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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Juárez Deadlier than Miami in '80s

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

They called themselves "cocaine cowboys," and in the early 1980s, they gave Miami the highest murder rate in the world.

Daytime gunfights in the middle of the city between Colombian and Cuban drug cartels were routine. The morgue in Miami became so crowded that Dade County leased a refrigerated trailer from Burger King to handle all the bodies.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the drug violence shifted to other cities, including Detroit and Los Angeles, where street gangs fought for control of the crack cocaine market. Gangs made these cities among the most violent in the United States.

Today, Juárez bears the unwelcome title of deadliest city in North America.

There is, however, a significant difference between the drug war in Juárez and the drug violence that occurred in Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit and just about every other major U.S. city, an expert said.

"In Miami and Detroit, there was never a point where the police department, where the government, lost control," said Howard Campbell, a University of Texas at El Paso professor, who is an expert on the Mexican drug cartels. "The corruption in Juárez is bad, the violence is unlike anything we've seen and there is a meltdown of public order. No U.S. city has ever been this bad."

Juárez, population 1.7 million, is averaging between 200 and 300 killings a month. Miami, which had a population 346,000 in 1980, averaged about 20 murders a month.

Since 2008, Juárez has been mired in one of the world's massive and brutal drug wars. About 4,000 people have been killed, including police officers, businessmen, lawyers, soldiers, government officials and innocent bystanders. The Mexican military has stepped in and taken control of the city police department and the prison.

Daily violence is a way of life in Juárez, as residents stay indoors at night and executions occur in the middle of the day on busy streets. This month, gunmen executed four men outside an elementary school while classes were in session. The same day, masked assailants shot and killed six patrons of a strip club, including a U.S. airman from New Mexico.

The storyline in Juárez is eerily familiar to Edna Buchanan, a former Miami Herald reporter who covered the police beat during the worst of the cocaine wars. Her coverage of crime in Miami brought her a Pulitzer Prize in 1986.

"These cocaine cowboys, as they were called in Miami, were ruthless," Buchanan said. "They would go in and shoot anyone they wanted, anywhere. If they were after a man, they would kill the wife, the children, and if the Avon lady rang the doorbell at the same time, they would kill her, too."

As is the case in Juárez, the Miami cartels relished violence because they wanted to intimidate.

"One time they followed a man into a shopping mall and shot him in there, along with the store clerks," Buchanan said. "Then they just walked out and left everything behind. They didn't care."

In this same case, she said, the hitmen left behind the van they used to get to the mall. It was bulletproof and had gun ports and a high-performance engine. Inside the van, police found grenades and submachine guns.

"This was the first time the police department realized they were outmatched," Buchanan said. "Up until then, police officers were still carrying six-shooters. They were no match for the cartels."

But the same cockiness that made the cartels powerful and feared led to their demise, she said.

"There was too much public pressure and outcry against them. Because everything was done out in the open, the public outcry forced the city, the state and the federal government to find a way to end it."

The happened when the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard put a stranglehold on drug trafficking into Miami by checking every ship and vessel coming into port. At the same time, city, state and federal law enforcement agencies combined to investigate and arrest the cartel members operating in the city.

The same drug violence that shook Miami moved to several other U.S. cities in the mid-1980s, experts said. Among the worst was Detroit, where several street gangs fought to control the crack market, which had sales estimated at $1 million to $3 million a day.

Before 1990, Detroit averaged 300 murders a year. In 1991, the number increased to 615. Almost all of the killings were related to the drug trade.

Detroit had about 1.1 million residents at the time. Its population peaked at 1.85 million after World War II. Detroit is about half as large today.

Carl S. Taylor, a Michigan State University professor who is an expert on street gangs, said the violence in Detroit was brutal, but it involved different gangs at different times, unlike what is occurring in Juárez today.

"It looks like (Juárez) is at war," Taylor said. "The Detroit gangs were brazen but not as blatant, and they did more damage to each other than to civilians."

And in Detroit, Taylor said, the police, district attorney and DEA never lost control of the city's streets to the gangs.

"Once indictments and arrests were issued, the gangs were minimized," Taylor said. "We still have problems, but it is nothing compared to what is happening in Mexico."

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