Rebelling Against Death in Ciudad Juarez

Rebelling Against Death in Ciudad Juarez

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It says a lot about the condition of a place when a story in a popular newspaper about a man seriously injured by a machete blow to the head might be viewed as a positive development. But the headline in the April 10 edition of the daily PM newspaper, Ciudad Juarez’s most sensationalist rag, was noteworthy for another reason: not a single murder had been officially tallied the previous day in the world’s most violent city.

As of the evening of April 12, about 655 people had been reported murdered in Ciudad Juarez since the beginning of the year, according to the latest press reports and statistics compiled by New Mexico State University researcher Molly Molloy.

Last Friday’s lull in the killing came a day after a tactical tweak to the much-criticized government security operation, Operation Chihuahua, was announced. Beginning Thursday, April 8, Mexico’s Federal Police assumed control of local policing from the Mexican military, which managed a somewhat purged police force during much of the current municipal administration.

In a statement, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz announced that Federal Police officials would take over the responsibility of running the municipal police and transit departments. According to the mayor, the 2,500-member local police force will be greatly augmented by 5,000 federal officers.

Reyes thanked retired General Julian David Rivera Breton and Lt. Col. Efren Rodriguez Torres for their recent stints at the helm of local law enforcement.

“The residents of Juarez recognize (Secretary of Municipal Public Safety Rivera and Director of Transit Rodriguez) for the will, labor, dedication and affection they have shown for our city,” Reyes Ferriz said, “even when they were not from this piece of desert in the north of Mexico.”

Reyes said he would appoint the Federal Police officials who will supervise the local police, but no names had yet been revealed as Frontera NorteSur went to press. The new officials will also report to Federal Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna.

Members of the Juarez City Council, including representatives of Reyes’ own PRI party, complained they were not fully apprised of the switch-over from the army to the Federal Police, and unaware of any written agreement laying out the federal role.

“The truth of the matter is that I do not know what’s going on and why Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz decided to go over the head of the City Council,” said Arturo Dominguez, PRI city councilman.

“(Federal involvement)has to be regulated,” chimed in Gustavo Munoz Hepo, coordinator of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in the city council. Munoz insisted that Reyes must clarify the new rules guiding the security operation, in order to avoid abuses against the citizenry.

Indeed, less than 48 hours after the command change in Operation Chihuahua was announced, fresh controversy emerged after the press reported that federal policemen stole about $800 from a junkyard manager. Allegedly threatened, the man reportedly fled Ciudad Juarez. The incident wasn’t the first time members of the Federal Police involved in Operation Chihuahua have been accused of criminal acts in Ciudad Juarez.

The ascendancy of the Federal Police does not mean that the army is halting its operations in Ciudad Juarez. Three days after the change was announced, soldiers were still stopping and searching cars and trucks entering the city at the Stanton Street Bridge and doing the same to vehicles exiting the city on Avenida Juarez leading up to the Santa Fe Bridge to El Paso.

In some instances equipped with mounted .50 caliber machine guns on their vehicles, soldiers were busy patrolling downtown Ciudad Juarez last weekend. Truckloads of ski-masked federal officers also scoured the zone.

“The militarization in this city is going to last a long time, because the strategy of Felipe Calderon is to militarize the cities,” said Gero Fong, an organizer for the Frente Ciudadano Plural, a left-leaning network that demands a halt to human rights violations and the withdrawal of the army from Ciudad Juarez.

Developments in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico indicate the army is digging in for a long campaign in the so-called narco war.

Last week, Defense Secretary General Guillermo Galvan raised a political ruckus when he urged the Mexican Congress to approve legal reforms that would translate into a virtual suspension of constitutional guarantees. Galvan requested that lawmakers allow soldiers to legally detain suspects for 24 hours without turning them over to civilian authorities, permit troops to enter homes without a search warrant, sanction military highway blockages, and give the armed forces a green light to tap personal communications. The army’s participation in the fight against organized crime is likely to last another five or 10 years, he said.

