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News (Media Awareness Project) - Mexico: Killings Plummet As Army Polices Drug City
Title:Mexico: Killings Plummet As Army Polices Drug City
Published On:2009-04-23
Source:Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Fetched On:2009-04-24 02:16:04

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 Calderon
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 last month dropped to 51.
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 river from El Paso, is the most extreme example of
Calderon'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. Last 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.

"The surge by the military has made a profound difference. They do
serve as a deterrent. Crime is a fraction of what it was. That is the
good news," said Tony Payan, an expert in Mexico's drug trade at the
University of Texas at El Paso. "The bad news is: What is going to
happen when the army returns to the barracks? I think the situation
remains very precarious."

Centrally located, with access to U.S. interstates, Ciudad Juarez is
the most coveted "plaza" of the Mexican drug trade, which funnels 90
percent of all cocaine entering the United States. Last year, the
Mexican news media dubbed it the "city of terror." Headless torsos
hung from highway overpasses, severed heads were dumped in the
central plaza, and masked assassins executed prosecutors in broad daylight.

Many Juarez residents have greeted the army --- and the sudden,
surprising calm --- as if they have been liberated from a siege.

"The violence is pretty much gone," said Agustin Vargas, a thin,
24-year-old soccer player who described himself as a reformed ex-gang
member. "There used to be murders all over the place, people
shooting. It's changed."
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