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The Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez has a long history of drug related violence dating back to the Mexican Revolution. Recently, the National Action Party (PAN), under the leadership of Mexican President Filipe Calderon, has utilized the Mexican military in an attempt to bring an end to drug trafficking across the United States border. Since the implementation of the Mexican government's military strategy, violence in Ciudad Juarez has dramatically escalated. This paper examines the violence in Juarez and its links to drugs, politics, and industrialization.
Lost in the Reign of Juarez:
Drug Related Violence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
October 30th, 2009- High in the Chihuahua desert, along the southern banks of the Rio Grand, from the racks of a dusty newspaper stand in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, the headlines read, "No una persona asesinada ayer (not one person murdered yesterday)." Not since January had an entire day passed in Juarez without the fatal spillage of human blood. By the end of the day, nine more victims would be added to the list of thousands murdered during the city's most violent year to date (Watson, 2009, para. 1).
Positioned along the border between Mexico and the United States, directly across the Rio Grand from El Paso, Texas, the city of Juarez is no stranger to armed conflict. The first military victory of the Mexican Revolution took place there in 1915 (Padgett, 2009, p. 41). The chaos of the Revolution and the turmoil that followed laid waste to the agricultural and cattle industries throughout state of Chihuahua. A constant cause of political strife, Juarez's position on an international border and at the end of the Mexican Central Railroad line was a curse during the first quarter of the 20th century. However, this curse also fueled the city's economy for the rest of the century and beyond. With the onset of prohibition in the U.S. in 1919, Juarez quickly became a popular destination for Americans in search of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and prostitution. By 1926, over 60% of the cities businesses relied almost solely on tourism (Corchado, 2008, p. 22).
Keeping with its reputation as a city of vice, Juarez also became a center for illegal opium trafficking into the U.S. The city's first drug war took place in the early 1930s between the Fernandez and Quevedos cartels. Enrique Fernandez, known as the "king of morphine," had been in charge of the Juarez opium trade for decades thanks to a vast network of political connections. Unlike Fernandez, who had been paying off high ranking government officials, the Quevedos brothers were high ranking government officials. During the1920s and 30s the three Quevedos brothers held the positions of city counselor, city tax collector, city mayor, state legislator, and state governor. They were also the owners of the Ciudad Juarez power company and the municipal slaughterhouse (Mottier, 2009, p. 27). Beginning in 1932, the Quevedos, with the help of local police, waged a violent takeover of the drug trade in Juarez that ended with the 1934 murder of Fernandez and solidified the long standing link between government officials, police, and drug cartels (pp. 39-40).
In the mid 1960s, the Mexican government launched the Border Industrialization Program, which led to the construction of hundreds of foreign-owned factories in Juarez. These factories, known as maquiladoras, have drawn in hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over Mexico (Nathan, 1999, para. 2). Companies such as Acer, Bizlink, Elite, Foxconn, Inventec, Keytronic, Plexus, and Philips (Crapshoot in Juarez, 2008, para. 5) pay an average of $3.00 an hour and maintain high employee turnover rates and incorporate other divisive strategies to ensure that workers do not unionize (Nathan, 1999, para. 3).
In 1994, two occurrences led to an explosion in the already booming maquiladora sector of Juarez. The first was the Mexican financial crisis, which devalued the country's currency, thereby drastically reducing the relative minimum wage south of the U.S. border. The second was the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which made doing business in Mexico much more profitable for foreign companies (Nathan, 1999, para. 4). Prior to NAFTA, the maqiladoras had mostly hired young females, allegedly because they were less likely than males to unionize. These women were often hired based on sexual attraction and fell victim to varying degrees of harassment from their male superiors (para. 13). As more jobs became available, the ratio of female to male workers settled at around 50/50 by the late 1990s (para. 3).
The industrial boom of the 90s led to another mass migration of workers into Juarez. Prior to industrialization, the population of Juarez was only a few hundred thousand, by the year 2000, there were over 1.3 million people living in Juarez (Nathan, 1999, para. 3). As a result, Juarez, which historically has been ill equipped to provide housing for new residents, has become over-run by impoverished settlements known as colonias. These colonias are mostly comprised of make-shift structures, built from scavenged materials such as old plywood and discarded sheets of tin. Most colonias have little to no access to civil services, water, or electricity (Wood, 2001, para. 2).
Along with the increase in population, came an increase in violence. Beginning in 1993, and continuing to the present, Juarez has experienced an epidemic of brutal serial murders known as the femicides. The victims, numbering over 300, are consistently attractive young women who work in the maquiladoras (Nathan, 1999, para. 6). They are repeatedly raped then mutilated and disposed of throughout the city. The police have incarcerated a number of supposed culprits, but the killings still persist. In her book, Harvest of Women: A Mexican Safari, prominent investigative reporter, Diana Washington Valdez, states that, "Mexican federal investigations contain accounts of officials and other persons who facilitated orgies where they abused women whose bodies were found afterwards." Washington Valdez believes that the femicides are being carried out by a group of wealthy young men known as Los Juniors who are related to prominent government officials and the leaders of the Juarez drug cartel (Burnett, 2004, pp. 12-13).
