Nation & World

Will army presence pacify Mexico's most violent city?

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The gunmen caught their target on his way home.

Police Cmdr. Juan Manuel Flores had just finished his shift on Easter and was pulling onto a dirt road in his quiet neighborhood of run-down adobe homes. Out of nowhere, two SUVs darted out and cut him off, forcing him to drive his car into a palm tree on the sidewalk.

Neighbors scattered for cover as masked men stepped out of the vehicles and for six minutes fired a barrage of AK-47 fire into the officer's blue 1998 Dodge Neon, police and witnesses said. One of the masked men then walked to Flores' battered car and fired a final shot to ensure that the officer was dead.

"He never had a chance to reach for his pistol," said Jaime Torres, a spokesman for the police department.

The killing March 23 was the eighth assassination of a police officer this year in this border town across from El Paso, Texas. Several days later, the Mexican government sent in the army.

More than 200 people have been slain in Ciudad Juarez this year in what amounts to a turf war between drug cartels — the growing Sinaloa cartel and the local Juarez cartel — over lucrative smuggling routes to the United States.

Drug gangs have infiltrated local police and government offices. They've silenced journalists with death threats. One local paper no longer publishes drug investigations. Instead, it issues government reports of arrests and deaths.

U.S. drug enforcement officials considers Mexican drug gangs the greatest threat to U.S. efforts to block the flow of illegal drugs into the country.

Ciudad Juarez, with a population of about 1.5 million, is an important business center for Mexico and the United States. It supplies dozens of U.S. businesses with auto parts, electronics and other manufactured goods.

U.S. students and residents used to visit the city's bars for cheap drinks and big parties. But as the violence spilled onto the street, and threat of kidnappings loomed, U.S. citizens stopped coming.

"No Americans want to come down here now," said Cesar Arande, a 20-year-old taxi driver. "It's crazy what's happening here. I've never seen anything like it before."

Torres said police officers were no match for the drug gangs, which carry military assault weapons and hand-grenade launchers. Some police officers, whose annual salaries are about $10,000, have decided it's not worth it anymore. Forty-seven out of about 700 Ciudad Juarez police officers have quit or filed for retirement in the past two months.

The federal government, responding to what it said was an extraordinary increase in violence, has deployed more than 2,000 soldiers and federal police officers to the state of Chihuahua in the past two weeks.

Now Ciudad Juarez is like a battle zone. Convoys of masked soldiers drive through. Troops with assault weapons guard the streets and U.S. fast-food restaurants. Soldiers set up roadblocks throughout the city and began patrolling neighborhoods in search of local organized-crime figures, including corrupt police officers.

So far, it hasn't stopped the violence. The bodies of four unidentified men — their heads covered with plastic bags and arms and legs bound with tape — were found within days of the military's arrival. On Tuesday, a military unit engaged in a firefight with three police officers who were carrying marijuana in a police pickup, military officials said.

"There is a drug war going on here," said Juan Mendoza, 42, who lives across the street from a municipal gymnasium that the military is using as a base. "We're caught in the middle."

Mendoza's wife, Berta Alicia Nunez, 40, is so petrified that her 4-year-old grandson will get caught in crossfire that she rarely lets him play outside anymore.

In the midst of the showdown, the U.S. women's soccer team and five other international teams came to town for a long-scheduled qualifying tournament for spots in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The top two teams in the tournament will go to the Olympics.

U.S. soccer officials said they were aware of the situation in Ciudad Juarez but that they were comfortable with the security measures that tournament organizers had in place.

"We would never send them down there if we didn't feel it was a safe environment for them to compete," said Neil Buethe, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic team.

Since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, he's dispatched more than 20,000 troops into drug-producing and trafficking regions to combat the multibillion-dollar industry.

More than 2,500 people were killed in drug-related crimes last year in Mexico. The country is on pace to set a national record this year. According to the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor, 23 people were killed on Good Friday alone in attacks around the country.

On March 18, gunmen opened fire and tossed a hand grenade at an army convoy that was traveling through Ciudad Madero on the Gulf Coast. That same night, singer Nicolas Villanueva, 38, was killed when his band, Brisas Del Mar, was attacked during a concert in Quechultenango, south of Mexico City.

The Bush administration has proposed a $1.4 billion aid package to help Calderon fight the drug trade. Most of the cocaine that enters the U.S. is transported through Mexico via the drug gangs, Mexican officials say.

"Up to 90 percent of (U.S.) law-enforcement investigative efforts are going toward investigating these trafficking organizations that have direct linkages to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations," said a senior U.S. counter-drug official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Groups such as Amnesty International have expressed concern about reports of human rights violations implicating military personnel. Other analysts have questioned whether a military offensive is the best solution to the problem and have suggested that the Mexican government negotiate with narco-traffickers over more peaceful solutions.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, however, said that the violence was a sign of the cartels' weakness "and how these structures as we knew them are collapsing."

Lucrative drug corridors have been cut off, forcing cartels into turf wars for limited routes. The cartels are fighting not only the military for survival but also each other.

"When you corner a rat, that's when the rat is most likely to bite," the U.S. counter-drug official said.

There have been successes in Ciudad Juarez. Since the military arrived, it's apprehended at least 10 police officers with alleged ties to drug traffickers. The military on Tuesday freed three kidnapped men, including a 38-year-old El Paso resident.

Sergio Rodriguez Torres, a roofer from El Paso, said he'd visited Ciudad Juarez on March 28 for a few drinks and a night on the town. On his way to a bar, Rodriguez said, a large man grabbed him and threw him into a vehicle, where he was blindfolded and taken to an alleged drug safe house.

"I couldn't see. My hands and legs were tied up," said Rodriguez, a Mexican native who's been a legal permanent resident of the U.S. since he was 11. "They would hit me with a phone book. They would play really loud music. They wouldn't let you sleep . . . I thought they were going to kill me."

The attack on Cmdr. Flores is still fresh in the minds of residents in his South Independencia neighborhood. Some of his neighbors didn't want to talk about the shooting, fearing that the killers could return.

Cesar Arande, 20, was working the counter at the Mini Super Centenario supermarket the day of the attack. He remembers it vividly: six minutes of rapid gunfire, screaming, then silence.

"All of a sudden you heard the bullets," Arande said. "People were diving to the floor, running behind the counter. People were yelling, 'They're shooting, they're shooting.' And then they were gone."

(Ordonez reports for The Charlotte Observer.)