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Monday, December 28, 2009

Too Many Guns Fuel Violence

Too many guns fuel violence, Juárez mayor José Reyes Ferriz says

El Paso Times

Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz sits in his office this week to discuss his expectations for Juarez in the coming year and what his administration has done to quell the violence in the city. Reyes said one of the steps his administration took was to clean up a corrupt police force. Reyes also said that violence was a problem for both Mexico and the United States.

Juarez, Chih -- Most big-city mayors live in a pressure cooker, but none faces the duress of Juárez's elected leader, José Reyes Ferriz.

Runaway violence has damaged Juárez's once-thriving economy. Its neighborhoods have turned from vibrant to mournful. And its streets have been stained with the blood of 2,580 people, all of them homicide victims of 2009. In contrast, El Paso, half the size of Juárez, has had 12 homicides this year.

Reyes, 48, a man of medium height with a soft voice, stands at the forefront of the government's attempt to stop the violence and save the city.

Once a trade attorney, Reyes studied international law at the University of Notre Dame. He had been in office for two months when crime rampages became the norm in his city of 1.5 million.

Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz talks about his expectations for Juarez in 2010.

Killers armed with assault rifles started attacking their victims in daylight. Messages threatening the lives of police officers and public officials were left scattered throughout Juárez.

Chihuahua police Cmdr. Fernando Lozano Sandoval was one of the first high-ranking officers to be wounded in the war between rival gangs -- reportedly the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. Gunmen ambushed him as he drove along a Juárez street in January 2008.

Sandoval survived the attack. Others haven't been so fortunate.

Police began to log the deaths -- sometimes a dozen a day -- until the toll reached more than 1,600 people in 2008. In 2009, against the conventional thinking that the worst was over, Juárez became even bloodier.

In an interview this week in his spacious, wood-paneled office at City Hall, Reyes called the gangland violence a problem for both Mexico and the United States.

"The U.S. needs to get involved. But they need to get involved on the U.S. side," said Reyes, who speaks flawless English.

The American government, he said, should enforce existing gun laws to help Mexico, especially Juárez.

At the start of President Barack Obama's term, he sent agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to El Paso to investigate the type of people purchasing weapons, Reyes said. Reyes called the findings a shock and said they should have been a wake-up call.

"They found a woman who was receiving food stamps. She bought 10 AR-15s and AK-47s. What is a woman who gets food stamps doing buying 10 AR-15s and AK-47s, except participating in a conspiracy to send firearms illegally into Mexico," he said. "The U.S. needs to prosecute those cases. It's not a matter of going against the Second Amendment. It's a matter of prosecuting those who are conspiring to send arms into Mexico."

Reyes, whose office overlooks Downtown El Paso and downtown Juárez, said the United States needs to stop the flow of drug money from crossing into Mexico. And, he said, the annual 100,000 undocumented immigrants -- including 7,000 deported felons -- should be sent directly to Mexico City instead of being left at border towns.

"That (deportation) policy by the U.S. government is fueling the violence in Juárez," Reyes said. "They can't send them to Juárez and not expect us to have a problem."

Reyes, accompanied by bodyguards when he walked from council chambers to his office, acknowledged that Juárez is one of the cities with the most murders in the world. But, he said, that does not mean it's a dangerous place for people who steer clear of drug smuggling and other crimes.

The daily news of people being killed execution-style is hard for Reyes to take.

"It's very difficult. We try to stop it. We try to find a way to solve it," Reyes said. "Every time I see or get the police report -- I get the police report immediately after something happens -- it's extremely difficult. The fact that the numbers are so large doesn't make it any easier."

Reyes said one of the steps his administration took to help quell the bloodshed was to clean up a corrupt police force.

In the past two years, Juárez has fired 800 people from its police department. Of those, a little more than 330 were ousted for lack of trust.

Now the city is patrolled by 3,000 municipal police officers, 200 state officers, 1,800 federal officers and 6,200 Mexican soldiers, Reyes said.

The Mexican army, he said, was sent to Juárez to help contain crime while the police force was rebuilt with trustworthy officers. Until recently, the military's role was never to stop the homicides, he said.

"We knew we needed to do a cleanup. ... We needed a force to help us, not as police officers but as a containment for us. ... I think they (soldiers) have been successful because we were able to do that."

Now, four of every five officers on the streets were hired by Reyes' administration. They were trained at the Mexican Army's headquarters in Delicias, Chihuahua, which is about six hours from Juárez. They are the only officers in the country authorized to carry automatic weapons.

Because the police force is stronger, Reyes said, the role of the military can now become to help lower crime rates. Once that happens, he plans to start withdrawing soldiers.

Reyes said his administration has also been getting advice from Inter-American Development Bank experts about social programs. The experts, he said, are based in Washington, D.C., and help design programs to enhance opportunities in education and employment.

Overall, Reyes said, he is optimistic about 2010. He said he foresees a decline in murders and other crime.

"We have the help of the federal government, the help of the state government," he said. "We have gotten past the problems of 2009. I think we're at a turning point. In 2010, we'll see much better things."

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