Ciudad Juarez, right across the border from the Texan city El Paso

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Mexican cities rocked
by ferocious drug war

Report by Greg Flakus (VoA) and local reporters

11 February 2009: Mexico's ongoing war with drug smuggling cartels claimed more than 5,300 lives in 2008 and one of the most violent places in the Latin American nation is Ciudad Juarez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas in the United States. Drug cartel killers have decapitated policemen, shot up restaurants and left bodies on streets all over the city of more than one million 300,000 people. El Paso remains relatively calm, but, the climate of fear affects both cities.

El Paso and Juarez represent a tale of two cities, linked economically and through social and family ties, but as different as night and day when it comes to crime. Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent federal police and army units to Juarez to fight the powerful drug gangs more than a year ago, but the violence continues as rival gangs compete for the lucrative drug trade.

University of Texas at El Paso Professor Howard Campbell says more effective law enforcement on the US side of the border has kept most of the violence out of El Paso for now. "Juarez last year had approximately 1,600 drug-related murders and El Paso, in the whole city, I think, had something like 16," he said.

Many wealthy citizens of Juarez have purchased property across the border in El Paso to protect their families, helping El Paso avoid the real estate slump affecting most of the United States. "We have heard stories recently that some of the most prominent families of Juarez, essentially, are now living in El Paso and trying to manage their business interests from El Paso and very seldom even going to Juarez," said Campbell.

But thousands cross the bridges over the border each day and the commerce that links the two cities continues. US and Mexican authorities recently established a caravan to escort assembly plant managers and business owners from the US side of the border to their facilities in Juarez and back across the border each day.

"They go out during the day, to shop, to do business they have to do to go to work, but at sundown, when the night falls, the task is to get everybody home and to lock themselves in the house and to not come out until the next day," said Political Science professor Tony Payan, who teaches at the universities in both El Paso and Juarez and has family members living on the Mexican side.

Payan thinks one way of curbing the violence that has worked in other border cities is to promote a truce between the warring drug cartels. "It is not the kind of peace you want, but it is peace nonetheless," he said. "That is, there are no more shootings and no more bodies on the streets."

Of course that would undermine President Calderon's war to stop drug smuggling, something Howard Campbell says does not appear to be working in any case. "I think a lot of people both in the United States and Mexico think it is time for a rethinking of the drug war policy," he added.

The US government remains committed to helping Mexico and is providing training and some material assistance to Mexican authorities. But security analyst Fred Burton at the Austin, Texas-based Stratfor company thinks more needs to done.

"With a country at war right next to ours, I think there should be a lot of attention given to this problem. You need a plan like we implemented many years ago in Colombia, taking on Pablo Escobar and the narco-terrorists in that country," said Burton.

But Howard Campbell disagrees, saying direct US involvement could be disastrous. "I think what we need to do is think about it a lot more and think about what our goals are in this thing and how we can achieve them and not just assume that somehow throwing money at the problem or soldiers or advisors or military tactics that that will win," said Campbell.

Campbell is among those who believe violent drug trafficking will not end until something effective is done to curtail demand in the United States and drastically reduce the profits over which the drug gangs are fighting.

But drug-related homicide is not a preserve of Mexican cities on or near the US border. Officials in most major urban centers have noted a rise of violence between competing drug trafficking gangs. There has also been an increase of cases of police officers being corrupted by traffickers. In February, Mexican troops detained the police chief and 36 other officers in the tourist resort of Cancun in connection with the murder of an ex-army general. The general Mauro Enrique Tello, who had just taken command of a squad to tackle drug crime in Cancun, was tortured and shot by suspected traffickers. The BBC reported that General Tello, who retired from the army in January 2009, had been sent to Cancun to lead a new force intended to break up the influence of drugs cartels.

BBC’s Mexican correspondent writes: “The general's death, the day after he arrived to take up his new job, is being blamed squarely on corrupt police and drugs cartels. Drug-related violence in Mexico is soaring, as criminal gangs fight both each other for control of the trafficking routes from Colombia to the US, and fight federal forces deployed against them.”

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