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Mexico weighs options as lawlessness continues to grip Ciudad Juarez

By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 27, 2009; A01

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.

The new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, abruptly canceled a fact-finding trip to Juarez this month after learning of the Mexican government's policy review. U.S. officials said they are waiting to learn whether the discussions will lead to a shift in Calderón's military-led strategy, which has come under fire even from members of his own party.

The United States backed that strategy under the 2007 Merida Initiative, signed by President George W. Bush. The bulk of the $1.4 billion aid package funds Black Hawk and Bell 412 helicopters, CASA CN-235 surveillance planes, police training and inspection equipment.

But with the three-year initiative due to expire next year, U.S. officials have indicated that they plan to move from military assistance to a "softer" approach focusing on issues such as institution building, judicial reform and support programs aimed at impoverished youths like those who are recruited by the thousands into criminal gangs. Two-thirds of those killed violently in Juarez are between 14 and 24 years old.

"It's more sustainable. A helicopter at best is going to have a 25-year life, but a human being in Mexico has a 75-year life expectancy," said John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. "If you can get to the children, you are not just giving assistance, you are contributing in the development of a person, of the society."

Calderón has resisted calls to alter his military strategy, saying it would be tantamount to surrender. But a growing chorus of civic leaders and lawmakers here has urged the government to focus on the roots of drug trafficking rather than efforts to eradicate the cartel leaders, who draw their power from billions of dollars in drug sales in the United States.

Ciudad Juarez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz said he recently requested an emergency "intervention" from the federal government to boost social services. He said the Mexican government is prepared to spend $100 million to curb unemployment and improve opportunities for disadvantaged youths here.

"We have convinced the federal government that it is necessary," Reyes said of an effort that Mexican officials call "a social surge."

The U.S. State Department also plans to contribute to Juarez programs, American officials said.

On the urban frontlines

Despite the military buildup, law enforcement in Juarez has become a dangerous, frustrating and increasingly futile endeavor for the thousands of soldiers and police who chase traffickers and their surrogates through the shantytowns that grow out of the city sprawl.

One evening this month, a police convoy of a half-dozen trucks set out from the station house in Delicias, a poor district on the west side of the city. Masked officers sporting black, bulletproof vests and assault rifles stood in the backs of the trucks, which climbed into the hills overlooking the lights of Juarez and El Paso.

Every few hundreds yards, the convoy halted. Officers fanned out to grab and interrogate young men deemed suspicious. The officers sniffed their fingers for traces of marijuana or another drug, agua celeste, or heavenly water, a cheap, blue industrial solvent.

"They didn't do anything! They were just playing in the street!" shouted an elderly woman as police forced six boys, one of whom said he was 12, to stand spread-eagle beside a police truck while officers frisked them.

A call came over the radio, and the convoy suddenly sped off. The trucks raced downhill, screeching through the curving streets, until they arrived at a busy intersection across from a gas station. A bullet-riddled police truck stood on the side of the road, its front wheels on the curb. The pavement was littered with glass and flooded with water and radiator fluid.

A Delicias commander had been ambushed, shot in the leg after stopping to get gas, police said. Two more officers in the city were attacked in the same night.

Thirty Juarez police officers have been killed this year; most were hunted down in their homes, according to police officials. Asked if the municipal police had sufficient resources, David Rivera Bretón, a retired general who heads the force, replied: "I think that question should be directed to other people."

"At the end of the day, the Mexican state, the rule of law, has to prevail," Bretón said in an interview. "The good guys have to win."

When the army descended on Juarez in March 2008, the soldiers were greeted as heroes. Calderón added another 5,000 troops in late March of this year, and the murder rate dropped into double digits for each month; on some days not a single killing was recorded, a fact that made newspaper headlines. Local police even said the cartels had been driven out like "cockroaches" in the light of day.

Then, in June, the murder rate shot up 307 percent, and it has continued to rise. Bretón says the cartels, rather than being driven out, "went into hiding."

"They slowed down their activities," he said. "Later, they figured out what we were doing, how we were going about this, and, logically, they adjusted. We have to adjust as well."

Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report from Mexico City.

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