On Saturday, April 10, the 91st anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, The Frente Ciudadano organized a small protest in Ciudad Juarez to honor the revolutionary hero and oppose militarization. In an interview, Fong criticized human rights abuses during the various phases of Operation Chihuahua, escalating violence and the possibility of greater U.S. military involvement in Mexico.

Since the start of Operation Chihuahua, Fong and other activists have reported a pattern of harassment, intimidation and worse.

Fong told Frontera NorteSur that soldiers installed a checkpoint outside his neighborhood for the first time only hours after the first protest in 2008 against the army’s presence, an event the activist helped organize.

Three days later, Fong said, soldiers surrounded his home for 20 minutes before departing. About three months ago, another group of soldiers came to his house and tried to enter without a search warrant, Fong complained, adding that he immediately contacted fellow activists who helped mobilize scores of people to his home. After the press arrived on the scene, the soldiers left, he said.

Fong speculated that last January’s murder of Josefina Reyes, a former elected official from the center-left PRD party and a well-known army critic from the Juarez Valley, could have been the prelude to the recent wave of violence in the rural zone south of the city in which scores of people have been murdered and numerous homes burned down by bands of presumed drug cartel gunmen operating with seeming impunity.

“We ask ourselves if the murder of our friend Josefina wasn’t preventative repression,” Fong said, “because the massacres in the Juarez Valley were being planned and (gunmen) did not need people who would protest and get in the way.”

In recent weeks, many people have fled the strategic valley bordering the United States. “When the place is being watched by soldiers, this has to be characterized as a social cleansing,” Fong contended.

At their protest, Fong and other activists passed out copies of the Juaritos Times, a sassy publication that features articles such as a play-by-play account of the running battle between protesting youths and Federal Police during President Calderon’s last visit to Ciudad Juarez.

Another piece discussed a March forum held at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University which was attended by relatives of students massacred in Ciudad Juarez’s Villas de Salvarcar neighborhood in January, as well as family members of murdered and disappeared young women and their supporters.

“We are rebelling against death in the most violent city in the world,” proclaims the Juaritos Times.

Julian Contreras was among numerous youths who traveled to the Mexico City event, where common cause was made with striking miners and utility workers, relatives of the Atenco prisoners and parents of the children killed in the notorious ABC daycare fire in Sonora last year.

Young people in Ciudad Juarez, Contreras said, live in a violent city lacking employment and educational opportunities. Social circumstances, Contreras asserted, encourage many youths who do not study or work to engage in a “certain degree of criminality” to survive.

“There’s no real war against drug trafficking,” Contreras said. “There’s no real combat of organized crime, at its highest levels. What (the government) is doing is combating the lower strata of the population.”

According to one recent estimate, as many as 70,000 young people in Ciudad Juarez do not attend school or have jobs.

The good news, Contreras said, is that Juarenses are beginning to shake off the fear that’s dominated for the last two years. Politically, more and more young people are speaking out, while socially, youths are starting to go out again and patronize the local anthros, or nightclubs, Contreras said. Massacres like the slaughter at the house party in Villas de Salvarcar, he added, convinced many young people they might as well go out since nowhere was safe, anyhow.

Contreras urged a drastic re-altering of economic policies in addition to a better redistribution of wealth.

“We are in a country where there is no future for us as young people, and this (situation) is blowing up and radicalizing us,” the young activist said. “We are disposed to struggle for a better future, for a better planet, and the only way to do this is to be in the streets denouncing, acting, informing and organizing ourselves. This is going to be the way to construct a better future.”


Additional Sources: Norte, April 10 and 12, 2010. Articles by F. Lujan, F.A. Gonzalez, editorial staff, and El Universal. El Diario de El Paso, April 11, 2010. PM, April 10, 2010. IMER (Mexican Institute of Radio), April 8, 2010. La Jornada, April 8, 2010. Article by Roberto Garduno and Enrique Mendez. El Diario de Juarez, March 31 and April 12, 2010. El Universal, March 30, 2010.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico