The Crucifixion of Juarez

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

It's hard to find any local government presence; the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, runs his administration mostly from El Paso, residents say. He is a vehement supporter of the military presence in his city. In early March, a pig's head with a note reading, "you're next" was found outside his Juárez residence.

"The army will remain in Juárez for the time being," he said at a news conference March 27. "It has done an excellent job and has controlled the delinquency rate, the robbery of banks and car thefts."

At this point, bank robberies and auto theft seem minor in a city where children can walk out the door on any given day and see a bleeding body outside their homes. But it is the apparent policy the Mexican government, quite different from prior administrations, is intent on following for the near future.

"The White House thought the violence and corruption was a Mexican problem that wouldn't affect the United States," Chabat said. "And Mexico thought the consumption of drugs was a U.S. problem. . . . Time has proven that both perceptions are erroneous, and whether we like it or not, the phenomenon of drug trafficking must be confronted by both governments. If we don't, the chaos will overpower both nations."

It's certainly overpowering Juárez, rapidly becoming a dilapidated, lawless city where only those who don't have other options stay. Many of the poor who came in droves during the maquiladora boom are returning to the southern states they came from. The Juárez business group called Coparmex estimates about 40 of the 300 or so factories have shut down in the past two years, costing thousands of jobs.

The Juárez Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, estimates 10,000 businesses have been forced to close. Many owners can't or refuse to pay the bribes that gangs demand for protection. Dozens of businessmen have been kidnapped for ransom, and countless businesses have been torched, leaving central shopping centers empty and boarded-up. The once-popular discotheque Broncos and Cowgirls was burned down a few months ago by extortionists, and the surrounding shopping mall in Plaza las Americas has few cars in its parking lots.

In the Plaza de las Armas, the once-bustling plaza that thrived selling blankets and silver to American tourists, has disappeared. Although locals still go there to sell hot dogs or get their shoes shined for a semblance of normalcy, it empties out in the afternoon after people return from work.

"There are less people in the plazas, in all public areas, hotels, dance halls, shops. A lot of people are imprisoned in their homes," said the Reverend Carlos Reza, 32, a priest in the city's main cathedral. Reza tells his flock in sermons that what is happening in Juárez is similar to the persecutions of early Christians and Israelites, meaning, this too shall pass.

High unemployment and lack of education among those 18 to 25 years of age—the age group that comprises around 40 percent of the population in Juárez—has clearly fed criminal activity and crimes of opportunity, but so have low wages of about $5 per day, a rate that has gone up only about $1 since NAFTA went into effect, fueling an underground drug economy that's attractive to the young and poor with no other options to make a living.

"We have watched with mounting distress as the narcos become more powerful. They are lawless. They are terrorists. They control the Mexican side of the border," said Alejandro Junco, owner of Grupo Reforma, the largest newspaper company in Latin America, speaking at World Affairs Council luncheon in San Antonio on March 25.

"The rule of law in our democracy hangs by a thread. Those who are not corrupted cannot contain the lawlessness.

"The reason so many young men join the bloodstained hands is they would rather live one week like a king than endure a life of misery for 70 years. Our sad reality is that if you are born poor and you don't leave the country, poverty is your destiny if you don't become a hit man."

Junco, 61, employs some 4,000 Mexican reporters and most wear bulletproof vests. Like other Mexican newspapers, Junco's dailies of Reforma, El Nortein Monterrey and Mural in Guadalajara have forgone bylines in drug stories.

Junco himself has been the target of death threats, and like prominent figures who speak out, he says he has lost faith in the Mexican government. He spends much of his time in Austin.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission reports 60 deaths and 11 disappearances of journalists in the country since 2000. But this year, six journalists were killed and five kidnapped reporters are still missing.

The daily violence that Juárez endured almost unnoticed for nearly two years gained international attention when three people linked to the U.S. consulate, two of them Americans, were gunned down arpund 2:30 p.m. on March 13 in what appeared to be two different coordinated attacks.

Lesley Ann Enriquez, a pregnant employee of the U.S. consulate, was leaving a children's consulate party with her husband, Arthur Redelfs, a corrections officer with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, and their 3-month-old daughter when their white Toyota was intercepted a few meters from the Santa Fe Bridge, one of the main bridges connecting to El Paso and the site of a military camp.

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