When we visited Villas de Salvarcar this past spring for our report on the enduring violence in Juarez, we found a neighborhood slowly putting its heart back together. On a block where 15 young people were massacred at a birthday party last January, federal law enforcement stood guard and social workers dispatched from Mexico City worked with local children to address the trauma. When we asked about the slain children, relatives emerged clutching photographs, and mothers stood in all their bravery to tell us who their children were, laying out scholastic awards and leaning on each other for support. President Felipe Calderon’s administration vowed “never again” and pledged new funding to improve law enforcement and build infrastructure projects.
And yet it did happen again, in almost exactly the same way, in Horizones Sur, a working class neighborhood not far from Villas de Salvarcar. Late last month, gunmen stormed into a birthday party spanning two yards, killing 13 young people and injuring 20 others. According to the Associated Press, most of the victims were high school students.
October was the worst month in Juarez’s bloody history, adding 352 dead to the more than 7,000 people killed there in the last two years. According to Molly Malloy, a librarian at New Mexico State University who has made it her mission to keep track of the dead using Mexican local newspapers, the number of people killed this year has surpassed the number in 2009, the previous record high.
“At this rate if you figure 200 people a month, it’s already been 82 in the first 10 days of November, it’s going to be I think about 3,200 people,” said Molloy. “Unless something drastic happens or unless they stop reporting it.”
The astounding death toll begs the never-ending and simple question: why? Why is it getting worse? The Mexican army has been dispatched. When we spoke with then-Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz he talked about rooting out corruption in the city’s police force and building the numbers with fresh recruits. The U.S. State Department has pledged $1.5 billion to help Mexican law enforcement with training and equipment through the Merida Initiative. But six months later, the death toll marches on.
“Merida is a long-term process and institution building takes a long time,” said Alex Lee, Office Director of Mexican Affairs at the Department of State, in an interview this past May. “I think it’s better to see this as process we have begun, and it will continue.” Lee acknowledged that much of the Merida effort has been aimed at the federal level and that they had just begun to talk about fighting the violence at the local level.
The question of why the bodies continue to pile up is often chalked up to drug cartels battling it out for access into the lucrative U.S. drug market.
“Certainly there are drug cartels that kill each other,” said Charles Bowden, an author who has studied Juarez for the past 20 years. “Certainly periodically they have wars, but you can’t explain most of the dead in Mexico that way. The problem in Juarez is corruption, poverty, lack of infrastructure — we’re talking about electricity and water.”
Over the last four decades, tens of thousands of Mexicans have streamed into Juarez to work in the maquiladoras — manufacturing plants that produce products that are then shipped duty free into the United States. But the city failed to build the infrastructure around them. When we visited in the spring, the west side of the city, where roughly half a million people live, had only one high school. And while the construction of new high schools in the city is under way, and the new mayor Hector Murguia has pledged to build social programs, his vision was described by the El Paso Times as “vague.”
To add to the litany of problems, unemployment is at 20 percent, with several hundred thousand maquiladora jobs lost since the beginning of the decade. And the city has one of the largest drug markets in the country, spawning endless battles among gangs for turf.
In his book “Murder City,” Bowden writes, “There are no jobs, the young face blank futures, the poor are crushed by sinking fortunes … killing is not deviance, it is a logical career decision for thousands floundering in a failing economy and a failing state.”
Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to help stem the violence have often come under harsh review. This November, a Department of Justice internal review found the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ effort to keep U.S. firearms out of Mexico to be mismanaged and fraught with “significant weaknesses.” Ninety percent of the guns seized in Mexico are traced back to the United States.
“Violence courses through Juarez like a ceaseless wind,” Bowden writes. “And we insist it is a battle between cartels, or between the state and the drug world, or between the army and the forces of darkness. But consider this possibility: violence is now woven into the fabric of the community and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button.”