Trying to save lives amid relentless drug violence, Mexican medical workers put their own on the line

Mexico's ongoing drug war continues to claim lives and disrupt order in the country.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 19, 2010; 12:46 AM

ZAPOPAN, MEXICO - Physician Jose Luis Guerrero was at the bedside of a patient when the terrified young man splattered with blood burst into the hospital, screaming that hit men were chasing him.

Minutes later, automatic weapons fire strafed the walls. Two receptionists fainted. A grenade exploded through the window of the intensive care unit, raining glass beside a 14-year-old girl who had been injured in a car accident. Police shot wildly in the streets as patients in hospital gowns ran in search of closets to hide in.

It is the kind of medical emergency Mexico's doctors and nurses have come to dread, as mounting drug violence tears at the country's social safety net, shuttering clinics, creating no-go zones for ambulances and forcing medical workers to flee north of the border.

"We pray not to have these kinds of patients," said Guerrero, a 32-year-old trauma specialist who is director of the clean, modern Arboledas Hospital in the suburbs of Guadalajara, still visibly upset by the memory of the July melee. The bloodied young man was targeted by two truckloads of assassins, police later said, because he was dating the girlfriend of a drug trafficker. He survived.

With alarming frequency, narcotics violence is spilling into hospitals and clinics across Mexico. Drug traffickers have shot doctors who treated them. They've burst into emergency rooms and executed their enemies on operating tables. They've hijacked ambulances, demanding that paramedics save the lives of wounded gunmen.

"These attacks have not been reported by the press, who fear reprisals," said Ricardo Monreal, a federal senator and former governor of Zacatecas state. "Like teachers who are afraid to teach, the doctors do not want to work. This is more collateral damage generated by the fight against organized crime."

Physician Ramon Murrieta Gonzalez, the president-elect of the Medical College of Mexico, a national umbrella organization, said professional groups like his try to keep word out of the media when a doctor is shot to death to avoid stigmatizing the children and other survivors, as readers often wrongly assume that the doctor was mixed up with drug traffickers.

Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos has warned that drug violence is undermining Mexico's ability to provide quality medical care for its citizens - one of the proudest achievements of the modern Mexican state - as specialists refuse jobs in violence-plagued regions.

'In the middle of a war'

Murrieta said that in the past two years, 15 doctors have been shot to death in Ciudad Juarez - in drug rehabilitation centers, at their practices, in public places.

More than 250 Ciudad Juarez doctors now commute across the border from El Paso, where they have moved with their families for safety, Murrieta said. Seventy-five more have fled the area, and 30 percent of the city's private practices have closed, he said.

"We are in the middle of a war without choosing to be," Murrieta said. "Commandos assassinate wounded men in the hospital - once in the surgical suite while they were operating on the patient. This is a grave danger to the entire country."

Six doctors have been killed in Tamaulipas in the past two years, and two others in Tijuana, he said. The bullet-riddled body of a respected doctor was dumped on the highway in San Luis Potosi the other day, he said. Kidnappings are commonplace.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company