CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) - In March, municipal police officers detained the two brothers of Armida Vazquez and whisked them away in patrol cars.
Vazquez and her mother searched for Dante and Juan Carlos, cellphone shop workers in their mid-20s, and checked with the local and federal police here, to no avail. Nineteen days later, the strangled bodies of the brothers were found on the outskirts of this notoriously violent city. Witness testimony and other evidence led to three policemen, now in jail awaiting trial.
But the police pushed back. Policemen in civilian clothes, Vazquez says, approached her mother outside church and told her to stop making trouble. When Vazquez made a statement against the suspects last month, she says other policemen and relatives of the officers threatened her outside the courthouse.
Terrified, 20 members of the Vazquez family packed their bags and fled across the U.S. border to El Paso, Texas, a short trip into a world of gleaming shopping malls, well-kept highways and safe neighborhoods.
“We left all we had in Juarez, our house, everything,” said a pregnant Vazquez, in the tiny apartment she and her three children now share with a sister in El Paso.
Tens of thousands more people like her have abandoned Ciudad Juarez, a city wrecked by Mexico’s drug violence. Although official figures vary, the city this month likely surpassed 10,000 homicides in the past four years. That’s more than Afghanistan’s civilian casualties in the same period and more than double the number of U.S. troops killed in the entire Iraq war.
The violence here, as across the nation, fundamentally stems from a turf war among drug cartels. U.S. and Mexican officials say the battle in Ciudad Juarez pits the Sinaloa cartel, run by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, against the Juarez cartel, with deep ties along Mexico’s northern border.
But the Vazquez family’s nightmare underscores another challenge in Mexico’s war on drugs: the government’s own warriors.
Business owners, security experts and ordinary residents told Reuters that official corruption at all levels of the security forces has fanned violence in the city, with local and federal police and soldiers complicit in, or actually committing, many of the murders.
The human rights commission of the local state of Chihuahua registered 1,250 complaints of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions by the army during its two-year deployment in Ciudad Juarez. It counts 400 similar grievances against the federal police who moved in when the soldiers were pulled out. These numbers document only 20 percent of the violations taking place, it estimates.
When President Felipe Calderon launched his war on drug cartels in late 2006, he meant it quite literally. He sent security forces to many parts of the country to try to put powerful drug gangs on the defensive. The nation’s armed forces, in particular, were seen as a relatively clean player that would change the game.
The drug warriors have failed at every level of government in places like Ciudad Juarez. Before the army and federal police rolled into the city, many of the municipal and state police were paid operators for the Juarez cartel, government officials have conceded, directly involved in drug trafficking, kidnappings and murder. It has now come full circle: The army left Juarez in the face of a popular backlash, and the local police force is back in charge of the city’s security, struggling to clean up its reputation.
While the problem is extreme in Ciudad Juarez, deep corruption inside the security forces is a problem across Mexico, a major weak spot in Calderon’s campaign. It hinders efforts to end the violence that has killed more than 45,000 people around the country in the past five years.
Public outrage over the deaths is bleeding into debates ahead of next year’s presidential election, with Calderon’s strategy widely criticized and his conservative ruling party trailing in opinion polls.
In a speech this month, Calderon explained what he believes has happened. He said the crisis began in the 1990s when Mexican traffickers transporting Colombian cocaine north to consumers in the United States began receiving payment in kind. They found a ripe market among Mexicans and began selling drugs at home, which swelled the army of criminals and forced them to fight one another for territorial control.
“They no longer employ tens or hundreds of people, but thousands of people, thousands, extending their networks into areas that did not exist before,” Calderon said. He said they get into other criminal activities, bribe authorities to look the other way and, if unchecked, ultimately create a “symbiosis where crime and security institutions are one and the same.”
In Ciudad Juarez, many people believe Calderon’s campaign was poorly designed and caused unnecessary suffering.
There were only 300 murders here in 2007, but when the violence arrived in early 2008 it rolled across the city with a vengeance. The government sent in 10,000 troops and federal police to try to quell the mayhem, but the deaths kept rising.
State officials counted 3,622 homicides in 2010, making Ciudad Juarez the city with the highest murder rate in the world at 272 per 100,000 residents. Authorities cite a drop in killings this year as a sign of success, but the murder rate is still more than six times higher than it was in 2007.
“As president, you should know what you are, and are not, capable of and not steer the country into the tragic situation we are in now,” said Hugo Almada, an academic and psychotherapist who treats victims of violence in the city. “He calculated very badly.”
Ciudad Juarez was once a kind of Las Vegas during the U.S. Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s, hosting American film stars and singers at its bars.
Named after Benito Juarez, a 19th-century president who in 1865 briefly took refuge here with his forces during the French invasion of Mexico, it is still scattered with dilapidated monuments that recall the fighting during the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920. It later became famous for modern manufacturing industries that attracted workers from across the country and billions of dollars in foreign investment.
