Editor’s note: Second of a two-part series examining El Paso’s budding drug addiction problem and the stalemate in Juarez between police and the drug cartels. Part 1 | DEA: We save lives in Middle America by stopping fentanyl at the border
JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – The crime was so shocking it cried out for immediate response.
Four used-car salesmen abducted in broad daylight, their bruised and bloody bodies tossed near railroad tracks in the middle of the night.
Two days later, a convoy of military and police vehicles snaked through traffic along the commercial strip where the abductions occurred. Officers with rifles at the ready stood atop 4-by-4 trucks while the soldiers set up a roadblock and more cops searched and questioned drivers.
It was a show of force meant to let criminals know that it is the authorities and not them who own the streets, said Ricardo Realivazquez, Chihuahua state police commander in Juarez.
“These neighborhoods are their comfort zones. Here they feel at ease to commit their crimes. Before the police could not patrol some streets because they sent people to throw rocks at us. Now we control the streets. Now we can go anywhere including roads with no pavement or lights. Now it is us who are at ease to come and go,” Realivazquez said.
The so-called “saturation” patrols of up to 23 squad cars, trucks and army vehicles evoke scenes of American GIs patrolling hostile areas in Iraq or Afghanistan a decade ago. The results are strikingly similar.
On the night a Border Report crew rode with the convoy through some of Juarez’s most dangerous neighborhoods, police made a couple of arrests on public intoxication charges.
Two nights later – in one of the dark, hilly areas the law enforcement vehicles had crisscrossed – gunmen opened fire on a funeral inside a private residence, killing three. The gunmen returned the following morning to a small church where the body was moved to and killed another six, including a 12-year-old child.
Juarez police hope to defeat this “duck-and-go” strategy of criminal gangs like Barrio Azteca, Mexicles and La Empresa with new high-tech tools provided by the business community. The phrase “regain the public trust,” lost to decades of previous governments’ corruption, also comes up in conversation time and again.
The tools include high-resolution cameras with license plate readers and face-recognition technology. The first was deployed a few months ago and plans call for hundreds to be installed throughout the city.
“This way we can facilitate the work of investigators and patrol officers. Just by inputting a mug, the system will tell us where this person has been, or by inputting a license plate we will know what streets the vehicle has been on,” Realivazquez said.
This data is monitored at the CERI 911 command center Juarez authorities opened last year.
Several young adults have been arrested so far on murder charges, but no kingpins caught. A former state official once referred to these hitmen who are drug addicts and get as little as $150 per killing as “disposable sicarios” because the cartels can always hire another.
Regaining public trust
Sofia V., 50, stands with neighbors in the terrace of an apartment complex overlooking the police roadblock on Municipio Libre Avenue. Her dogs bark when strangers approach.
“We live in peace here. Don’t mess with someone else and you won’t have problems,” she said.
One of her neighbors points out that the pharmacy one block down has been robbed repeatedly by drug addicts they know but apparently have not told police about.
That’s a survival strategy that police officials say sometimes prevents them from getting information on crimes and catching the culprits. That’s part of what Realivazquez means by regaining the public trust.
“Citizens are cooperative when a crime has been committed, but we would like to see more of that,” the police official said. He points out ordinary people and law enforcement in Juarez have a common enemy called drugs.
Drug-related killings account for nine out of 10 murders in the city. Drugs like crystal meth, heroin, cocaine and now fentanyl are driving addiction rates. Chihuahua state officials estimate the number of addicts or frequent users of drugs in Juarez at between 80,000 and 120,000.
Cooperation from the public – from dialing 911 when they witness a crime to stepping up and identifying a suspect – is essential to bring crime rates down, police said.
Juarez, a city of 1.5 million people, recorded 1,420 murders last year. That’s down from 1,600 in 2020, the year its neighbor El Paso, Texas, reported only 42.
Juarez has developed a drug habit
Illegal drugs used to be exclusively an export commodity in Mexico. Drug addicts were frowned upon by most.
“If you’re a student of narco-history, one of the things in the dialogue is that Mexico doesn’t have a domestic market; that the market is in the United States,” a U.S. federal official in El Paso said on background. “But I think in the last 15 years there’s been a significant increase in the domestic market in Mexico. It’s no longer a U.S. consumer problem but a domestic problem as well.”
The American official will find no quarrel with Mexican border lawmen like Realivazquez.
“There is a constant battle to control the sale of narcotics” in Juarez, the state police commander said. “The goal of organized crime is to take drugs to the United States. When that becomes difficult, they sell it on the streets of Juarez. That generates addictions to heroin, cocaine, marijuana and crystal, which is the bulk of our seizures and is on the rise.”
Analysts like former Chihuahua Deputy Attorney General Jorge Nava earlier told Border Report the trend began after the U.S. cracked down on border security following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Others said the end result of American crackdowns on money laundering and of southbound checkpoints at border crossings was that cartels began paying employees in drugs rather than cash. Those drugs must be sold somewhere.
In Juarez, school-aged children, construction and factory workers, housewives and cliques of young adults are being recruited by gangs working for the cartels to peddle drugs in working-class neighborhoods, police officials said. Coming up short on the cash, consuming the product meant for sale or talking to members of rival groups results in death. Gruesome death.
“They are working with great brutality. The idea of being so violent is to send a message to their rivals,” Realivazquez said when asked about numerous dismemberments, incinerations and the scattering of body parts throughout the city. “They use this modus operandi to intimidate opponents. Yes, we have gone to scenes where people have been mutilated and strewn about the street.”
Mexican authorities say the “saturation” patrols are now being conducted around the clock and have added National Guard troops and municipal police officers to the ranks.
People who were stopped at roadblocks had mixed feelings about the show of force. “… I think it’s good, for security,” said a man who only identified himself as Jacobo, looking around to see if the soldiers or police officers were listening.
Police didn’t say why they picked his car for inspection. He was in the company of two young women who rode in the back.
Drug cartels moving into new markets
Another challenge Mexican lawmen face from the cartels is diversification.
Groups like the Juarez and the Sinaloa cartels reportedly have taken over the migrant-smuggling trade from mom-and-pop operations in the region. It’s a low-risk, high-reward business because it doesn’t matter if the migrant is apprehended if he already paid, law enforcement officials said.
“If you look at it from a business perspective, it’s a better model. People are endless. A commodity they make money on,” the federal official in El Paso said. “These organizations are no longer just focused on bringing drugs into the United States to make money. Oil (and gasoline) theft is a billion-dollar industry. You have the bribes businesses have to pay to different organizations.”
Even avocado farmers are subject to extortion and must pass on the cost to consumers.
So while people in the United States demand illegal drugs, Mexico rushes to provide them. And the stalemate continues in Juarez, with police owning the streets while patrol cars and military vehicles roll on, and the gangs sowing terror after they’re gone.