The Crucifixion of Juarez

On the front line of the U.S. war on drugs, a Mexican city bleeds to death

"We live in terror that one day, it will be me, or my daughters. You could be walking next to someone the narcos want, and they shoot you for the hell of it. Now the military and the federal police occupy the city. We don't know who's who. We don't trust anyone," said one man who moonlights as a chauffer for the U.S. consulate. Like others, he has seen headless bodies hanging from bridges and lifeless bodies strewn on streets.

"If I see something suspicious, I look away because they'll come after me or someone I love. They know your license plates. They follow you. They know where you work and where your children go to school," he added.

Cocaine is smuggled from Colombia across Mexico's southern border and eventually into border cities. But Mexico also grows most of the marijuana and a small percentage of opium poppy for heroin sold in the United States. It also leads in crack cocaine production. The farming villages nestled along the Sierra Madre mountain range along the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua are known as the Golden Triangle of marijuana growth.

Mexican reports say that in 2004, a truce was brokered between Carrillo Fuentes, nicknamed the Viceroy, and "Chapo" Guzman, the most wanted man in Mexico who's listed as the 701st richest man in the world by Forbes, following the murders of close relatives on each side.

Tensions escalated and finally broke the two families' ties in 2008 when an old powerful drug ally of the Sinaloa Cartel, led by two brothers named Beltran Leyva, aligned with the Juárez mafia, unleashing the current marijuana smuggling bloodshed. The two cartels have "sicarios," or death squads, and gangs working for and protecting them. Gangs called the Artist Assassins and the Mexicles, thought to number about 2,000 members, work for the Sinaloa Cartel. Meanwhile, the Barrio Aztecas, born out of the Texas prison system, and La Linea are aligned with the Juárez Cartel.

Many are trained hit men, while many are kids between the ages of 14 and 18 who are unemployed, uneducated and are hired for as little as $40 to $80 to kill.

Now the Zetas, the elite government forces who defected from the military around 2005 and joined the Gulf Cartel, operating out of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros just south of Texas, have apparently gotten so strong they have formed their own deadly mafia, adding to the cauldron of violence and sinister players of Juárez.

"What we lack is an ability to fully investigate. We sent in the military without proper intelligence, a folly in any war," said attorney and investigator De la Rosa. "So we don't know exactly which social group is suffering this genocide, who is killing them and what is the motivation."

Many residents here say they were initially happy when the army came to Juárez. They thought it would put a lid on the violence, but within a month, they say, it was obvious the military couldn't—or wouldn't—do anything. In fact, murders doubled.

"The army brought all of its bad habits to Juárez: extortions, kidnappings, torture," said Javier Cordona, 22, as he sat with gloomy friends outside the packed Jardin Funeral Home in downtown, where reporters had amassed following a rumor that one of the consulate murder victims was being taken there.

"You know what the worst thing is about all this? It's that it's become normal," said a 21-year-old friend, who didn't want his name used. In September, five of his friends were killed by gangs, he said. "I think one of them may have had something to do with crime, but not the rest of them. The thing is . . . we don't know who's who. You may be standing next to someone or know somebody who knows somebody, and you're dead. We don't know who to trust."

Mexico's soldiers and police are traditionally underpaid, and except for those with specialized training in the high ranks, lower-class citizens seeking a way out of poverty man the front lines.

"The Americans send money to fight the narcos, but they don't pay us well," said one federal police sergeant sent to Juárez as part of Calderón's operation. He was manning a barricade during a presidential visit in early March. With fear in his eyes, he chased a foreign journalist and told his story, hiding behind a bush. Around him, security for the Calderón visit was unprecedented, paralyzing Juárez for hours. Residents moaned and joked that it would be the only time cartel gangs would keep a low profile, and indeed, there were no killings reported in about six hours.

"I'm here to speak on behalf of my colleagues," said the officer. "We only make about $200 a week, and in the two years we've been here, we've only gotten one uniform and one pair of boots. People in Juárez say we're not doing anything, but it's not true. We're supposed to go where we want, but we don't have good intelligence. We don't have confidence in our leaders. I think you ought to investigate the army chiefs. In the high ranks, they are corrupt. They tell us not to go into this sector or that sector. They say, 'Don't touch.'"

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