But it is now a shadow of its former self. The Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez estimates 239,000 of the city’s 1.3 million people have gone in the past four years. Nearly one in three of the businesses along the main boulevard is shuttered, often gutted by bands of looters who rip out copper wiring and the insulation in the walls.
Some say the descent into chaos began on New Year’s Day 2008 when a local cop turned up dead, riddled with bullets in his black Volkswagen Jetta. The killings continued, and later that month, an ominous hit list appeared on a monument honoring fallen policemen. Under a heading “for those who didn’t believe,” it named five recently murdered officers. Under “for those who continue not believing” were 17 more.
Most of the 17 were killed within the year, along with many others. Around 50 policemen had been killed by mid-year, and the murder rate in the city quintupled.
Experts believe many of the murdered policemen were working for “La Linea,” or “The Line,” the armed wing of the Juarez cartel, and were targeted by a rival gang, most likely the Sinaloa cartel.
The Juarez cartel is run by Vicente Carrillo, 49, a keen horseman who took charge in 1997 after his brother Amado died during plastic surgery in an attempt to change his appearance. Amado, the more flamboyant of the two, was known as “Lord of the Skies” for his prowess using a fleet of airplanes to ferry Colombian cocaine into Mexico.
The younger Carrillo now handles about a fifth of Mexico’s $40 billion-a-year narcotics business, drug experts say, and has avoided capture for the past 13 years, in part by adeptly corrupting local officials.
“All our police forces are infiltrated. All of them, it’s as simple as that,” Chihuahua state’s then-governor, Jose Reyes Baeza, said in 2008.
Along the bustling border, cars and mechanics are cheaper in Mexico than in the United States. Ciudad Juarez built up a busy autoparts business with around 600 junkyards, some legitimate and some chop shops for stolen cars.
Like others, the business has been ravaged by the cartels. Junkyard owners say the trouble started at the end of 2007, when a group of men contacted a leader of their business association demanding a collective protection fee. Fifteen days after he refused to pay, the first junkyard owner was kidnapped.
The group raised a complaint with the state police, said one leader of the junkyard industry. He says he found their reply menacing.
“Instead of getting a consoling response from them, the first commander said, ‘I am not interested, I don’t want to hear anything about it,’” he said. “And the second commander said, ‘Well, when people start showing up wrapped in sheets and stuffed in boxes, you’ll probably start paying attention’.”
He interpreted it as a warning to just pay the gangs. “I left there really scared.”
Since 2008, at least 30 junkyard owners have been kidnapped and some of them killed. More than three-quarters of the city’s junkyard businessmen simply decided to shut down their shops, and most who stayed open have to pay regular protection money to the gangs, the leader saod.
Calderon sent 2,500 soldiers to Ciudad Juarez in March 2008, and more the following year. At first the crackdown was welcomed. People hoped the army would be less corrupt and less abusive than local authorities.
The army’s first target was the police. Just one month after their arrival, soldiers arrested 21 police officers, stripping off their clothes, interrogating them and holding them for a day without charges. Some 400 police officers were fired after they failed federal background checks. Many others quit.
By mid-2008 there were fewer than 200 local police patrolling the streets per shift. Transit police were banned from carrying weapons, leaving them unprotected. Soldiers in charge of day-to-day security operations used the demoralized officers as chauffeurs, said Gustavo de la Rosa from the state human rights commission.
Accusations of torture and illegal detention against soldiers began to surface, and not even the harsh tactics had any impact on the surging homicide rate.
General Jorge Juarez, in charge of the mission in Ciudad Juarez and the rest of Chihuahua State at the time, told reporters they should stop writing about “one more death” and instead print that there was “one less criminal.”
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch says army abuses are not unique to Ciudad Juarez but endemic across Mexico and that the government has failed to properly address most complaints.
Gerardo Baca filed one of them. He says his son Victor was just 21 when he was picked up by soldiers three years ago at a hot dog stand with a couple of friends. Victor has not been heard from since.
Even after his friends were released claiming they were in custody with Victor, the army denies ever having held him. Baca goes every week to the morgue to scan records of unidentified bodies, hoping to find some characteristics matching his son. He has reported the case to every authority he can think of with no success.
“This is hell, we are living in a nightmare,” Baca said in the small living room of his publicly subsidized home, pointing to pictures of Victor, one in a white cowboy hat, another in a plaid shirt. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody, not even the soldiers who detained my son.”
The army did not respond to requests for information about specific cases for this article.
In his recent speech, President Calderon conceded the army has gone too far in some cases. “There have been excesses, that’s true, unfortunately,” he said. And we are very concerned and it’s very serious. But believe me, my friends, that these cases, given the magnitude of the operations carried out, the arrests that are made daily, are the exception rather than the rule.”
