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Juarez: ‘The Most Lethal Place on Earth’

February 16, 2011 at 6:15 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, Mexico’s deadly drug wars.

Yesterday, the conflict took an American victim from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Special Agent Jaime Zapata was part of an expanded American force working with Mexican authorities in the ongoing battle. He was shot to death by gunmen on a highway from Mexico City to Monterrey. A second agent was wounded.

But the worst-hit city in the drug battles is to the north, Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S. border.

Bill Neely of Independent Television News reports on the drug war there.

BILL NEELY: Death is just around the corner, and he knows it. The streets of Juarez are deadlier than any on earth, its suburbs and its center the scene of daily slaughter.


BILL NEELY: Midday in a middle-class area, and Mexico’s Federal Police fight seven gunmen from a drug cartel. It’s not unusual — 60 people die here every week in a war that makes Baghdad and Kabul seem tame.

Death is measured in massacres, seven here, four there, 15 in a house, 10 in a ditch, executions, beheadings, brutal and gruesome. The victims are mostly young men from two drug cartels battling for control of this city and of the billion-dollar drug route to America.

Three more killings here, and already this year is on course to be even deadlier than last year, when more than 3,000 people were murdered in this small city.

It’s not just bullets. It’s car bombs. It’s a war in which the finest forces Mexico can muster are struggling against well-armed cartels.

Most of Juarez’s killers are never caught, yet the city’s prison is full of the war’s foot soldiers. He didn’t want to give his name or show his face, but he is a cartel hit man in jail for killing two policemen and a drug rival and for turning Juarez into a battleground.

CARTEL HIT MAN: Back three years ago, it was calm. From three years ago now, you know, the war starts.

BILL NEELY: And it is a war?

CARTEL HIT MAN: Yes, it is a war.

BILL NEELY: Is the government winning this war?

CARTEL HIT MAN: No. They’re losing.

BILL NEELY: How will this end?

CARTEL HIT MAN: Somebody wins, either — either side.

BILL NEELY: So, the killing will continue until one side kills enough people to win?

CARTEL HIT MAN: Looks like it.

BILL NEELY: They even murder each other in jail. A one-day battle between rival cartels here left 21 men dead.

The government sent 10,000 federal troops and police to Juarez, tried to crush the cartels. It’s failing to stop the bloodshed.

The man who heads the deadliest city on Earth is on the defensive.

HECTOR MURGUIA, mayor of Juarez, Mexico: Juarez is not what you say, is not — worse in Baghdad, in Beirut, in…

BILL NEELY: There are more killings.

HECTOR MURGUIA: No, no, sir.

BILL NEELY: Is your government winning this battle?

HECTOR MURGUIA: Oh, yes, sure, sure. When you lose hope, you lose everything. Yes, we are winning the war.

BILL NEELY: But you are losing lives.


BILL NEELY: It’s America’s demand for drugs that fuels the killings. The U.S. has spent billions on border security, but the cartels’ drugs get through, and the war for the U.S. market grows. Nothing seems to stop it in Juarez.

Sixteen teenagers were murdered here at a party, including two brothers. Their mother confronted Mexico’s president, who tried to reassure the city.

“You are not welcome,” she told him. “You are not stopping this. It’s just getting worse.”

That was last year. She was right. It did get worse.

“I have lost both my sons, and I have lost hope,” she says. “I don’t see any solution. The government’s losing. Innocents are dying.”


BILL NEELY: Juarez is the worst, but just one of many Mexican cities at war — 35,000 lives lost, most in the last two years.

Along with its people, the city is dying. The government hoped to make it the showcase for its campaign against the cartels. Instead, the plaintive songs at the cemetery tell of a city of ghosts, the most lethal place on Earth, where the war has no winners.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’ll have more of Bill Neely’s reports about Mexico’s drug wars in the coming days.