The Law of The Gun: Vigilante in Mexico

The Law of The Gun: Vigilante in Mexico

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The video of an execution of two carjackers by Juarez police has many citizens cheering.
But some warn that police vigilante behavior like this could be the beginning of a dangerous trend.

JUAREZ, Chihuahua, Mexico - The video is not very clear, but eyewitness accounts and a survivor of the shooting clearly tell the rest of the story.

When three carjackers were caught in plain sight by local police officers, a gunfight broke out. Those who watched it on the downtown street described the scene as being “like in the movies.’’

During the operation one police officer was killed. When the driver of the carjacking gang was hit by police gunfire, he ended up crashing the stolen vehicle against an electricity pole in an empty lot.

And the cameras were rolling.

Video revealed the officers approaching the car crash and then opening fire.

“The police shot them in cold blood. The men were already wounded and were hurt after the crash. The police finished them up,’’ an eyewitness told local newspaper El Diario de Juarez.

“They started to kill us one by one,’’ said Lucio Ramon Castro, the sole carjacker who survived the encounter by playing dead, to a judge.

The videos that came to light ignited a controversy with a majority of citizens supporting the officers’ actions and only a few, mainly intellectuals and social activists, condemning excessive police behavior.

“Kudos for the officers. I hope they do the same with all the criminals in this city,’’ commented a reader on Diario de Juarez’s webpage.

“Criminals have no heart and show no compassion when facing their victims. Why should we, the honest citizens of this city, show compassion to them?’’ according to a comment posted by another reader. Hundreds of electronic messages circulated via digital social networks--the majority congratulating the police, and some citizens even suggesting that criminals caught in the act should be killed on the spot. There were even calls to hang future gangsters in the central plaza as an example.

Carjacking on the Rise

After drug gang executions, and “the quotas” (the weekly extortion payment made by businesses to criminal gangs), carjacking has become the third most common crime affecting Mexico. Most carjackers are under 30 years old with some as young as 14. They work in small groups and are invariably armed.

“I looked into my rearview mirror and saw a car on my left side pushing me towards the sidewalk. Then the car closed in and I had to stop. Then two men got out of their car and approached my window, demanding that I get out. I was scared… so I got out. They jumped inside my car and left me standing on the sidewalk. I never found out if they were armed,’’ said Karla, a 24-year-old woman, while waiting in line at the police station to file a report with authorities.

Another young man in his early twenties, said that he had been victim of a carjacking assault early the same morning and that the carjackers demanded his wallet.

According to official numbers during the month of January, there were 57 claims of stolen vehicles in Juarez a day. More than a third of them were carjackings. According to the state’s Attorney General’s Office, last month the number of stolen cars increased by 21 percent, compared to the same period last year.

There are no reports of carjacking in the neighboring border city of El Paso, Texas, but last year there were 1,477 reports of stolen cars, according to El Paso Police Department.

There is a long history in both cities of stealing cars, stripping them, and turning them into spare parts that are recycled in junkyards. But for the past four years, stolen cars have also been used to commit executions or other gang crimes.

In Juarez, a city of about 1.2 million people, there are about half a million cars legally registered and an unknown number of unregistered ones circulating every day. About 90 percent of the vehicles are older models, most of them imported as “used cars” from the United States.

“We only buy vehicles from sellers that can provide legal ownership,’’ said an owner of a junkyard who requested that neither his name or his business address be used. “But car parts are a great business. Once you turn a car into pieces, you can usually increase its value three or four times, especially if it is an old model,’’ he adds.

According to confessed carjackers, they can get as much as 6,000 pesos per car (depending on model), which in turn brings to each of the members of the band about 2,000 pesos a week. To put it in perspective, 2,000 pesos a week –depending on the rate of exchange- is about $180 (USD). A factory worker makes about $60. A well paid office worker makes about $80 a week. In terms of money, being a carjacker is the better paying job.

Carjacking and stolen cars have become a national problem. According to the Mexican Association of Insurance Institutions, during the first six months of last year, there were 57,341 reports of stolen cars reported throughout Mexico. That is a rise of 16 percent over the same period a year earlier.

Mexico City and its surroundings have the higher numbers of stolen cars, followed by the states of Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila. Not coincidentally, all of these territories are under the control of the drug cartels.

Can’t Take It Anymore

Just like in the United States, after a home, for most people in Mexico, a car is their most prized possession. The anger of the citizens of Juarez to the recent carjacking—their support of the shootings by the police---worries some human rights activists.

“The police officers’ actions are sending a wrong message to society,’’ says Hernan Ortiz Quintana, an anthropologist and spokesperson for ‘Citizens Organized for a Better Public Administration.” “This police behavior breaks the law. If we who are law-abiding tolerate that, we are never going to deal with the problem of impunity,’’ he adds.

Oscar Maynez, a local criminologist says that even though local citizens are frustrated, there is no justification for the executions committed by the police.

“The whole society will start crumbling if it accepts, or rejoices at the executions. Right now, Juarez is no man’s land. But if the police join in crime, all other [governmental] institutions will collapse.’’