTEP who specializes in border issues, estimated that the number who have left Juárez for U.S. cities is 80,000 to 100,000.
"I have students who are living four or five to an apartment in El Paso," Payan said. "Even if it's just American citizens or people with dual citizenship moving across, it's a phenomenal number."
The departures, the bullets, the loss of jobs have combined to end night life in Juárez. Shuttered stores dominate shopping areas.
Juárez's massive factories, many tied to American companies, have withstood the trauma better.
"The maquilas have seen an uptick in orders, but they are not adding jobs or capacity," Payan said.
In shell-shocked Juárez, he sees worrisome new developments.
"Men 18 to 35 who were involved with the cartels are dying, dead, disabled," he said.
"More women and juveniles are involved now. The women are not killing, but they are used in drug sales at the retail level."
As for juvenile males, gangs enlist them for extortion and drug running.
So great are the number of murders in Juárez that writing and reading about them can take on an antiseptic quality. Some days the death toll is so numbing, the victims so faceless, that it is as though we are watching people die in television shows.
On Jan. 10, a story in the El Paso Times began this way: "The violence continued Friday in Juárez with at least 18 slayings. ... One man was cut into pieces, another was decapitated, one was hanged, a man in a wheelchair was shot to death and three women were killed."
It ran in the metro section, the first of many such compilation stories necessitated because of the staggering numbers and the reality that the next day would bring more of the same.
Still, a handful of cases stood out, demonstrating that the city can still be moved and perhaps outraged.
Marauding gunmen on Jan. 31 killed 15 people at a birthday party in the Juárez neighborhood of Villas del Salvarcar.
Eleven of the victims were teenagers, and the youngest was just 13. Another boy, 17, was an honor student. Two others played American-style football at their school.
Police and politicians said the killings were committed by drug dealers intent on disposing of rivals, a claim that many in the neighborhood disputed.
Some of those killed probably were innocents who had the misfortune of being in the same place as the hunted. Those responsible for the crime cared not if women or teenagers died. "Kill them all. Leave no witnesses." Those are the everyday themes for the executioners in Juárez.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón was among those in officialdom who said a preliminary investigation showed that the victims at the party could have been in gangs. He apologized during a visit to Juárez in February.
Perhaps only in Juárez could history repeat itself with another massacre at a birthday party.
It happened again in October, when gunmen killed 14 people and wounded 19 more. Six women and girls were among those killed. The wounded included a 9-year-old boy. Perhaps the killings that attracted the most notice in America had victims from El Paso.
Gunmen on March 13 killed Lesley Enriquez Redelfs, a worker at the U.S. Consulate in Juárez, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, an officer at the El Paso County Jail.
Attackers stalked them after they left a children's birthday party in Juárez to return to El Paso.
Leslie Redelfs was pregnant. The Redelfs' baby daughter survived the shootings from her seat in back of the couple's SUV.
That same afternoon, gunmen killed the husband of a second consular employee after he left the same party.
The leader of a drug gang in November confessed to the murders and to the slaughter of the 15 people in January. Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 32, of Los Aztecas, said he ordered those killings and 80 percent of Juárez's homicides during the last year.
"'He is in charge of the whole organization of Los Aztecas in Ciudad Juárez," Luis Cardenas Palomino, chief of the regional security division of the federal police, said last month from Mexico City.
Could this be? One man as a puppeteer controlling thousands of lives?
Earlier, another gang member said the Redelfs were targeted because of Arthur Redelfs' work at the jail. El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said there was no truth to this claim.
As for motive, federal police in Mexico did not say why Gallegos supposedly ordered the killings of consular employees.
Separating fact from fiction is never easy in Juárez murder cases. Sheer volume suggests that the killings are the work of no one man or even one criminal organization. The conventional thinking is that many die because the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels remain at war.
Payan, the UTEP professor, said violence will ebb when their fight is over. "The Juárez cartel is looking at the end," he said. "It will be finished off by the government or the Sinaloa cartel."
A single cartel dominating illegal exports will lessen the murder rate, Payan said. This, he said, has happened in Tijuana, Mexico, where one criminal empire effectively has won out.
But authorities in San Diego, Calif., a neighbor to Tijuana, said that was not the case. "I don't want to say the killing and violence are down in Tijuana," said Capt. Dave Myers of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. "There is no real validity to that. There is still a battle."
Juárez is a place where the violence has been underestimated. Occasional lulls during the last three years created false hope and even predictions that the worst was over. "None of us expected this to go very long," Payan said.
If we learned anything in 2010, it was that Juárez became more violent and unpredictable than ever.
Fifty-one killings occurred in a three-day stretch of August. One week in June brought more than 60 homicides.
No place in Chihuahua state or its environs was immune. Many of the more brazen crimes occurred outside the Juárez city limits.
Gunmen killed six men in May near a kindergarten in Loma Blanca, in the rustic Valley of Juárez. The next month, two dozen riflemen stormed a rehabilitation center in Chihuahua City, killing 19 men.
"This is an unprecedented event in the state capital," said Carlos Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Chihuahua attorney general.
Payan said he continues to believe that Juárez and its people have better days ahead. "I insist on being somewhat optimistic, even in the middle of the storm," he said.
Most of Mexico's violence is in northern and western states, and Juárez is the epicenter.
Payan hopes the eventual end of the drug war will stabilize the city, just as Chicago calmed after the U.S. government stopped Al Capone's criminal operations.
Roth, of Ohio State University, said there is one good reason for optimism.
"It's amazing how resilient cities are," he said. "I can't think of a case where a city actually collapsed."
Juárez, the city suffering more than any other in North America, does not want to be the first.