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Feature 022811 Sullivan-Rosales

Monday, February 28, 2011


Ciudad Juárez and Mexico's 'Narco-Culture' Threat


By John P. Sullivan and Carlos Rosales


•  The cartels may not seek a social or political agenda, but once they control turf and territory and effectively displace the state they have no choice—they become “accidental insurgents”


•  The warehousing of huge quantities of drugs in Mexican border cities has resulted in an astonishing increase in drug addiction across Mexico


Mexico’s drug war continues to spiral out of control with a seemingly never-ending list of attacks, atrocities, and escalating barbarism.  Mexicans call it the inseguridad.  The narco threat to civil governance is characterized by violence, insecurity and impunity.


Nowhere exemplifies this toxic brew more than Ciudad Juárez—the most dangerous city in North America, perhaps the world.  Cd. Juárez, the border city across from El Paso, is a city under siege.  Cartels, gangs, and criminals of every stripe battle each other, the police and military, and at times attack civilians in a brutal “feral” cityscape.


The more things change the more they stay the same ... perhaps a cliché but when it comes to murder and Ciudad Juárez they coexist side by side.


Juárez has a checkered past when it comes to violence.  First it had a legacy of femicides—that is murders of women.  These still unsolved—and perhaps continuing—crimes and Juárez’s brutal undercurrents were memorialized in the fictional city of Santa Teresa in novelist Roberto Bolaño’s powerful novel 2666.  The violence and degeneration in Santa Teresa were horrific and surreal, yet they pale in the face of the actual state of Juárez today.


In 2010, over 15,000 persons were killed in Mexico’s drug violence.  Over the past four years Mexico experienced nearly 35,000 narco-murders; nearly 10% of those occurred in Juárez last year. 


The conflict accelerated in January 2008, when the Sinaloa Cartel went to war with its old partners in the Juárez Cartel, led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, for control of the city and the surrounding drug-distribution plaza. Both sides recruited cross-border (third generation street/3 GEN) gangs to wage their fight. The Juárez Cartel recruited Barrio Azteca while the Sinaloa Cartel recruited a rival gang called the Artist Assassins (Double A’s).


A surge of 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police failed to stem the tide.  As a consequence, every day is a virtual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  Comparisons to Dante's Inferno (El Infierno—also the name of a popular movie about cartel violence in Mexico) are not unwarranted.  In the words of Ioan Grillo, "If Dante had ever been to Juarez he would have placed it squarely in the seventh circle of hell, the one housing 'violence' and 'ringed by a river of boiling blood.'"


The Body Count


How many homicides in Juárez in 2010? Depends on who you ask, estimates will vary by a few dozen.  According to Chihuahua state police 3,111 persons lost their lives in drug related violence.  Frontera NorteSur, a New Mexico State University border news service, states the number could be between 3,075 and 3,156, depending on what law enforcement agency or media you source.  A safe estimate is 3,100 "Souls, Lives, Persons" DIED in organized crime and/or drug related violence in 2010.  Notable attacks included the murder of 16 teenagers at a party, 17 recovering drug addicts at a drug rehab center, and the March attack of a US consular employee and her husband as they left a children’s birthday party.


More than 30 Juárez municipal police officers lost their lives in a myriad of attacks.  Most were ambushed and shot while they patrolled or came to work.  The dead included both male and female officers.


A ‘Bloody’ New Year?


The Most Dangerous City in the World, as some have called this city of more than a million residents, continues to earn its title on a daily basis in 2011.


With the New Year barely minutes old the race was on to beat last year's death toll of some 3,100 lives lost as Juárez's first homicide occurred when a lone male victim was shot to death in an empty lot at 1am January 1st.  Was it drug related? Probably, given the fact the victim was shot multiple times by what local police termed "a high powered weapon." Will the murder be solved?  Doubtful, given the fact that less than 20 percent of last year's homicides were solved, let alone few were arrested for the deaths.


As we write, the mayhem in Juárez continues: three days, 53 killed, including four cops….


In mid-February, 53 people were killed in a 72-hour span.  The attacks began Thursday (17 February) with 14 people killed, including a municipal police officer. On Friday—the most violent day—20 people were murdered, including a municipal police officer who was killed by a carjacker.  Hours later, a state police investigator was executed on his drive home.  Saturday, a highway police officer was killed, among 19 others killed that day in separate shootings throughout the contested city.


In the first 40 days of 2011, Juárez is averaging eight homicides per day; in February, at least 24 women have been killed in 20 days.  (The femicides continue to provide a macabre backdrop to the narcocides.)


One manner in which some homicides were solved was to capture an alleged cartel or gang member and pin dozens of homicides on them. The suspect is alleged to be a "sicario" or assassin, and sent to the slammer to never be heard of again or as often happened last year, released after a few months when judicial panels find "discrepancies" in police reports or evidence that resulted in the suspect QUIETLY being released.  Impunity does compromise efforts to reform the criminal justice system.


Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on who you ask), tighter security along the US-Mexico border has slowed the smuggling of drugs through US Ports of Entry and across the porous border, forcing drug cartels to warehouse huge quantities of drugs in Mexican border cities.


The result?  An astonishing increase in drug addiction across Mexico.  So much so that local drug sales are beginning to account for a large portion of cartel profits.  The increase in addiction has also contributed to a rise in robberies and other crimes in border cities.


New Crimes


With drug smuggling activities slowed members of the cartels and other organized crime groups have turned to other "means of support." Crimes like extortion and kidnapping have been added to the criminals' repertoire, making an already ruthless cutthroat business even more dangerous and bloodier. Victims of levantones—kidnappings and extortion—range from well known politicians like former PAN party chief Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, who was kidnapped and kept for more than seven months and only recently released, to down-and-out panhandlers who sell fruit at street intersections and gunned down when they can't pay their daily quota to local gangs.

