TOPICS > Politics

Paramedics in the Line of Fire in Mexico’s Drug War

May 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
Loading the player...
In the heart of the Mexican drug war in Juarez, emergency medical technicians face unique challenges as they respond to the bloodshed. Global Post reporter Ioan Grillo reports from Mexico.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to a report from south of the border to the heart of those drug wars. Among those whose lives are in danger every day are emergency medical technicians called to the scenes of violence.

Ioan Grillo of GlobalPost, an international news website, reports from Juarez.

IOAN GRILLO, GlobalPost: One o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in downtown Ciudad Juarez, over the border from El Paso, Texas, assassins gun down a victim outside a crowded shopping mall, and their rifle fire also caused a line of other cars to crash.

The city paramedics couldn’t save the target of the shooting, but they pulled two other drivers outs of smashed cars and rushed them to hospital, checking for wounds from the crashes and any stray bullets. As they left the scene, they were escorted by armed police, in case any gunmen were still in the area.

Shootings like this happen daily in the world’s murder capital, where rival drug cartels fight for billion-dollar smuggling routes for cocaine, marijuana, and crystal meth to the U.S.

Since January 2008, there have been more than 5,000 homicides in the city of 1.3 million. Responding to this carnage is a Herculean task for this small team of city paramedics, especially since they don’t even have a working ambulance. They have to move in five vehicles owned by the Red Cross.

With private ambulances staying away from firefights, the team of eight city paramedics sometimes has to attend to more than 20 gunshot victims in a single afternoon.

Thirty-year-old Lieutenant Carlos Buenrostro is in charge of the 3 p.m. shift. With 16 years experience on these streets, he’s an expert at tending to bullet wounds.

CARLOS BUENROSTRO, paramedic supervisor (through translator): When a bullet injury is reported, we don’t go until the police have secured the scene, until we know we can go in and work safely and help a patient that is still alive or confirm that a victim has died. We need security. In case they want to go back and injure or kill the person, then we have police to protect us.

IOAN GRILLO: A dispatcher at police headquarters called in to report a shooting. Buenrostro rushed to the location in the supervisor’s car, which can weave through traffic and arrive more quickly than the ambulances.

Buenrostro arrived at the scene in a middle-class residential neighborhood. A 50-year-old man had been ambushed and shot in this red Volkswagen. Buenrostro took his vital signs, but it was too late to save the victim. The man had died minutes after the bullets hit.

CARLOS BUENROSTRO (through translator): You feel helpless when you arrive and you can’t save the life of the patient. You psyche yourself up to work, but, sometimes, they have already died, or, even when you attend to them, they die on the way to the hospital because the injuries are so serious.

IOAN GRILLO: Buenrostro says the drug gangs have even threatened paramedics, telling them not to attend to certain patients.

CARLOS BUENROSTRO (through translator): They have threatened us on our radio frequency, telling us about a certain scene and ordering us not to go near it or they are going to shoot at us.

IOAN GRILLO: Back in 1996, gunmen actually killed a medic when they shot directly into an ambulance to finish off a patient. To avoid more casualties, paramedics now try and have police escorts whenever they are carrying gunshot victims.

Buenrostro only attended to one shooting, making it a slow shift by Juarez standards. Jorge Jimenez took over to supervise the night shift, a time when much of the violence usually takes place. A police dispatcher called to report gunfire.

Arriving at the scene, Jimenez found that a 16-year-old had been shot in the leg in an attempted mugging. Paramedics had already bandaged up the wound.

MAN (through translator): Why did they shoot at you?

MAN (through translator): Just because they wanted to mug me and take my sneakers. Here they are and my cell phone. It is better that you don’t go out on the streets carrying a cell phone.

IOAN GRILLO: Most victims of gunshots are taken to the Juarez General Hospital, the city’s biggest public clinic, as many private hospitals in Juarez won’t accept patients with bullet Wounds.

JORGE JIMENEZ, paramedic supervisor (through translator): There are cases when the gunmen go into the hospitals and shoot patients and go. That’s why many private hospitals don’t want these patients with gunshot injuries, because they don’t have the security.

IOAN GRILLO: As a husband and father of two, Jimenez says it is hard on his family to work under such conditions.

JORGE JIMENEZ (through translator): I like this work and the action. If I didn’t enjoy it, I would work somewhere else. But this situation in the city being so ugly, my wife says, look for another job. But here I am, still doing it.

IOAN GRILLO: The shootings show no signs of slowing down.

In fact, with the killing of six federal policemen at a busy intersection recently, there is fear the cartels will step up their attacks on the government forces sent to restore order. This would make the job of paramedics such as Jimenez and Buenrostro busier and riskier than ever.