WITNESS: Life in Mexico's deadliest drug war city

Sun Oct 12, 2008 8:37pm EDT

1 of 4. Residents react after arriving at a crime scene where a relative was gunned down in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in this August 22, 2008 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Tomas Bravo/Files

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Ignacio Alvarado, 40, is a freelance investigative reporter and Reuters contributor in the northern Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez where he was born and now lives with his wife and two children. He has been a journalist for 20 years -- seven in Mexico City, the rest in Ciudad Juarez. In the following story, he describes life in an increasingly lawless city where it's becoming almost commonplace to see daylight drug gang shootings and walk past dumped bodies.

By Ignacio Alvarado

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - My neighbor has been kidnapped and my six-year-old daughter witnessed an armed robbery at the local store. A friend was almost killed by a stray bullet in a gun battle at a set of traffic lights.

I hear gunfire in the streets as I work in my house, behind a front door bolted with four locks, and I feel a knot in my stomach whenever the telephone rings.

Another friend recently picked up to hear a voice say: "I'll kill your children if you don't pay me a lot of money."

With dozens of abductions and extortions daily in this rundown northern Mexican border city, he didn't wait to find out if it was real or a hoax. He just moved to Toronto.

Life in Ciudad Juarez, a city infamous for the unsolved murders of hundreds of young women in the 1990s, was never exactly pleasant. But since a new war between rival drug cartels broke out this year, law and order has collapsed.

Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, head of the Pacific-coast Sinaloa cartel, has declared war on the local drug baron, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, and sent his foot soldiers to drive out the Juarez cartel. The Gulf cartel based around the Gulf of Mexico coast has joined the fight.

The battle for the city's drug trade and smuggling routes into the United States has killed 1,100 people since January -- that's nearly four people murdered each day.

With the rash of killings, which can be out-of-the blue shootings or the result of gruesome torture sessions, those police not working for drug gangs are too scared to go on patrol. Many quit their jobs after cartel hitmen put up lists in public with the names of cops they plan to kill.

The deployment of 3,000 troops, received as heroes by city residents earlier this year, hasn't changed a thing.

Ciudad Juarez is Mexico's most violent city in a drug war that has killed more than 3,000 people nationwide this year.

As daylight killings have come to seem almost normal, I've seen small children run under crime-scene barrier tapes to get a closer look at victims. Curious bystanders stop and peer at blood-spattered SUVs and body parts strewn on the ground.

"When will this end? When they've killed everyone in the city?" remarked an elderly woman recently as she surveyed a dead body on the sidewalk.

FROM BOOZE TO BLOOD

Ciudad Juarez was once a fairly glamorous place, a kind of Las Vegas that boomed in the U.S. Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s as it lured American film stars and singers.

Named after Benito Juarez, a 19th-century reformist president, the city is scattered with historic buildings and monuments that recall the intense fighting here during the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920.

The wood-paneled Kentucky Club bar served Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s and claims to have invented the Margarita, a tequila-based cocktail.

More recently, since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Ciudad Juarez has developed into a major manufacturing center producing goods for the U.S. market.

But with the dominating presence of the Juarez drug cartel felt everywhere, economic growth has failed to bring social infrastructure like city parks and public transport.

Instead, as factories have driven a population explosion, the city is ringed with shanty towns and garbage dumps.

Impunity rules, as city authorities showed by never responding to the killing of hundreds of young women in the 1990s. So when Guzman decided to expand his patch into Ciudad Juarez, there was no one to stand in his way.

"The social fabric of the city has never recovered from the femicides," said Clara Rojas of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez. "Killing women like that was so brutal and the authorities never responded, provoking this kind of impunity."

As President Felipe Calderon's army clampdown fails to rein in cartel violence, people are more bitter than ever.

Bars, from cheap beer halls to the still-elegant Kentucky Club, are empty as more and more people stay in. In July alone, about 1,700 people, including me, had their cars stolen in the city.

The U.S. tourists who used to come for cheap medicines and a taste of the free-wheeling Mexican border scene are largely gone.

Almost everyone wants to leave and those with family ties in the United States are applying for visas to cross the Rio Grande and live in El Paso, Texas, where there have been just 12 homicides this year, none related to the drug war.

As I, like many others, fill in forms to apply for El Paso residence so I can continue my work as a journalist but protect my family, I have to laugh at Ciudad Juarez's tourist slogan: "The best border in Mexico."

I'd say it's a city that has lost its soul.

(Additional reporting by Tomas Bravo; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray)

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