Juarez was awarded the title "City of the Future" in 2007 by the Financial Time's Foreign Direct Investment magazine (Pusey, 2009, p. 46). One year later, the Mexican government sent thousands of military troops into the state of Chihuahua to do battle with the regional drug cartels. Dubbed "Operation Chihuahua," the government's militant strategy triggered a storm of savagery in Juarez that appears to have no end in sight. With a murder rate of 130 per 100,000 people, Juarez has recently earned another title, "Murder Capital of the World" (Rival gang murders make Ciudad Juarez world's murder capital, para. 3).
The Juarez cartel is one of the six most prominent cartels operating in Mexico. The cartels worked hand in hand with Mexico's Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which dominated national, state, and local politics from 1929 until the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000. The PRI allowed the cartels to operate unchallenged, so long as they paid bribes and kept drug-related violence to a minimum. Following the PRI's fall from power, the cartels found themselves at war with the government and with each other (Padgett, 2009, p. 39).
Drug trafficking along the U.S./Mexican border has dramatically increased over the last decade due to the U.S. crackdown on drug routes through the Caribbean (Q & a: Mexico's drug fueled violence, 2009, p. 2). The Juarez cartel has been in charge of drug trafficking in Juarez since the late 1980s (A dying city protests, 2010, para. 2). The cartel was supposedly founded by the local head of the Mexican Federal Police, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo (Pusey, 2009, p. 47). After Guajardo was killed in 1993, control of the cartel shifted to Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who died due to complications during an operation to alter his appearance in 1997 (Katel, 2008, p. 15). After Amado's death, a bloody struggle ensued over control of the organization. Eventually, Amado's brother, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, took over the cartel, which he runs to this day. Vicente has recently allied with the paramilitary drug trafficking group, Los Zetas, in an attempt to combat a violent takeover launched by the Sinaloa cartel in 2008 (Corchado, 2008, para. 14).
Los Zetas are one of the most brutal and heavily armed criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere. They are viewed as the most threatening narco-trafficking group in all of Mexico by the U.S. drug Enforcement Administration. Los Zetas are commanded by a group of ex-Mexican Army Special Forces soldiers who deserted from the military to work as enforcers for the Mexican Gulf cartel in the 1990s. When the leader of the Gulf cartel was apprehended by authorities in 2003, Los Zetas formed their own cartel along the Gulf coast of Mexico. In addition to drug trafficking, they are also responsible for kidnappings, extortion, human trafficking, and the siphoning of millions of dollars worth of oil from U.S. oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico (Burnett, 2009, p. 2-4). They are well equipped with AK-47 and AR-15 assault riffles, grenade launchers, and 50 caliber machine guns (Armed group challenges Mexico's police and army, 2004, p. 52). In areas where the Zetas have been confronted by the Mexican military, the gang regularly displays recruitment banners offering better pay and other benefits for soldiers who desert and join the criminal organization (Burnett, 2009, p. 1). In addition to recruiting Mexican soldiers, they have also been recruiting and training hundreds of poor Mexican youths in an attempt to build an army of Zetitas (Little Zetas) (Padgett, 2005, p. 142). Los Zetas have been locked in a battle with the Sinaloa cartel for nearly a decade (Burnett, 2009, p. 2-4).
The Sinaloa cartel is based in the state of Sinaloa in north-western Mexico and is headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. El Chapo was born into a family of marijuana growing peasants in rural Sinaloa. After years of slowly amassing power through the drug trade he was arrested and imprisoned in 1993. He gained folk hero status after breaking out of prison in 2001. Since then, he has consolidated the Sinaloa drug trade and gone to war with several other cartels in an attempt to control the entire Mexican illegal drug business (Beaubien, 2008). In 2009, Guzman was ranked number 41 on Forbes magazine's list of the 67 most powerful people in the world; the president of Mexico did not make the list (The world's most powerful people, 2009).
While the Sinaloa cartel is currently the most powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico, President Calderon's war against the cartels has mainly focused on the Tihihuana, Beltran Leyva, and La Familia organizations. This may be because the other cartels have begun operating like the Zetas, while the Sinaloa cartel has remained focused solely on drug trafficking and money laundering. Mexican lawyer and economist Edgardo Buscaglia believes that the government is siding with Sinaloa cartel based on the refined nature of the organization (Outsmarted by Sinaloa, 2010, para. 2-7). Regardless of supposed government favoritism, the war wages on in Juarez.
In early January, a group of gunman burst into a suburban home in Juarez and brutally murdered 16 people; the majority of the victims were teenage high school and college students with no connection to drug trafficking (A dying city protests, 2010, para. 3). The incident serves as the latest reminder of the extremes to which the violence in Juarez has escalated over the last two years. In 2008, there were over 1,600 murders reported in Juarez. Ninety-eight percent of the cases went unsolved (Padgett, 2009, para. 7). That year, over fifty police officers were slaughtered. The city's phones were taped and those who called to report illegal activities were killed. The chief of police resigned after local gangs made good on a promise to assassinate an officer ever forty eight hours so long as he remained in office. In one month, 46 local businesses were set ablaze for refusing to pay extortion money. Many families had to forfeit their homes and vehicles as ransom for kidnapped loved ones (Burnett, 2009, para. 5-6). Gunmen routinely forced their way into hospitals to murder victims who had survived previous assaults (Campbell & Campo-Flores, 2008, para. 1).
