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Juarez Struggles at Epicenter of Drug Violence

July 29, 2010 at 8:22 PM EDT
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A violent drug war continues to deepen in Mexico. Ioan Grillo of GlobalPost reports from one of the epicenters: Juarez.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now: a two-part look at the deepening drug war in Mexico.

We start with a report from Juarez, one of the epicenters of the violence.

Ioan Grillo of the international Web site GlobalPost reports on the effect on ordinary citizens.

IOAN GRILLO, GlobalPost: Ciudad Juarez, the most murderous city on the planet, with more than 5,000 homicides in two-and-a-half years.

Gangs have also burned down businesses and tortured their owners to squeeze out protection money. And, in July, a new terror tactic hit the streets, when gangsters set off the first car bomb. The bloodshed and extortion rage on, even as more than 10,000 soldiers and police try to lock down the city.

But what are the residents of this city of 1.3 million doing about the situation? We talked to both rich and poor to get answers to that question.

In a working-class neighborhood, Catholic priest Oscar Enriquez, who runs a community center, says that ordinary people can’t do much. He says they are powerless to act because corruption is rampant and the authorities are in on the game; they regularly get paid off by drug traffickers.

REV. OSCAR ENRIQUEZ, Catholic priest (through translator): I believe that the first people responsible are the authorities. Who let organized crime grow in the city? It seems that, for the so-called Juarez Cartel, to grow for 30 or 40 years, you need institutional, political, economic and financial support. And it appears there has been a very strong institutional complicity in the growth of organized crime.

RAY SUAREZ: In this hillside slum on the west side of Juarez, Sandra Ramirez also blames authorities for not providing alternatives to young people. A social worker who has grown up here, she’s doing her part by trying to steer teens away from a life of crime. The center she works in provides counseling, art and music workshops, and a space for young people to get off the street.

But these barrios are teeming with young men recruited as traffickers or hitmen in the war over the drug trade who need more than she can provide.

SANDRA RAMIREZ, social worker (through translator): Take a case of one boy I know. He is 14 years old and has only studied in elementary school. His mother uses drugs, and he doesn’t live with her. He told me that a car came with some guys he had seen and they said, we will give you $40 a week and a cell phone and we give you work, and the only thing that you have to do is stand at a post and keep watch. And we will give this phone with credit and a number, and, if you see a car with certain characteristics, you call. That is the only thing you have to do.

Do you think a kid like him won’t accept these type of offers? And there are hundreds of cases like this in Juarez. Nobody else has offered him anything, except them.

RAY SUAREZ: Ramirez says that social programs, not soldiers, are what’s needed to stop the drug war. She says the slums require more schools, more jobs, and more centers like hers. But rather than going up, she says, the funds for social programs have gone down in the last year.

Just minutes away by car, a different world exists, a neighborhood of expensive homes and gardens. But we were abruptly stopped in our tracks.

We have come to this upper-middle-class neighborhood and found this plastic barricade blocking the road, with sand and concrete inside. Now, the residents have put this up themselves to stop any suspicious cars going inside. The city government is against this kind of thing, but residents say, if police can’t stop crime, they have to take matters into their own hands.

Among those who put money towards the barricade was 76-year old resident Felisa Cotera, who has seen the city’s ups and downs since the 1930s.

FELISA COTERA, resident of Juarez, Mexico: Originally, we felt that this was only the gang — not only the gangs — the drug traffickers were killing each other off. And we figured, well, it is their problem, not ours. But it has spilled over. I mean, now we are getting the — the kidnappings, and the carjackings, the — especially the extortions. I mean, it has sort of killed the city.

RAY SUAREZ: We get a call from fellow reporters that a dead body has been found nearby. We climb up an abandoned house for a view of the crime scene, and get a reminder of why people here are often scared to speak up.

Right behind me is the body of a man who has been tortured, had a message written on his chest, and had his finger stuck in his mouth as a warning against snitches. That kind of thing happens every day here in Ciudad Juarez, keeping the community in fear.

But despite such terror, some citizens are willing to speak out. Dr. Leticia Chavaria is part of a group protesting against attacks on doctors. Eighteen were kidnapped for ransom last year. She says the community has to transform its attitude to move forward.

DR. LETICIA CHAVARIA, Juarez, Mexico (through translator): All of us have fear. That is natural. Terror is a part of our human instinct for survival. But, right now, in this city, in place of feeling fear, we need to feel courage to do something to change things.

I am putting my grain of sand, my participation first of all to try and make other citizens conscious that only by being united and acting as citizens can we have the strength to bring about change.

RAY SUAREZ: This kind of outspoken bravery is hard to find in a city as deadly as Juarez, but, in the fight against drug cartels, it’s one of the only weapons the community has left.