Friday, May 14th, 2010

Ciudad Juarez: Terror In The Valley

Rio GrandeOn Monday, just after the conclusion of a wedding ceremony, a group of armed men burst into a Juarez church and ordered everyone down on the floor. Moving quickly, they collected the groom, his brother and their uncle and led them out. When another man tried to intervene, they shot him dead. The three relatives were then thrown into a truck and disappeared. On Wednesday, state police found their bodies in the bed of an abandoned pickup in the eastern sector of the city. They had been tortured for many hours before they were killed. It was a particularly horrifying example of the fact that violence in Juarez can strike anytime, anywhere.

The men turned out to be US citizens from New Mexico. The signs of torture and the fact that they were selectively targeted leads to the conclusion that they were involved in the drug trade, and that this was some kind of settling of scores. But without discounting the motive, the event illustrates just how little regard the perpetrators of this violence have for the citizens of Mexico, despite the odd status of smugglers as cult and folk heroes. An attack on a church, during a wedding, in a fervently Catholic country is a serious event. Whether the symbolism of the violation in this particular case was intentional or not, it transmits a clear message that, for the cartels, nothing in Juarez is sacred.

A lot of the violence in the city has been characterized by this kind of symbolism. Bodies have been dumped on many occasions in lots and playgrounds near schools, with children gathering around the crime scene to watch as police bag and remove the dead. Drug rehab clinics have been the scenes of mass murders. People are shot down in broad daylight during the normal hubub of everyday life, on main streets and in restaurants. Considering this, it's clear that what's happening isn't just a war between rival cartels, but a campaign of terror against the local population. The murdered groom's father conveyed perfectly the effect of this kind of violence to the El Paso Times: "I'm confused, frustrated and in despair. My wife, she is devastated." There really aren't any better emotions you could hope to inspire in a population you're trying to control.

This trend is best illustrated these days in the Valley of Juarez, the stretch of towns scattered along the Rio Grande southeast of the city for about 50 miles. The valley has long been as important as the city itself for drug traffickers. During the dry season the river drops to barely a trickle and crossing by foot is a breeze. With I-10 running right alongside it through Texas towns like San Elizario, Fabens and Fort Hancock, it's tactically perfect for smuggling. The towns on the Mexican side, like Guadalupe and Porvenir, are poor agricultural communities that mainly grow cotton. However, they've also grown accustomed to smuggling over the years, as the Juarez cartel used the area as a staging point for trafficking operations for decades.

With the voracious Sinaloa cartel now fighting for the territory, the Valley of Juarez has become an arena for a campaign of terror bent on forcing out the locals who have been used to Juarez cartel rule for so many years. Homes have been burned down, a state investigator murdered, and people have been kidnapped and not turned up again with no calls demanding ransom.

A week before Easter, typewritten messages spread around Porvenir that anyone who hadn't left the area by Easter Sunday would be killed. Citizens packed up and left in droves. While no such large scale attack ever came, the assault on the social climate of the community was enough. Residents were threatened with death on the most holy day of the Catholic calendar. Like this week's wedding murders, the sanctuary of religion was directly challenged when the main church in town was burned to the ground on Good Friday.

The campaign is working. US authorities have seen a huge jump in the number of asylum requests from citizens of the valley. Porvenir, once home to 3000 residents, has now been reduced to just a few hundred.

A writer at Mexican daily El Diario called the actions of the Sinaloans nothing more than a 'scorched earth' policy, and it is an assertion that is hard to argue with. With so many forces fighting for control of Juarez-the cartels, the army and now the Federal Police-the city really doesn't belong to its citizens anymore. What they once considered home they are now finding out belongs to someone else, expressed quite literally in the fight for the control of "turf."

In the US we talk a lot about "not letting the terrorists win" by giving in to fear. It's very hard to look at Juarez, just over the river, and see terror not only succeeding, but ruling. In a city where US business interests play such a prominent role, it's harder still to talk about defending democracy when the mayor of Juarez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, keeps his family in El Paso due to constant death threats and the country's prominent political parties can't find anyone willing to run in July's mayoral elections except the man who was mayor previous to Reyes Ferriz. It would be tough to find a more fitting example of the fact that the outcome of this war won't be any step in a new direction for Juarez. It's a reminder that history seems doomed to repeat itself in this city that has become an allegorical ground zero for the violent, protracted stalemate of Mexico and America's war on drugs.