Towards the beginning of 2009, Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, who is constantly surrounded by six guards brandishing assault riffles, decided to fire half of the city police force for corroborating with the cartels. He then allowed the federal government to send 7,000 military troops and federal agents into Juarez to keep the peace (Padgett, 2009, p. 41). Less than a month later, a high-ranking Juarez police officer was arrested for rounding up people for the cartel to murder (p. 40). By late March, the military strategy seemed to be working; the rate of fatalities fell by 50 percent to only five per day. Unfortunately, the lull in violence was short lived, and the heavily armed and brazen cartel gangs began re-heating the bloodbath in Juarez with a vengeance (Campbell & Campo-Flores, 2008, para. 4). The violence reached unparalleled heights of monstrous depravity. Decapitated bodies were routinely found strung up from highway overpasses. Human heads were displayed as warnings to government officials. Mass graves were regularly discovered. Numerous victims were found tortured, burned, and mutilated. Bullet-ridden corpses were discarded in front of an elementary school (Padgett, 2009, p. 38). The body count skyrocketed, with an average rate of one murder every three hours. As the year of 2009 violently passed into oblivion, so to, did the lives of 2,660 people in the city of Juarez (A dying city protests, 2010, para. 2).
The Mexican drug war has had devastating repercussions on Juarez. Since 2005, over 110,000 homes have been left abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of residents have vacated the city, and nearly half of those who remain wish to relocate to the U.S. Over 10,000 local businesses have closed due to threats and extortions from gangs (Gomez, 2010, para. 1-4). Police, prosecutors, and judges were assassinated for attempting to stand up to the cartels (Ellingwood, 2010, p. 1). There has been a rash of kidnappings for ransom, many of which were allegedly carried out by corrupt police officers working with the cartels. The majority of these kidnap victims were tortured then killed when their families stopped paying ransoms (Bowden, 2009a, pp. 49-51).
While Mexico's biggest obstacle to winning its war on drugs may be the ties between the cartels and the government, another hindering factor is the Mexican judicial system. The system is rooted predominately in the Napoleonic code of 1808. Grand juries, jury trials, case law, live witness testimony, bail, and habeas corpus are all non-existent in Mexico. Prosecutors gather and record all of the evidence, then present it to a judge at a hearing. The judge examines the evidence and often determines the verdict long before the actual trial takes place (Pusey p. 49). The police are not allowed to investigate crimes or interrogate witnesses; they can only record statements and intervene in crimes that are in progress. In addition, criminal defense attorneys can use a 150 year old statute known as "amparo," which was originally enacted to shield peasants from government tyranny, as a means to keep their clients free from incarceration while their case is pending (p. 50). The federal government is currently making adjustments to the constitution which will allow for public trials, plea bargains, and a panel of judges to preside over courtroom proceedings. These new policies are scheduled to take affect in 2016 (p. 45).
Being the main source of income and armaments for the Mexican cartels, the U.S. plays a crucial role in the future of Juarez. Many argue that the fate of Juarez plays a crucial role in the future of the U.S. Just across the border, El Paso was rated one of the safest cities in America; there was a total of 16 murders committed there in 2008 (Campbell & Campo-Flores, 2008, para. 3). While the violence south of the border has yet to spread north, several gangs connected to the Juarez cartel are known to be operating in the U.S. (Padgett, 2009, p. 40). Two El Paso city leaders have taken drastically differing approaches to the problem. Last year, El Paso City Council member Beto O'Rourke proposed that the city request the U.S. government to consider marijuana legalization in order to deprive the cartels of their largest source of income. The council unanimously approved the proposal, which was later struck down by the city's mayor (Padgett, 2009, p. 37). Later that year, El Paso Chief of Police Greg Allen acquired 1,100 M4 riffles for his department in order to prepare for the tidal wave of violence cresting on the southern horizon (Gomez Licon, 2010, para. 9).
What does the future hold for Juarez? Well over 80,000 of the city's youth who will dictate that future are currently unemployed, unskilled, uneducated, and living in an underworld of poverty, drugs, and violence (A dying city protests, 2010, para. 4). In his 2009 book, Murder City: Lessons of the dead in Mexico, author and journalist Charles Bowden makes a proposal, "All the while, violence courses through Juarez like a ceaseless wind, and we insist it is a battle between cartels, or between the state and the drug world, or between the army and the forces of darkness. But consider this possibility: violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community; it has no cause and no single motive and no on-off switch. Violence is not a part of life; it is life." Expressing his hope for the future, an elderly man from Juarez stated, "The only way to end the violence is to let organized crime be the government. The crime groups are fighting for power. If the toughest guy wins, he will get everything under control (Bowden, 2009b, p. 7)." What does the future hold for Juarez? Perhaps a better question for the world to ask is- how can we ensure that Juarez is not the "City of the Future?"