Drug Violence Batters Tourism, Law Enforcement in Mexico

BY Larisa Epatko  March 3, 2011 at 11:19 AM EST


Soldiers and Federal Police in Apatzingan, Mexico (Fernando Castillo/LatinContent /Getty Images)

During the week of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s visit with President Obama, at least 17 bodies were unearthed in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero and gunmen killed four in Ciudad Juarez in the latest drug-fueled violence.

Meanwhile, Texas authorities are warning college students not to travel to Mexico for spring break, and the State Department, which also has issued warnings about Mexico, provides tips on how to stay safe to those determined to go south of the border.

Jose Luis Sierra, a reporter and editor with New America Media, has been covering the effects of the drug war on Mexico’s citizens. His latest reports, from Juarez, highlight the declining tourism in the once-popular city and a case of vigilante behavior — by the police.

No ‘Gringos’ in Juarez

JUAREZ, Chihuahua, Mexico — It is six o’clock in the evening on a Mexican holy day and the Kentucky bar is almost empty. In a room with capacity for over a hundred customers, only four people are sitting at the bar. All of them long time customers.

The bar, one of the oldest in the city, with a claim to being the birthplace of the Margarita. There are still original mirrors and a wood frame that, according to the bartender, was imported from Louisiana and belonged to a luxury steam boat that roamed up and down the Mississippi.

“We used to be busy most weekends and have regulars during the week. But they are not coming anymore,” said the bartender, who agreed to talk to a visitor but declined to give his full name. He declined also to indicate if the place, like hundreds around the city that are still open, complies with the “quota,” a ransom payment collected every week, or month, by members of organized crime. But the bartender freely confirmed what was self-evident. “No more gringos.” At least for now.

According to the Juarez Chamber of Commerce, close to 50 percent of the businesses in the city closed last year, due to the demands of the quota. The big companies moved to El Paso.

For the past two years the U.S. State Department has been issuing warnings to American travelers that Juarez is not a safe place to visit. Word of mouth and common sense had dissuaded many of El Paso’s locals from traveling into Juarez in search of a good time.

A Mounting Crisis

From its very beginnings, Juarez had been a haven for U.S. nationals to visit. Everything illegal on the United States side was available in Juarez and it was relatively cheap. Founded in 1659 and known first as “El Paso del Norte,” Juarez quickly became famous for being the easiest way for travelers going north and south of El Rio Grande, toward the southern Rocky Mountains.

In 1848, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which established the Rio Grande as the border between Mexico and the United States, “El Paso del Norte” got divided. But the southern side of the city flourished and gained its actual name in 1888, in honor of Benito Juarez, a Mexican President. The building where Juarez set up his headquarters is still standing, but pretty much, like large areas of the city, it is in decay, its significance long forgotten by most.

Just like many other border towns along the U.S.-Mexican border, Juarez’s fortunes depended on the economic and political conditions of the United States. During the Prohibition years of the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. nationals traveled south to load themselves, literally, with alcohol.

From the ’30s to the ’40s, they visited the town for sex. In the ’50s to mid-60s Juarez became famous for as the “capital,” of the divorcios al vapor, a legal proceeding in which a divorce proceedings could be arranged in a matter of hours. But the glamour years were the 1970s, with then-popular discos.

“Avenida Juarez was so packed that people couldn’t even walk,” remembers Abel Martinez, a taxi driver in his late 50s, who now complains that he feels lucky if he can make $20 a day, half of it to be spent on gas for another journey.

“There were lots of gringos and gringas coming to have fun,” he adds with nostalgia.

But all that changed with the drug-cartel violence of the past four years.

“We see an average of two-to-three gringo customers a week,” said Ruben Cazares, owner of a small arts and crafts shop in the also once-famous Mercado Juarez.

Inaugurated in 1945, the market was a regular stop for tourists who crossed the border in search of Mexican art or cheap decorative home artifacts.

“Things began to get critical about three or four years ago, when all the violence began. Things are so bad that about two-thirds of the owners in the Mercado gave up are trying to find work somewhere else,” said the 74-year-old man, who start working here when he was 14.

The aisles of the market are empty. So is the parking lot. The few shop owners still tending their shops spend their time chatting with each other and taking time to dust off their merchandise.

Read Jose Luis Sierra’s full story on New America Media’s website.

The Law of the Gun

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.

Read the full story.

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