In Mexico’s murder city, the war appears over
By William Booth, Washington Post, August 20, 2012
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico—When this city was among the most murderous in the world, the morgue ran out of room, the corpses stacked to the ceiling in the wheezing walk-in freezers.
Medical examiners, in plastic boots, performed a dozen autopsies a day as families of victims waited outside in numbers sufficient to require a line.
For all this, Mexico has not made much sense of one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, which has left 10,500 dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug and crime mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 aggravated homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario.
But the fever seems to have broken.
In July, there were just 48 homicides—33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, 40 are considered by authorities to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.
Authorities attribute the decrease in homicides to their own efforts—patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.
Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decrease in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local drug trade and smuggling routes north.
From the beginning, Ciudad Juarez has been a key battleground in President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-backed drug war. It was here that Calderon poured 8,000 troops and police, and millions of dollars in aid, in a surge that his security experts compared to the one in Iraq.
As part of the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, the U.S. government paid for police academies here, including training for overwhelmed cops in “street survival” skills. The United States provided microscopes to the forensic lab, sent Juarez leaders to Colombia to learn how that country fought violence, helped create an anonymous tip line, and supported programs for at-risk youth.
Calderon says that homicides across Mexico are decreasing, but since his government refuses to release the data, suspicions linger.
Juarez itself is still vulnerable. It has not escaped attention that violence began to recede after soldiers and federal police began to leave the city. Residents pray that the relative peace is maintained, while thousands of families who fled to Texas to escape the violence wonder whether it is safe to return.
At its most ferocious, when this industrial border city on the Rio Grande seemed consumed by a homicidal mania, the murder rate averaged almost nine per day.
Last month, homicides averaged 1.3 a day, the lowest rate since an internecine drug war between the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels exploded here in 2007.
“It is a completely different ballgame now,” said Hector Murguía, the mayor. “Our city is no longer a town of ghosts.”
Families have begun to celebrate birthdays in restaurants again. At night, a few customers wander into the downtown cantinas, once a no-go zone after dark. The recession is over, and the assembly plants, which pay about $13 a day, are humming. Some 20,000 jobs have been created, according to city hall.
To respond to the crisis that brought Juarez to the brink, the federal government built schools in poor barrios where they were none, and community centers, playgrounds, clinics. They’ve provided education scholarships and health insurance and given money and materiel—new pickups, bigger guns—to the municipal police, who a few years ago were not just employees of the criminal organizations but the management.
During the peak violence, the weapon of choice was the AK-47. Attacks occurred in public places. The killings appeared timed to make the evening news broadcasts.
“I remember crime scenes where we would count 300, 400 bullet casings, from different weapons, fired by multiple shooters, with multiple victims,” said David Garcia, director of the Chihuahua State Medical and Forensic Examiner’s Office in Ciudad Juarez.
Crime scene technicians would finish their 18-hour shifts in a daze, like soldiers after combat, having seen too much.
Many assassinations—especially of police or prosecutors—appeared to be the work of trained professionals, who arrived wearing masks and body armor, in convoys, to scout a scene, trap the victims and assure a getaway.
This year, more homicides are committed with smaller-caliber weapons, like 9mm handguns. There are fewer shots fired and less spectacular scenes. Decapitations are no longer common. Many of the dead appear to have been killed earlier, their bodies dumped. It is rare to see a professional ambush.
Julian Leyzaola, chief of Juarez municipal police, said the criminal groups are performing a kind of social “cleansing” by eliminating rival drug dealers, extortionists and carjackers.
In Juarez, it appears someone is mopping up.