State Capacity and Feral Enclaves


Proceso called Cd. Juárez a place “Where the Narco rules.” Essentially, we are seeing a war of “all against all.” Beheadings, mutilations, low-tech car bombings (consider the 15 July 2010 attack on the Policia Federal), drive-bys, and fire-bombings or assassinations of civil society actors punctuate the daily press. Indeed, the press is victim to the violence as the cartels seek to establish the agenda for public reportage.


Ciudad Juárez’s El Diario newspaper printed an editorial last year that asked Mexico’s drug cartels the question of what and what not is OK to publish? The editorial, published a day after the funeral of one its photographers who was murdered during his lunch break, essentially asked, “What can we publish?”  This implicitly acknowledged the agenda-setting and latent political power of the cartels in the battle for Mexican social space. 


The cartels are effectively engaged in a “power-counterpower” battle with the state. Call it subversion of information operations—the result is the same.  Cartels are a de facto challenge to state capacity—whether they seek to or not.  “Mexico’s criminal groups are fighting not only for the control of physical territory but also for control of information in many areas of the country,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.


Is Mexico a failed state? Many (especially those on the ground in contested colonias) would say yes, given the fact that several cartels like La Familia survived and grew by becoming a warped version of Robin Hood (acting as social bandits) to thousands of poor peasants who could not rely on the Mexican government for jobs and essential services. Members of La Familia provided food, shelter and yes—legitimate jobs to citizens when the government could not or would not. 


Even Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, the largest organized crime organization in Mexico, does it. He provides money and food to many residents of small towns in Sinaloa, not only guaranteeing loyalty but guaranteeing his safety as citizens serve as lookouts—knowing full well Guzman is their provider and they will give him a heads-up when Mexican law enforcement units show up.  More recently, we see examples of Los Zetas providing social goods in their “conquered“ areas.


The cartels may not seek a social or political agenda, but once they control turf and territory and effectively displace the state, they have no choice—they become “accidental insurgents.”


Societal disintegration or Urbicide?


Juárez is expected to end up with an estimated 8,500 orphaned children by the year 2012, according to a study by researchers at the Autonomous University of Juárez.  Added to the daunting specter of the cartels and war of all against all, endemic and expanding street gang violence, endemic femicides, and judicial impunity, this seems to be the recipe for societal disintegration.  Civil society is chilled, journalists are silenced, and criminals reign.  Police, paramedics and taxi drivers are killed; workers flee (becoming refugees or internally displaced persons)—even the mayor sleeps across the border in El Paso, Texas!  


Narco-culture (narcocultura) promises to overtake established culture as the marginalized seek a viable place in the social strata.  Consider the video game "Call of Juarez: The Cartel."  A graphic shoot-‘em up that uses feral Juárez and cross-border conflict as a backdrop, the game has been lambasted by US and Mexican officials, but the draw of mayhem continues.


If you don’t have a computer you can opt for the alternate “narco-saint” of your liking: Jesus Malverde, if aligned with the Sinaloa crew; or Santa Muerte if you feel affinity with the Zetas.  An alternate reality that challenges Western state sensibilities appears to be in the making.


Expanding Barbarization


Ciudad Juárez seems to be the tip of the iceberg, a dark spot on the map of Mexico, yet the conflict expands. After four years of dramatic military sweeps in Chihuahua (largely in Cd. Juárez itself) and neighboring Tamaulipas, the narcos are extending their control over large areas and the state governments seem powerless to stop them. 


Monterrey, Mexico’s “second city,” and Ciudad Victoria in Tamaulipas, not to mention Acapulco (increasingly known by the moniker “Narcopulco”), are also under the gun.


Barbarization is also apparently on the rise.  Earlier this month police found the severed head of a two-month-old baby dumped in the town of Delicias, in Chihuahua, in a cruel revenge attack.


The narcos have yet to successfully wage a major terror attack like their Colombian counterparts, who set off powerful car bombs in busy streets and killed 107 people in bombing a commercial airliner in 1989. But sicarios (hit men) have killed at least 14 mayors across Mexico over the past year….


Conclusion: Finding a solution


Cd. Juárez is effectively under siege from criminal elements.  Call it brigandage, “criminal insurgency” or what you may, but the siege must be broken—both symbolically and practically. 


Is there a solution? Many believe a new president may be able to negotiate with the cartels instead of declaring war on them like Felipe Calderón did.  No matter who is elected the problems will continue until a solution is found to the growing economic disparity between the haves and have-nots in Mexico.


Perhaps helping Latin American countries, nations in our own backyard, develop their economies instead of assisting other countries halfway across the globe could be one solution. If Latin American counties can provide legitimate employment and education to their own citizens they may not have to resort to other means to provide food and shelter for their loved ones.


Certainly security is a prerequisite to stability and vibrant civil society.  Reforming the police, enhancing civil society actors, judicial reform, and meaningful social and economic opportunity are essential.  Yet, the means to building security requires great effort.  As we write, state police in Mexico are seeking authorization from SEDENA (Mexico’s DOD) to arm themselves with grenades.  Certainly grenades are not the staple of civil police in normal times.  Mexico seems to be in a “state of exception.”


Militarization of the police is not the answer.  Acknowledging the depth of the threat, building new security structures (such as a gendarmerie or civil guard), bolstering the Federal Police, strengthening state and local police, and building counter-violence initiatives within civil society institutions would be a start.  So would an end to the legacy of impunity.



John P. Sullivan is a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism. His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and elsewhere. Carlos Rosales is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Latin America. His specialty is covering drug cartels across Mexico and Latin America.

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