By Steve Fainaru and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- A few months ago, the mayor of the most violent city in Mexico would sometimes sleep across the border in El Paso for safety. Now, with the military firmly in control of Ciudad Juarez, an entire day can pass without a single drug-related killing.
Violence has plummeted here since President Felipe Calderón dispatched thousands of soldiers to take over public security, a strategy designed to crush the drug gangs that turned Juarez into a symbol of lawlessness.
In the first two months of this year, 434 people were killed in drug violence in the city, accounting for nearly half of all homicides nationwide. After 5,000 additional troops were sent to Juarez in early March, the number of deaths dropped to 51 last month. Twenty-two people have died in drug violence so far in April.
The military occupation of Juarez, an industrial city of 1.3 million across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is the most extreme example of Calderón's high-risk strategy of using the army to confront Mexico's powerful drug cartels. Besieged city officials signed an agreement surrendering responsibility for civilian law enforcement to the military.
The Juarez police department is now under the command of a retired three-star general and a dozen top military officers handpicked by Mexico's defense secretary. Soldiers are the cops -- they write traffic tickets, investigate domestic disputes, arrest drunks and run every department, including the jail, the training academy and the emergency call center.
More than 10,000 soldiers and federal agents patrol Juarez's gritty streets. Dressed in green camouflage and carrying automatic weapons, they stage raids, detain suspects, and search travelers at the airport and border crossings, assuming unprecedented law enforcement duties.
The steep decline in killings here has been accompanied by a spike in human rights complaints. A Juarez government office created last month to monitor the army's conduct received 170 complaints in its first three weeks, including allegations of illegal detentions and beatings. Last week, the attorney general opened separate investigations into the cases of two men who were killed while allegedly in the army's custody.
"Ciudad Juarez, right now I'd say it's the safest city in Mexico," said Jorge Alberto Berecochea, a former lieutenant colonel in the air force who was called out of retirement last month to run one of the city's six district police stations.
Berecochea and other officials described a "cockroach effect" in which drug traffickers have scattered under the glare of the military. One night last week, he led a patrol through Casas Grandes, a slum where smeared blood and splintered glass still cover the floor of a guard station where a police officer was killed in December by assailants firing AK-47 assault rifles.
Next to the abandoned kiosk, where someone had scrawled "Ha Ha Ha" on the facade, young men played basketball on a lighted court while families walked the streets.
"The cartels are basically wiped out here now," Berecochea said. "They're not operating, at least not in Juarez."
The lull in violence may be temporary. On Thursday, a 32-year-old man was killed -- shot 10 times in front of his family's house a few hundred yards from the U.S.-Mexico border. Later that night, in a commando-style raid at a popular nightclub, hooded assassins ordered patrons to the floor, then took the manager to the pantry and executed him. On Friday, four more men were slain.
"The surge by the military has made a profound difference. They do serve as a deterrent. Crime is a fraction of what it was. That is the good news," said Tony Payan, an expert on Mexico's drug trade at the University of Texas at El Paso. "The bad news is: What is going to happen when the army returns to the barracks? I think the situation remains very precarious."
Centrally located, with access to U.S. interstates, Ciudad Juarez is the most coveted "plaza" of the Mexican drug trade, which funnels 90 percent of all cocaine entering the United States. Last year, the Mexican news media dubbed it the "city of terror." Headless torsos hung from highway overpasses, severed heads were dumped in the central plaza, and masked assassins executed prosecutors in broad daylight. The four refrigerated vaults in the city morgue overflowed with unclaimed bodies, some of which were being buried in common graves last week.
In 2008, 863 people died in drug-related violence in Juarez, according to Milenio, a media network that keeps a running total of drug-related violence throughout the country. Chihuahua, the arid northern state where the city is located, had 2,052 killings, or 36 percent of all drug-related homicides in Mexico last year.
"The stakes are very high. We know this," Mayor José Reyes Ferriz said during an interview in his office overlooking the U.S. border. "This is something that has never been tried before in Mexico: to have the army take over the police so completely."
Reyes said Calderón and his drug war cabinet, including Defense Secretary Guillermo Galván Galván, are involved in every major decision regarding security in the city. "They selected the officers. They designed the strategy," Reyes said. He described Juarez as a "national model" for other Mexican cities whose weak and corrupt police forces are useless against the cartels.
Many Juarez residents have greeted the army -- and the sudden, surprising calm -- as if they have been liberated from a siege.
Julio Salazar, who runs a youth sports program in Casas Grandes, said: "You can't really imagine how it was here before: the violence, people selling drugs out in the open. There isn't so much chaos anymore."
