Mexico weighs options as lawlessness continues to grip Ciudad Juarez

Critics contend that the government should uproot the social ills that lead young men to drug gangs rather than targeting drug lords.
Critics contend that the government should uproot the social ills that lead young men to drug gangs rather than targeting drug lords. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 27, 2009

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- Senior Mexican officials have begun a sweeping review of the military's two-year occupation of this dangerous border city, concluding that the U.S.-backed deployment of thousands of soldiers against drug traffickers has failed to control the violence and crime, according to officials in both countries.

The multi-agency review, which has not been made public, represents a "serious reassessment" of President Felipe Calderón's anti-narcotics strategy and reflects growing alarm that Juarez, across from El Paso, has descended into lawlessness, U.S. officials familiar with the process said.

The war on Mexico's powerful drug cartels has been the defining policy of Calderón's administration, involving unprecedented cooperation with American political and law enforcement authorities. Failure in a high-profile battleground such as Ciudad Juarez would represent a major defeat for Calderón and for U.S. officials determined to curb the multibillion dollar flow of drugs across the border.

"There is an almost unanimous consensus in the city that the strategy hasn't worked," said Hugo Almada, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Juarez who earlier this month organized a peace march of more than 3,000 people.

"The most terrifying question that everyone asks is, 'If the army comes in and can't control the situation, what happens to us now?' " Almada said.

Calderón declared Juarez the "tip of the spear" in the fight against the ultra-violent drug cartels, and it is here that the Mexican president has most militarized the fight. Calderón sent 10,000 soldiers and federal agents into the city of 1.3 million to bolster the local police and replace corrupt or incompetent elements. This month, for the first time in Mexico, the government distributed German-made assault rifles that fire up to 750 rounds a minute to hundreds of newly trained municipal police officers, also the first to receive urban combat training by the army.

But criminal outfits fighting over Juarez have overwhelmed even military authorities in this crucial port of entry into the world's largest market for illegal narcotics. With more than 2,500 homicides, Juarez accounts for more than one-third of the 6,000 drug-related murders in Mexico this year; since April, when a surge of federal troops brought a brief lull in the death toll, the city has resumed a pace of eight to 10 murders a day. The violence has also spilled over into the suburban neighborhoods of El Paso.

In a macabre daily ritual, assassins now appear to time their killings so that they get play on the afternoon and evening television news shows, according to Jaime Torres, a spokesman on public security for the Juarez government and former news director.

The city estimates that the violence has created 7,000 orphans and displaced 100,000 people, many of whom have fled across the Rio Grande to Texas. Most of the members of the business and political elite of Juarez, including the mayor, now either sleep or maintain a second home in El Paso. The chief human rights advocate also retreated across the river.

Well-known prosecutors, professors, attorneys, doctors, executives and journalists have been assassinated. Victims also include a growing number of small-shop owners because extortion is rampant; earlier this week an elderly woman selling burritos at a busy intersection near the tourist zone was shot dead. Police counted 36 shell casings at the scene.

A switch to 'soft power'

Mexican officials will weigh why the military has failed to stem the violence -- and what new options may be available. The soldiers have proved to be a blunt instrument; they lack experience handling criminal investigations and frequently have been accused of human rights abuses. Calderón has said the military will return to its barracks when federal and local police officers are ready, but reforms have moved slowly and may be years away, U.S. and Mexican officials caution.

There is now widespread debate over the way forward in Juarez, with some officials and civic leaders proposing additional troops, and others a complete withdrawal. The head of the powerful business organization that represents the local assembly factories, or maquiladoras, recently called for the United Nations to send blue-helmeted peacekeeping soldiers to Juarez.

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