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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Drug-war Brutality Persists Despite Presence of Military

This story originally appeared in the November 15 edition of the El Paso Times.

They came by the thousands to intimidate feuding drug cartels in Juárez and bring them to their knees.

At first, it was an impressive show of force -- soldiers armed with assault rifles and wearing ski masks and flak jackets swarmed the city.

Squads patrolled the streets in trucks and heavily armored military vehicles while other soldiers manned checkpoints.

Their almost two-year presence, however, has had little or no affect on the drug war in Juárez, experts said.

Rival drug gangs, reportedly the Juárez and the Sinaloa cartels, continue their savage and unrelenting war for control of the area's drug trade.

The death toll in Juárez has rapidly risen from 1,600 killings last year to a little more than 2,200 so far this year. Drug-related killings average about 300 a month -- the total of all the killings in Juárez in 2007.

They are brutal, bloody, sudden and many times public.

Paramilitary fighters armed with assault rifles massacre large groups at drug rehab centers and bars. Shooting sprees erupt in mass transit areas. Bullet-riddled bodies are dumped along streets, and dismembered bodies with terroristic messages are left out in the open.

Though the killings continue even with the military presence, Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz will petition the army to remain in the city longer.

About 5,000 soldiers are scheduled to stay until late December. Reyes will then ask the military to continue its efforts and remain in what has become the deadliest city in North America.

Juárez, he said, is in a unique situation that requires law enforcement help from the military and federal agents.

But some experts, Juárez groups and people living in the combat zone do not believe the military is the answer to the city's problems.

Recently, two Juárez groups -- one representing the twin-plant industry and the other the retail industry -- announced they would submit a request to the United Nations for peacekeepers for their city.

The groups believe the peacekeepers are one of their last remaining options to curb the mounting violence.

Juan Martin, 35, has lived in Juárez all his life. He believes it is time for the military to leave, and said soldiers are not doing anything to help ease the carnage.

Innocent people, he said, have to fend for themselves and must lead uneasy lives as they try to avoid the crossfire.

"People are getting frustrated. But more than frustrated, they are getting used to all the violence. It's becoming a norm for us," he said.

"We see all this violence and we're not scared. It's a horrible way to live. We can't live comfortably."

Martin said the military presence is visible, and he sees more soldiers patrolling the streets now than last year.

But, he said, even with all the government's efforts, he sees no results. The number of murders continues to climb.

He said that though there was violence before the military arrived in Juárez, it appeared to be more restrained than it is today.

"Since (the soldiers) arrived nothing has been fixed, it's worse," he said. "I think if they left, crime would decrease."

Irazema Hernandez, 29, is the mother of a 6-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy. She said she is indifferent about the military staying in the city where she was born and raised.

"Even though they're here, nothing is getting better in the city. I think things will remain the same if they stay or leave. Crime and violence will remain the same," she said.

She said the soldiers are visible as they patrol the streets, but they never seem to be there when violence occurs.

"We never see them around when these crimes happen," she said.

Hernandez said she preferred living in Juárez just a few years ago, when she could walk along the city's streets without fearing for her life.

"When I was young, we could go out, roam around with friends and stay out late. No one was worried about what would happen. Now by 8 p.m. you don't want to leave your house," she said. "It's sad we can't go out on the streets. We can't trust anyone.

"Even with the soldiers around, I still do not feel safe ... You can't even enjoy eating out because you're susceptible to everything -- robberies, assaults and witness killings."

The city's mayor and other Mexican officials, however, say despite the continued murders, the military has helped in the fight against the warring drug cartels.

Jaime Torres, a city spokesman, said Reyes believes organized criminals would murder at will without the presence of the soldiers.

"The objective is for the military to prevent more killings," he said. "What would happen if the military left tomorrow and those murders doubled or tripled?"

The army, he said, has made 2,150 arrests in the last two years. Forty-five of these suspects have reportedly confessed to at least 700 cartel-related murders, he said. The soldiers also have seized 2,532 firearms and 100 hand grenades.

"Military intelligence and their patrolling actions have given results because numbers could be larger," Torres said. "Logically, Joint Operation Chihuahua has its strategies and they have been put to use, but the criminals also have their strategies. It goes round and round.

"But there will be a point when our officials' strategy will function and the problem will disappear or diminish."

For now, he said, no one can predict when the slaughter will end. Warring drug cartels remain strong in the city.

Dr. Tony Payan, a Mexico expert and political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said violence in the city remains fierce. This drug war, he said, has been the longest and deadliest in all of Mexican history.

"This, obviously, is unprecedented. We're looking at the eye of the storm. In that sense, Juárez is a particularly difficult place and no one has been able to get a hold of this problem," he said. "So bloodshed continues."

Payan said he doesn't believe keeping soldiers in the city for much longer will be the answer to stopping the brutality.

He said Reyes' request to keep the military in Juárez is an acknowledgement that the city's police force is "still undertrained, undermanned, underfunded and they need additional help."

Reyes and other Juárez leaders, he said, believe a continued military presence would prevent even more murders because the cartels would be cautious of committing crimes too openly.

Payan said they also believe the military helps prevent corruption in local law enforcement because soldiers patrol side-by-side with police. The close conditions, he said, can make officers less likely to accept bribes and extort people or participate in drug trafficking.

In the past two years, Juárez has cracked down on police corruption and fired 800 people from the police force. Of these, a little more than 330 were fired for lack of trust or confidence. There are currently 3,500 police officers in Juárez.

If anything, the sight of the military patrolling the street puts those living among the bloodshed at ease, Payan said.

But, he said, even that comfort is slipping away because people think the military has not helped the situation.

In the end, keeping soldiers around longer could put the military's credibility at risk, Payan said.

"The people in Juárez are getting wary. They're getting angry and they're getting tired -- not only of the cartels and the violence, but of the military," he said. "They may see that, simply, the military has to go.

"I think the patience is running out for the military. In order not to damage the institution and not to damage their presence, it's better for the mayor to ask them to stay a little longer, then to leave and send the military back to the barracks."

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