Ciudad Juarez: Collateral Damage

by John Murray


Last week in Ciudad Juarez, the Federal Police received an emergency call from a payphone explaining that a police officer had been shot and was lying wounded on the Avenue 16 de Septiembre, a street named for the day of Mexican independence from the Spanish. Several federal police officers and an emergency team of paramedics arrived to tend to the injured officer. A TV crew arrived on the scene around the same time. As the officers and doctors gathered around the body to assess the damage, nearby members of the Juarez cartel used a cell phone to detonate a bomb hidden in a parked car at the intersection. The blast killed two Federales, a doctor and an emergency technician, and left 9 other people wounded from shrapnel.

It was the first instance of a car bomb being used as part of the violence strangling the city, and for that reason the incident has drawn comparisons to the use of IEDs by terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Pablo Escobar’s terror campaign of indiscriminate car bombings that rocked Colombia some 20 years ago. The blast does mark a departure from the standard methods of murder and mayhem in the case of Juarez. A graffiti message apparently authored by the Juarez cartel found later that night claimed responsibility for the attack and promised more bombs to come as part of a campaign to destroy all those police and officials aligned with El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel.

Many are up in arms about the attack, seeing in the escalation of the tactics of terrorism against the Mexican people and state increasing evidence that Mexico is spiraling out of control. And, in many senses, it is an escalation. There’s something about a car bomb that seems more insidious, more offensive to the public psyche than a group of gunmen executing someone in the street. For one thing, you don’t really aim a bomb at an individual. You put it somewhere and detonate it, and whatever collateral damage occurs in hitting your “target” is just that, collateral damage. A gun murder can be called a homicide; it fairly narrows the scope of the crime. But a bomb is something else entirely. It is meant to disrupt, to call attention to itself in a way that is unmistakably a threat to more than just the people it kills. It’s not just an act of murder, it’s an act of defiance, a structural blow to society. But set amidst the backdrop of Juarez, is it really any more of a physical blow?

What distinguishes the outcome of this attack from the gun murders we’ve seen occurring on the streets of Juarez over the past 3 years? Many stories of shootouts coming from the city are punctuated with innocent victims, going about their daily business, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The threat of car bombs or IEDs-does it somehow make Juarez any more dangerous than it already is for the average citizen? Terrorist groups in infamous car bomb locales like Northern Ireland or Iraq use them because they are essentially underground organizations. Not terribly sophisticated, well-staffed or well-armed enough to take on security forces in prolonged firefights, they choose to attack when they have the advantage of surprise, which helps to suggest that they are bigger than they really are.

But the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels have been slugging it out in the streets with each other and Mexican governmental security forces using grenades and automatic weapons for years. Mexican drug cartels raid jails and free hundreds of prisoners. They kidnapped one of Mexico’s most recognizable political figures, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos (who is still missing), with ease. They murder governors, state police commanders and other public figures regularly. They’ve been doing so for decades.

Is the message from the Juarez cartel then really displaying that they may not be able to fight as well in that capacity anymore? That they are getting desperate, that they have their backs to the wall? Or is the bomb just more of the same?

A second graffitti message from the Juarez cartel regarding the attack was especially curious. It specifically warned the FBI and DEA, not the Mexican government, to start investigating corrupt Federal Police officials who they believe are backing the Sinaloa cartel, or more car bombs would be on the way. It’s been suggested before that the Juarez cartel has been seeking to more actively involve the US in El Paso’s sister city, as in the case of the US embassy workers murdered in Juarez several months ago. This car bombing could be a tactic with a similar aim. Two months ago, six federales were murdered when their truck was pinned down by gunmen in downtown Juarez. A teenager who happened to be passing by was also killed. This car bomb had the same target, and a smaller death toll, but the event itself resounds much more in the media and in the United States than the ambush.

It’s as if the Juarez cartel is trying to shout even louder above the already deafening cacophony of violence in the city. This could very well be the last ditch effort of a cartel struggling to survive against a more powerful opponent, especially in light of the unspoken truth regarding the government’s more vigorous pursuit of enemies of the larger and more powerful Sinaloa cartel.

If that is the case, then this instance is being taken to mean more in both Mexico and the US than it should. How can we call this bomb a new act of terrorism when the state has a long history of working with the drug industry and sanctioning its existence in secret? The very reason for the bomb, as the Juarez cartel explained, was a reaction to state collusion with their enemies. It’s also worth noting that while this may be the first instance of a car bomb attack against government forces, it’s certainly not the first time a car bomb has been used by the Mexican cartels. Car bomb explosions have gone off without much additional attention than the normal violence in Culiacan and other areas of Sinaloa before, albeit that those instances were cartel-on-cartel violence. Is it really the bomb itself we should be worried about, with close to 25,000 dead in Mexico over the past 3 years?

Ultimately, the difference between a car bomb set off by the Juarez cartel and a car bomb set off by Irish national dissidents or Islamic fundamentalists is that the drug traffickers are not striking out at a governmental system because they’re trying to topple it, but because it’s trying to topple them. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Juarez cartel historically may have done more for the Mexican economy than most other domestic industries. The Juarez cartel is a business, not a nationalist or religious movement. As strange as it is to say, the explosion of car bombs in Juarez might be a swan song rather than a battle cry.

Previously: The Execution of Democracy in Mexico

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