"The violence is pretty much gone," said Agustín Vargas, a thin, 24-year-old soccer player who described himself as a reformed ex-gang member. "There used to be murders all over the place, people shooting. It's changed."
Calderón sent in the army after the rule of law appeared to break down entirely in Juarez. Local traffickers had succeeded in forcing out the police chief by threatening to kill one of his officers every 48 hours until he resigned.
At the time, Berecochea, 42, had been retired from the Air Force for three years, following a 20-year career. He was living in Pachuca, the capital of the south-central state of Hidalgo, running a company that makes steel blades for cutlery and farm equipment, when he received a phone call summoning him to the army's headquarters in Mexico City.
The army's chief of operations addressed a meeting of about 100 inactive and retired officers. "He told us that it was a very critical situation in Juarez," Berecochea said. "He said it had reached the point where the security of the nation was at stake."
Berecochea had a 2-year-old son. His wife was five months pregnant with their second child. "I could have refused, but what would I tell my kids when they asked me what I had done for Mexico?" he said.
Berecochea, a burly man with thick brown hair, was given a blue police uniform with three gold clover leaves across the shoulder and assigned to run the Aldama district police station in Juarez. Camouflaged soldiers patrol the roof of the building, which was strafed by automatic weapons fire last year. As blue-and-white squad cars and Ford pickups file out of the parking lot, they pass a sign reading: "Be careful. Your family is waiting for you."
While on patrol, Berecochea's men -- nine soldiers, some wearing masks, and three uniformed officers -- slowly weaved their vehicles through the dark neighborhoods, shining lights into windows and alleys and watching for suspicious activity. At one point, the squad searched a parked car as its owner stood by with several friends.
"Keep your noses clean, boys," said Berecochea, smiling as he walked away.
Calderón's deployment of the military to fight the cartels has dramatically changed the way law enforcement works in Mexico. The army is authorized to make arrests only when a suspect is believed to be in the process of committing a crime.
However, the government has erected a largely secret legal apparatus that allows commanders to conduct raids, arrest suspects and initiate wiretaps after presenting evidence to local prosecutors. The prosecutors, in turn, submit petitions for arrest and search warrants over a secure Web site to a panel of anonymous judges in Mexico City.
"We know [the judges] exist, but they work in a place that is unknown to the public," said Héctor García Rodríguez, a representative of the federal attorney general's office in Juarez. "I don't even know who they are."
According to the attorney general's office, the army detained 1,465 people in Juarez over the past year.
The army is required to immediately turn over detainees to local authorities. But Javier Pérez Chávez, a public defender whose office represents four out of every five suspects arrested by the military, said at least half have reported that they were held for periods of a day or two to more than a week. He said nearly all have reported being beaten while in the army's custody.
"The army has turned Juarez into an occupied city in which all citizens are presumed to be drug traffickers," said Gustavo de la Rosa, the state human rights commissioner.
Last week, Javier Eduardo Rosales, 21, a former X-ray technician, was found beaten to death on a motorcycle trail outside the city. Another man, Sergio Fernández, told Rosales's family that while buying beer, he and Rosales were detained by soldiers, blindfolded and taken to an unknown location, where they were beaten. Fernández said that he and Rosales were doused with gasoline while a soldier stood by with a match and that they were finally left on a hill about midnight the following day.
Rosales's mother, Margarita Rosales, said Fernández told her that her son was beaten more savagely because he had serpent tattoos that led the army to believe he was a member of Los Aztecas, a local gang whose members serve as enforcers for the Juarez cartel. She denied that her son was a member. Fernández was in an El Paso hospital under protection.
"They are doling out their own brand of justice," said Rosales's aunt, Ana Maria, "and it's the same kind of justice as the people they are supposed to be protecting us against."
The army has denied responsibility for the slaying. A military spokesman said organized criminals have been donning army uniforms and impersonating soldiers to sow mistrust and anger against the armed forces.
The military operation will be evaluated in September, said Reyes, the mayor. He said he hopes a civilian police department will be ready to replace the army and federal police by the end of the year.
The new department is being formed from the graduating classes of cadets moving through the police academy, where all the instructors have been replaced by active or retired military officers.
On a recent afternoon, the cadets were lined up with AR-15 rifles, while a drill instructor shouted at them about the importance of using the safety. When the classes were over, the cadets -- 280 young recruits, including 93 women -- marched single file into the cafeteria for lunch.
"Without military discipline, none of this will work," said Fernando Oropeza, a retired army captain.
Asked about the prospects of keeping the recruits free of corruption, Oropeza said, "We're working very hard on that challenge."