Monday, January 26, 2009
Do Juarez Killings Signal Failing State?
The Houston Chronicle
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — In this carnage-racked border city of 1.3 million, more than 80 murders have been clocked in the past three weeks, and kidnappings, extortions, robberies and rapes further bedevil an already rattled population.
So far, the new year looks to be bringing as much, if not more, havoc than the last.
“Walking in the streets of Juarez is an extreme sport,” said political scientist Tony Payan, an expert on border violence, repeating a grim quip making the rounds.
Though little more than 1 percent of Mexico’s 105 million population lives in Juarez, it accounted for almost one-third of the country’s nearly 5,400 gangland murders last year, according to the federal government. And with President Felipe Calderon’s war on the country’s powerful drug syndicates unlikely to abate, this city bordering El Paso looks to remain a prime battleground.
Some U.S. security experts warn that Mexico teeters on meltdown — of being a “failed state.” Mexican leaders shrug off the notion, but Juarez’s criminal chaos wails like a siren before an approaching storm.
“Those of us on the border are evidence of how raw things can get,” said Lucinda Vargas, a former World Bank official who heads the Juarez Strategic Plan, a think tank. “There is not a corner of the city that escapes the effects of crime.”
Once contained largely to the gangsters themselves, the mayhem has become generalized.
Consider Tuesday, alone:
• • Authorities recovered the decapitated head of a police chief from a town just downriver. Three other heads stuffed into a cooler were left on the steps of a city hall in a neighboring village.
• • Two state police detectives were shot to death in their patrol truck in a downtown Juarez parking lot.
• • A Juarez traffic police commander was kidnapped by unknown assailants.
And then consider that 10 people were killed the previous Wednesday, Jan. 14, including a 19-year-old law student who was a varsity baseball pitcher. He had been abducted 30 hours earlier from his family’s townhouse near the border.
The parents of the student, Jaime Irigoyen, said their son’s abductors wore army uniforms and spoke with southern Mexico accents, like many of the 3,000 soldiers patrolling the city’s streets.
A Mexican army statement denied soldiers were involved.
“That whoever deprived him of liberty were dressed in military-style uniforms in no way says they were soldiers,” the army said. “We call on the general public not to be fooled by criminal gangs.”
But members of the public said they saw men in uniform commit crimes. Witnesses said the eight gunmen who stormed a prayer service at a drug rehabilitation center last August and killed eight people were attired in military garb as well.
“They were dressed like soldiers,” Socorro Garcia, the Assemblies of God pastor who was leading the service, told reporters.
No arrests in deaths
As in most of the city’s more than 1,600 homicides last year, no one has been arrested for the clinic attack nor for the student’s killing.
“One can’t take refuge in a real rule of law, because it doesn’t exist here,” said Vargas, a Juarez native and reformer who nonetheless returns to El Paso each night.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Washington has made contingency plans to bolster U.S. border defenses if gangsters seize control of a city like Juarez.
And former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey recently warned that Mexico faces becoming a “narco state.” U.S. military planners have hypothesized that Mexico and Pakistan pose the greatest risk of sudden collapse.
Mexican officials have dismissed such talk as overblown.
“We are putting the house in order,” Calderon said in a recent speech. “Mexico has political stability.”
True enough, perhaps. People still line up to pay their taxes and vote at election time. Public utilities work much of the time. Police direct traffic, patrol neighborhoods.
Most of Mexico — and even much of Juarez — functions peacefully. But some fundamentals have gone dangerously awry.
Problems amid progress
International trade has built Juarez’s new highways, office towers and gated suburbs.
But too many of the city’s people watch that progress with their noses pressed to a window. Factory jobs start at less that $50 a week, and even that work is dwindling amid the global recession. Criminal enterprise — selling narcotics in the neighborhoods, or helping to smuggle drugs to U.S. consumers — pays far more.
Thousands of young men belong to the 500 street gangs that police estimate operate in Juarez.
The gangs ally with the larger drug syndicates and battle one another for turf.
“The young don’t have any long-range plans,” said sociologist Julia Monarrez, who studies the gender factors of Juarez’s violence, which also has claimed nearly 600 women since the early 1990s. “They are disposable.”
But amid the violence here, many Juarez residents with money and U.S. visas have slipped across the Rio Grande to El Paso.
As for those who remain, they shut themselves inside after sundown.
“In a micro sense,” Vargas said, “Juarez is a failed state.”
at 2:08 PM