One former professional hitman says the abuses may have gone much deeper.
Interviewed by Reuters late last year, the hitman said he had worked with a group of 20 other paid assassins doing jobs for bosses he never met. He claimed his main contact was a former military officer, that he received training on a military base, and that he and other hitmen collaborated with soldiers.
“There are groups, paramilitary groups, that are the big ones in the army,” said the man, who admitted to beheading and torturing his victims. Many times, he says, he did not know why he had been ordered to target the person he was killing.
“One time I saw the army wave through a checkpoint three vans filled with hitmen from Sinaloa with automatic weapons,” he said. “They didn’t wait in line, just gave a code, showed a paper and they let them through to do their work.”
The army did not respond to questions about the claims,
which couldn’t be independently confirmed.
A spokesman for Calderon’s government said in September that “there is no evidence that phenomenon of paramilitary groups exist.”
Human Rights Watch found there were 921 investigations opened in the military justice system for abuses in Chihuahua between December 2006 and May 2011 - more than any other state. Charges were brought in only two cases and no sentences were handed were down.
Rising disenchantment with the military siege sparked a series of public protests in Ciudad Juarez in late 2009. The army handed over control to the federal police in mid-2010, just as the violence was peaking.
Once the federal police took charge, they went after the criminal gangs, arresting more than 400 suspected members of the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels along with over 5,000 other alleged criminals, breaking up kidnapping and extortion gangs.
Crime decreased, although the flow of narcotics was barely interrupted and the state human rights commission said complaints of corruption continued.
In what was dubbed “green zone,” federal police set up checkpoints to patrol the main commercial strip of bars and discos near the border even after most businesses, squeezed by extortionists, had shut down or were set on fire. The intensive patrols were meant to encourage patrons to return to the area. They didn’t work, in part because police were looking for bribes and potential customers were worried the police would be targets for criminals, making the area more dangerous.
“People were not only afraid of the criminals but also of the police,” said Federico Ziga, the head of the restaurant association.
The area is still largely abandoned. Places like the Sphinx, a once-popular nightclub shaped like a pyramid with a golden pharaoh’s head on the roof, are up for rent.
In October, the federal police followed the army and left, handing command of the city’s security back to the local authorities. Mayor Hector Murguia says he has beefed up the municipal police force to 2,600 officers, spending 47 percent of the city’s budget on security.
He brought in a tough new police chief, a retired military man named Julian Leyzaola, last March. Praised by the socialite magazine “Quien” as one of Mexico’s most influential people, Leyzaola is credited with bringing down crime rates in the violent border city of Tijuana, across from San Diego, Calif.
Leyzaola has said he helped purge the Tijuana force of corrupt and inefficient officers. Four local policemen in Tijuana say they were detained and tortured by Leyzaola, a charge he vehemently rejects. Leyzaola’s office did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
Mayor Murguia stands by the police chief. “I am not interested in these complaints, let them be pursued legally,” the mayor said. “As far as I’m concerned he is showing results in Juarez and I think he is one of the best police commanders in this country.”
Murguia, a member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is in his second term as mayor.
During his latest election campaign, rival politicians, rights groups and drug trade experts accused Murguia of being in the pay of the Juarez cartel. He has never been charged and denies any wrongdoing.
The government points to a drop in homicides, car thefts and armed robberies of businesses this year as a sign of success in Ciudad Juarez even as violent car-jackings rose.
Special agent Joseph Arabit at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso said improved intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Mexico has helped the two governments make more arrests.
Factory jobs in the city’s more than 300 assembly plants for export, or “maquilas,” are slowly picking up again after a steep drop in 2008 and 2009 during the U.S. recession. Ziga of the restaurant association said customers are venturing out again, encouraged by relatively calmer streets. And the mayor said there was a good turnout for Mexico’s independence day celebrations, a sharp contrast to last year when most were canceled due to fear of attacks.
“We are much more effective at capturing criminals,” said Murguia. “We have been able to reduce the kidnapping rate to basically zero.”
Moments after the interview with Murguia, 15 minutes from his office, reporters crowded around a red Nissan with the windows shot out that had been abandoned in the middle of the street, the keys still in the ignition. It was another “levanton,” or “pick up,” where the fate of the driver is unknown. It didn’t merit a mention in the next day’s local newspaper.
Minutes later, on the same street, police cars chased armed men who had tried to rob a carwash. After a shootout, three men were arrested. Panicked witnesses crashed their cars trying to escape the scene.
Another day this month, a day like many others, 13 people were killed. Among the dead were four dialysis patients and a paramedic gunned down in an ambulance.
Additional reporting by Patricia Giovine in El Paso; Editing by Kieran Murray