If any place has spiraled downward in Mexico's bloody fight against organized crime, it is Ciudad Juarez, the grim border town where two Americans were shot dead in this weekend's Mexico killings. Here businesses get burned down if owners do not pay traffickers monthly “protection money” and residents live with the daily menace of kidnappings and daylight shootouts.
Ciudad Juarez also epitomizes Mexican President Felipe Calderón's solution to the escalating drug war that has dominated domestic politics, partnership with the US, and media parley over the past three years.
Mr. Calderón sent a surge of military troops and federal police to Juarez in 2008 to reclaim this once bustling industrial city that has always drawn poor Mexicans from across the country and from where thousands are today fleeing. But, as the government has gotten tougher against crime, crime has only increased.
Over the weekend, an American consular employee and her husband were shot dead in their car in broad daylight with their baby, unharmed, in the back seat. Almost simultaneously, in another location, the husband of another employee affiliated with the consulate was also gunned down and killed.
'Rock bottom' moment
The attacks, which will add to the pressure Mexico faces to solve its public safety problem, come after the city's – and the nation's – “rock bottom” moment in January, when 15 people were killed at a teen's birthday party. Most were young students without any apparent ties to drug gangs.
Residents took to the streets, demanding a change in tactic in a city where cars are forced past military checkpoints and masked federal officers in pickup trucks roll down the streets. Many demanded they all leave.
'We Are All Juarez'
While Calderón is not about to back down from his military strategy – still supported by many here who see the military as the only hope for order – he has responded to public anger with the acknowledgment that force alone will not solve the problem. Last month, he launched an ambitious new project dubbed “We are all Juarez” to create jobs, boost addiction programs, and build schools, parks, and galleries.
As Calderón visits Ciudad Juarez today to discuss the strategy, his third visit since the massacre, he will face many skeptics who say that the strategy is motivated by elections in the state this summer, not by a new way of thinking. So far it has been more promise than action. But officials call it a turning point that could be replicated elsewhere in Mexico.
Abelardo Prieto Escobar, the agrarian reform secretary who is overseeing the new strategy, says that the social element is key moving forward.
“We are not just fighting violence, but the origins of violence,” he says.
Fed up with the drug war
Mexico roundly supported Calderon's decision to dispatch some 45,000 federal forces across the country, but three years later over 18,000 people have been killed and impatience has mounted. In a recent poll by the Mexico City-based firm Buendia & Laredo, just over half the nation says the president’s fight has made the country more dangerous.
Nowhere is the population more rattled than in Juarez, across from El Paso, where cartels are battling for control over the US market. Of all the drug-related homicides in 2009, about a third of them played out here.
“They have been combating violence with the military, and that has obviously not worked,” says Hugo Almada, a long-time activist in Juarez.
Nobody expects a withdrawal of forces.
In fact, authorities say they will be bringing in more police to carry out intelligence-gathering to fight extortion and kidnapping that has scared off residents. “Nobody wants to see the army on the streets, we wish we could get past it,” says Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz. “But the army is the only way out of what is happening.”
But for once, the mayor, the federal government, and a slew of human rights workers, social workers, and angry and traumatized parents seem to be on the same page. “We are all Juarez,” in its initial phase, will include the construction of five more high schools, health centers, 35,000 temporary jobs, microcredit for 10,000 people, and universal healthcare coverage for 280,000 people, the mayor says. The list goes on.
Combining the fight against crime with the social programs could be a laboratory for the rest of the country, says Mayor Reyes Ferriz. "Juarez is very much at the center of decisionmaking. It will have repercussions in the rest of Mexico," he says.
The US, which has sent FBI agents and other officials to investigate the killings over the weekend, has supported Calderon's military strategy, pouring aid money into new helicopters, technology for customs, and training for police.
Yet, as Mexico has shifted its rhetoric on the drug war, so, too, have US officials.
"People in Washington are thinking about what comes next," says David Shirk, a Woodrow Wilson Center fellow and professor at the University of San Diego. "Juarez has certainly been the watershed moment in changing rhetoric and public discourse on these issues in both countries."
Expectations are running high in Ciudad Juarez.
"We need to combat the causes of violence," says Jorge Quintana Silveyra, the rector of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, noting that more than half those from 6th to 12th grade are not in school. He calls it a "social disaster," and has asked federal legislators for extraordinary funds, the same kind released during “natural disasters,” he says, to help rescue the city.
"Violence has no good results only with the police," says Mr. Silveyra. "The only way out of this is through education and culture."
But amid presidential visits and federal officials turning a local hotel into temporary headquarters, doubts are rampant.
Public anger mounted in the wake of the teen massacre in January, after Calderón initially dismissed the children as gang members. He later apologized, but graffiti on the walls just a few homes down from the shooting makes sentiments clear: "Calderón, liar!" screams one angry message.
Calderón is likely to face similar protests today.
And even academics and activists who support “We are all Juarez” in theory worry that the promises will fail if corruption and impunity are also not profoundly tackled. “Without justice, all the social programs they create are at risk,” says Leticia Castillo, coordinator of the sociology department at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez.
“This could be a turning point,” says Mr. Almada, the activist. “It is not one yet.”