An Army Takeover Quells Violence in Mexico

Drug Killings in Juarez Plummet, but Rights Complaints Surge

The Mexican military has taken over police work in Ciudad Juarez to control drug-related violence.
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.

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