The Crucifixion of Juarez

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

Almost at the same time, after leaving the same party, Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniseros, the 37-year-old husband of another U.S. consulate worker, was driving in his SUV with his children—ages 2, 4 and 7—when gunmen opened fire and killed him instantly. Salcido was a production manager of the Dallas-based technology and outsourcing company Affiliated Computer Services Inc.

The killings brought an outcry of condemnation by the United States, including President Barack Obama.

Mexican authorities theorized that the Aztecas, which also operate in other U.S. cities besides El Paso, as well as in New Mexico and Arizona, are responsible for these killings, and one gang member has been arrested.

The consulate-related killings could have been random, but they came after published reports that U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, would embed with Mexican police forces to train, advise and even supervise as part of the Merida Initiative that President George W. Bush signed with the Calderón administration.

In Juárez, many saw a direct link between the murders and the reports of increased U.S. intervention in Mexican security matters, an affront to Mexico's sovereignty that could spawn a "narco patriotism" war, much as Colombia saw when the United States announced in the late 1980s it would extradite captured drug leaders.

"There has been such a weakening of the government's power to govern that they have to accept foreign intervention," said De la Rosa. "The narcos sent a message written in blood to Obama, and it said, 'You mess with us, and you will pay for it.'"

Among the greatest tragedies in a city of tragedy are the continuing deaths, disappearances, torture and mutilations of women that gained international attention more than a decade ago.

In 1993, the Mexican attorney general began counting the murder of women as separate crimes, or "femicides." The women, most of them factory workers, were turning up dead by the dozen, raped, mutilated and dumped in empty lots. From 1993 to 2007, more than 700 "femicide" cases were documented. In 2008, there were 87 cases, 164 in 2009 and 43 so far in 2010, according to human rights observers.

"The government is not listening to those of us who work in human rights. The disappearances and murder of women has now gotten lumped into the drug war statistics, and it's no longer a separate crime," said Irma Guadalupe Casas, director of the Casa Amiga Crisis Center in Juárez, a nonprofit center that shelters women and provides legal, medical and psychological services.

Casa lawyer Brenda Lara said she's seeing women seeking shelter who are victims of domestic violence, many including wives or girlfriends of drug gangs.

"'I will kill you, and nothing will happen.' . . . That's what their boyfriends say," said Lara, citing a 40 percent increase in women descending on the center to seek refuge and escape. "And it's true. Nothing will happen if they kill them."

Until lately, what little attention has been paid to the slaughter in Juárez has come in part from the indefatigable efforts of a librarian at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. With her daily posts of up to a half dozen articles and bulletins on the Frontier News Wire and her constant updating of the death toll, Molly Molloy has emerged as the de facto record keeper of the violence.

Daily, she scours the local press and analyzes, compares, checks and rechecks her figures.

In her constant stream of posts, Molloy regularly critiques and challenges news articles and official announcements that don't pass the smell test.

"I began to pay close attention to the numbers of murders in Juárez in the early part of 2008. More than 40 people were killed in the month of January, and this had never been seen before in the city," she says. Her research became part of the book Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden.

"There is ample evidence that people are targeted and murdered for many known and unknown reasons and that the killings have only continued to increase since the army first arrived in force in Juárez," she said. "Evidence of guilt is seldom, if ever, provided. . . . The huge majority of victims are poor people."

Many in Juárez think they've been forsaken, that the government is letting the violence play out until a cartel winner emerges. Mexico ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) when Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, won the presidency under the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, in 2000. Mexicans viewed this election as the country's first democratic balloting, and there was hope that with it, corruption would decline and rule of law would materialize.

Calderón maintains most of the murders are related to cartel violence, that about 5 percent are innocent or bystanders. When answering questions from the public or media about the success of his strategy, the president insists it's a problem of "perception."

"We all have to work on the image of Mexico and the perception of the violence" is an oft-repeated answer.

Calderón won in 2006 in a highly contested election, and when his term ends in 2012, Mexicans could opt to return to PRI rule, when a policy of criminal tolerance reined in drug violence. The question is what role the U.S. government will play in a nation averse to foreign intervention.

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