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A City Under Siege

New America Media, News Report, Jos Luis Sierra Posted: Apr 13, 2009

JUAREZ, Mexico -- Its the subject of everyones daily conversation and silent fear. There is hardly a family that hasnt been touched by it, or a corner of the city not mentioned as the site of an incident. It has been named Operacin conjunta, a joint operation of state, federal and military forces against the drug cartels, but for most citizens of this once vibrant city, it has become a war in which anyone could be the enemy and anyone could become a casualty for almost no reason.

"I just went outside to smoke a cigarette," said Carlos Campos, still trembling from having been body searched by a group of soldiers outside his mothers home.

That was the second time that night that the 36-year-old had an encounter with military forces patrolling the city, and the second time in less than two weeks that he has been stopped in one of the hundreds of daily operations staged by state and federal authorities at any given time on any given street of this town.

"It has changed our lives," said Pablo Montoya, an engineer who owns a neon signs business. Nowadays, we all do things differently."

The war on drugs, Montoya explains, has affected everyones daily routines.

Local and top government officials claim that they are winning the fight against the narcos, as most people call the drug smugglers. But just as they promote the high-profile arrests of drug cartel leaders, new signs point to a problem that is deeply entrenched in almost every level of society.

On Friday night, a heavily armed operation was mounted outside a local hotel where at least one commander and 15 federal police officers were being investigated for alleged abuse of force and possession of drugs. The same day, U.S. Customs agents at the Ysleta Bridge in the border city of El Paso, Tex., seized 9,000 pounds of marijuana valued at $7 million. The drug was found shortly after noon in a truck at the border crossings commercial cargo area.

According to officials, the marijuana was found in 6,640 bundles after the vehicle was moved to a secondary inspection area. The truck was supposed to be carrying auto parts but an imaging system found anomalies.

Customs and Border Protection agents made five more drug busts on Wednesday, seizing an additional 1,335 pounds of marijuana. The total for the day was 10,419 pounds of marijuana, officials said.

You never know whats going to happen, says Rosario C., a local bank executive. People come here afraid and many have been assaulted outside as soon as they cash their checks. She explains that even though all of the local banks are heavily guarded, criminals manage to identify the customers who process large transactions. Some of them have been followed to their vehicles and assaulted, just as the military patrols nearby.

The Soldiers Are Coming!

Even with continuous patrolling by military and federal police, some sectors of the population of this border town dont feel safe and lament their presence. Many claim that the police and the military are the worst offenders.

They just knocked on the door and demanded that I let them in, said Evenecer Parra, who claims that last Wednesday federal police officers ransacked his apartment and stole about $9,000 in cash, jewelry and other belongings. I cooperated because I had nothing to fear, he said, recounting the hours of terror he experienced along with his wife and his three-year-old child.

Parra claims that the officers did not have a warrant or any other legal document to enter his home. Nevertheless, they searched his home, supposedly looking for drugs, and took his valuables. He said they even took the gold bracelet that was a birthday gift for his three-year-old.

These allegations have created rifts among the federal agents and military personnel who share the blame for the alleged abuses.

We are here to protect the population. We are not here to steal or abuse people, said one military commander who did not want to be identified. Every time there is a complaint, we investigate and proceed accordingly.

He explains that along with the dangers of the job, the military must fight its poor image among the population. Much of this has to do with the fact that thousands of soldiers have gone to work for the drug traffickers where they can earn more money.

As accusations of human rights violations and other abuses pile up, federal agents from Mexico City have arrived to investigate. Just last month, seven federal police agents were fired after a confrontation with local police in an incident denounced by citizens.

Several federal police were also fired after being charged with extortion and making threats to business owners.

Were getting hit on both sides, said Raymundo Olivas, who recently decided to move with his family across the border to El Paso, after receiving several threats of kidnappings. On the one hand, we have the narcos and petty criminals who demand that we pay them for protection. On the other hand, we have the very same police force that is supposed to protect us, demanding money in exchange for not filing charges against us for supposedly being associated with the narcos.

Official data from government agencies monitoring the impact of the joint operation by federal, municipal and military authorities revealed that as of March 2009, citizens have filed 109 claims. Half of these are allegations of criminal abuse; the rest are civil rights violations.

However, most people are afraid to press charges against the police or the military, and rumors of abuses often become jokes. Young people who have never been victims of police abuse idolize the narco way of life and drive around with loudspeakers playing narco-corridos and songs about the capos who challenge the statue quo.

We have by no means investigated every claim we have. But we are aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Most people are afraid of getting in trouble and prefer to keep quiet, said an official of a local human rights organization who did not want to be identified. There are claims that soldiers are going in their homes without permission and even taking food from their fridge, said the official.

There are also claims of cell phones being lost during searches, unwanted touching of females who are stopped at check points, and money demanded in exchange for avoiding arrest.

Juarez is never going to be the same, declares Montoya as he sips a quick drink before heading off to El Paso, where he now lives with his family. But I worry about whats going to happen when the military leave. Montoya says he predicts that there will be more violence after the operation is over.

And just like him, everyone is worried. Along with the war against the drug traffickers, Juarez, like the rest of Mexico and the world, has been hit by the economic downturn and the prospects of a short-term fix. Unemployment is officially in the double digits, but everyone here knows that the real number is much higher.

Life Goes On

But despite all of the horror stories that people share every day over lunch, life goes on as it has for centuries. Juarez has never been a pleasant place to live. Long before the Pleistocene age, it was deep under water. Now Juarez is in the middle of a desert, and is a city that has grown along with El Paso, Tex., like two Siamese sisters unable to function without each other.

Unemployment is high, like everywhere else, and the effects can be felt in the two cities.

People dont come here like they used to. When things are good, its less than 50 percent of what it used to be. The way things are going, were going to have to close the business, says Genaro Garcia, a longtime chef at a once popular bar.

We just have to get rid of the stigma of being a city under siege. Tourists dont want to come because they are afraid of the checkpoints and the soldiers, says Alvaro Garcia, owner of a once popular nightclub that is now almost empty.

Most businesses here are empty. Tourism, once the largest source of income is down more than 50 percent, according to the local tourism office. Even during the Easter holidays, the streets are as empty as the bars and restaurants. Once a manufacturing mecca of electronics and auto parts, Juarez has seen unemployment rise as fast as crime rates. Worst still, even as the daily executions continue, they discover remains of past executions every day.

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