Previously: How This War Is Not Like Colombia, Italy and Chicago

John Murray is a lover of obscurity. He lives and writes in Arizona.

26 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)


saythatscool (#101)

John your article neglects to mention that the good citizens of Juarez are always welcome to leave that violence behind and move to Arizona where they will be welcomed by the locals with free housing and Cool Ranch Doritos for all!

deepomega (#1,720)

Legalize it.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

seriously, i hate having my buzz compromised by this shit

lexalexander (#2,960)

Yes. Legalizing weed wouldn't completely eliminate this situation, but it would carve out some safe living space for a whole bunch of people.

Mindpowered (#948)

And stop giving these guys the ability to challenge the state. It's not like they have their excess profits in T-Bills.

laurel (#4,035)

Buy local.

brad (#1,678)

this series is excellent.

HiredGoons (#603)

This is only tangentially related, but whenever my racist cousins complain about 'Mexicans' I always just say 'well maybe we could give them back Texas.' When they ask me what I mean, I give them a little history lesson.

Facts tend to shut people up, but not always.

iplaudius (#1,066)

They’ve done such a spiffing job with Mexico, why not?

Art Yucko (#1,321)

If population growth statistics are to be confirmed, "they" may be taking back Texas whether it's politically official or not.

Then there's the other side of the scenario, whereby the "Contingency plan" of Janet Napolitano's stifled utterances gets enacted. You know, where "we" actually have to "go into there".

logan (#2,811)


Meaning: like, this is great.

Mindpowered (#948)

Dear John.

Please collect and expand these vignettes to a book.

Will buy.Lots.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Agree with this. My favorite feature in these pages.

Also agree about legalization. If (really when) marijuana is legalized in the US, what effect would that have on the cartels?

Dave Bry (#422)

Yes. Totally awesome, this series.

alannaofdoom (#4,512)


I'm reading "Killing Pablo" right now, and these stories seem to be pretty much the v 2.0 of the violence in Colombia in the 80s and early 90s. Which I'm sure is not a coincidence.

LakePalin (#4,874)

i am now commenting on the awl

LakePalin (#4,874)

the awl is better then gawker

LakePalin (#4,874)

lol @pincus @lol @nickdenton

LakePalin (#4,874)

I am now only going to comment
on the awl

LakePalin (#4,874)

sorry @nickdenton u can not has click thrus

LakePalin (#4,874)

i am reading these comments

LakePalin (#4,874)

follow everyone
judge everyone

ow that hurt (#3,919)

this just in:

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos represented the PAN in an election ultimately won by
the PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo. He has been kidnapped and there were traces
of blood located at the scene where he was grabbed from his truck. This is big
news. Anyone who reads the papers knows that there is a surge of politicians
being captured and killed but this man is the most important thus far. Twitter
contains unconfirmed reports both that he has been killed and also that a
narcomensaje has been left at the scene threatening the life of President
Calderon who is also a member of PAN.\

MAY I ADD that being in central Mexico, where nothing happens,
this is NOT GOOD. Also, nothing ever happens in Queretaro, where they
make subway cars and jet engines, and.. last I remember, the Punks got into a tussle with the Goths, in the town square

(Queretaro is like the Portland of Mexico.. it's peaceful, somewhat sophisticated, the manufacture stuff, and the city works)

johnmurray (#4,569)

Yes, Cevallos' kidnapping is a huge deal. It's also worth noting that it comes on the heels of the supposed arrest of Nacho Coronel Villareal, a major player in the Sinaloa cartel, and the arrest of Chapo Guzman's wife during raids in Culiacan by forces representing the attorney general's office. She was released yesterday with no charges made.

The kidnapping, and from many accounts probable murder, of Cevallos is a big departure from what we've been seeing. There's only a few cartels that could be capable of this kidnapping right now, Sinaloa and the Zetas being the first two that come to mind. Most importantly right now though is that it sends a clear message that the government's war on the cartels is having an effect on them, to the point that the cartels feel they need to fight back so seriously. Elections are upcoming in Chihuahua and Durango and so his political affiliation with the ruling PAN party could play a role. It could be pre-emptive, it could be reactionary. It's hard to say right now, but this will bring serious heat, and it's hard to imagine anyone but Sinaloa or the Zetas being behind it.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Again: an important, and extremely well-rendered, series.

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