JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – The body of his nephew in a casket, Jose Bobadilla wonders why criminals continue to wreak havoc in his beloved Juarez, Mexico.

“We have been like this for many years, for decades, and nobody can stop it. This is out of control. […] There is no safety, and they (the criminals) are tearing us to pieces. It’s time they stop this,” said Bobadilla, who on Dec. 5 got his truck stolen and on New Year’s Day learned his nephew, a guard at the local prison, was murdered during a riot.

Bobadilla’s nephew Carlos Salinas Bañuelos was one of the 10 Cereso 3 prison guards killed during the escape of Mexicles gang leader Ernesto Alfredo Pinon de la Cruz, aka “El Neto,” and 29 others on Sunday. The shootout also left seven inmates dead. A day later, two Chihuahua state police officers looking for the escapees and five alleged gang members died in a gun battle in the Villa del Sol neighborhood.

On Wednesday morning, the Mexican government honored the 12 slain public servants in a ceremony on the lawn next to a giant Mexican flag in Juarez’s Chamizal Park. Caskets were lined in front of a white canvas tent where their relatives sat. A photo of each officer stood in the background on easels lined with flowers. Soldiers played a slow military march and state police officers with semi-automatic rifles fired three volleys into the air.

Chihuahua state corrections officers carry the body of one of their peers slain during a New Year’s Day violent escape of 30 inmates, including the leader of the Mexicles gang. (Border Report photo)

As many family members wept and a few vented frustrations at visiting dignitaries, Chihuahua Attorney General Roberto Fierro promised swift justice.

“Our people did not deserve this,” Fierro said. “To the families of our peers, I want to say, respectfully but clearly, that you are not alone. You can feel safe and free to go on with your lives. […] This will not go unpunished. We will look for the criminals responsible for these cowardly acts and bring them to justice.”

None of the escapees, however, had been captured as of late Wednesday. That angers some of the relatives.

“I want justice for my brother, Domingo Trejo Serrano. What they did to him was wrong. I am very hurt; I would like to know who did this to my brother,” said the corrections officer’s relative, who broke into tears and declined to give her name.

Fierro said efforts to track down the escapees and the gunmen who burst into the prison on New Year’s Day are ongoing. He would not talk about the investigation beyond what he said in prior days: That “El Neto” orchestrated his own escape out of fear of being transferred to a maximum-security prison far from Juarez, and that the warden of the prison is under investigation for allegedly allowing him to bring liquor, drugs and a plasma TV to his cell.

Bobadilla echoed the Attorney General’s assertion that the guards were killed merely for doing their job.

“My nephew was great. He was a good man, a good person. He did not deserve this – none of his peers deserved this,” the uncle said. “But new governments come and go, and we are stuck in the same place. We cannot go out of our homes in safety.”

Cartel violence threatens prosperity of Mexican border

The border economy mostly has recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the monthly newsletter from an economics think-tank at the University of Texas at El Paso. The strength of employment in U.S.-run manufacturing plants in Juarez has a lot to do with that, border trade experts say. For every four or five of the 330,000 maquiladora jobs in Juarez, one job is created in El Paso, they say.

But brazen acts of violence, such as the New Year’s Day prison escape massacre and last August’s “Black Thursday” riot that left 11 people dead, several convenience stores on fire and carjacked vehicles burned, can scare off investors, and the governor of Chihuahua knows it.

“We can tell Juarez and El Paso residents that we are working (on public safety) and that we are achieving results,” Gov. Maru Campos told Border Report on Wednesday. “We were doing good. We had the best results in the past five years with a (25 percent) reduction in homicides. We were in control of the situation prior to this.”

U.S. security experts say the drug cartels pose a challenge to Mexico. Even the heavy-handed response that the relatives of the slain prison guards demand could backfire.

“We have seen in previous incidents in Tijuana and Quintana Roo that the Mexican government will deploy hundreds of additional personnel to regions experiencing higher levels of violence,” said Michael Ballard, director of intelligence for Virginia-based Global Guardian. “In some cases, we see cartels (lay low), but in other cases, an increased security presence leads to more violence.”

Gangs have responded to the arrest of their leaders by going on violent sprees.

“As you have more cartel on security forces violence, that can lead to chaotic responses including street blockades, carjacking and burnings. That bears keeping an eye out if (the Mexican government) deploys additional security forces,” Ballard said.

The security expert recommends Americans visiting or doing business in Mexico always be aware of their surroundings, research the places they will be visiting, not go alone, if possible, and have a plan of action in case of an unexpected cartel or street violence.