Mexico’s Internal “Surge” on the Rio Grande
from Frontera NorteSur
In an operation reminiscent of the US military surge in Iraq two years ago, thousands of Mexican soldiers and federal police are swarming the streets of Ciudad Juárez. On a recent day, small convoys of troops were readily visible patrolling streets where countless “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs dominate public space. Other groups of soldiers, meanwhile, searched vans and SUVs entering the city from El Paso, Texas, or meticulously ran their fingers through the baggage of every arriving and departing passenger at the main bus station.
In a scene symbolic of Mexico’s multi-layered socio-political mosaic, a squad of federal police with riot shields stood on one side of the international Bridge of Americas as dozens of street vendors, including colorfully-dressed Raramuri indigenous migrants expelled from their Chihuahua mountain homeland by the triple plague of drought, poverty and violence, joined windshield washers and car buffers trying to goad motorists into handing over pesos, flimsy notes of a currency which has lost 50% of its value since last fall.
The Ciudad Juárez surge was formalized at a Feb. 25 meeting attended by Mexico’s National Public Security Council in addition to state and local government representatives. The official rationale behind the action was, of course, the unprecedented violence tied to the border city’s war between competing crime gangs. February, in particular, cut a bloody trail. A record body count of 231 victims was reported by the end of a month that is sometimes called in Mexico “Crazy February” anyway.
In response to the public safety crisis, the Mexican government’s Joint Operation Chihuahua plans to deploy a total of 8,500 army troops and 2,300 federal officers in Ciudad Juarez, ultimately bringing the combined number of security personnel stationed in the violence-wracked city of 1.3 million people to about 12,000.
Beyond simple numbers, an important distinction exists between this year’s troop deployment and a similar but smaller one last year, when 2,500 soldiers were dispatched to Ciudad Juarez ostensibly to control the burgeoning narco-violence, which only worsened after the army’s entry onto the scene.
Unlike in 2008, the Mexican military will be given authority over the local police department, the municipal commerce department and the troubled state prison on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, where 21 prisoners were killed by fellow inmates in a premeditated March 4 murder spree that likely happened with the collusion of prison authorities.
Military personnel could also be assigned the task of rooting out the extortion and kidnapping rings which have proliferated since the always-iffy public safety situation in Ciudad Juarez nevertheless took a sharp turn for the worse beginning fourteen months ago.
On Monday, March 16, 2009, Ciudad Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz publicly named several retired or active-duty military officials who will be in charge of security in the city. A former army man, Roberto Orduña, served as a previous police chief but resigned on Feb. 20 after reportedly receiving threats from presumed drug traffickers.
A former commander of the army garrison in Parral, Chihuahua, retired Gen. Julian David Rivera Breton, will be Ciudad Juárez’s new public safety chief. Gen. Rivera also served in the states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Hidalgo, and Veracruz. Infantry Col. Alfonso Cristobal Garcia Melgar, meanwhile, will steer the municipal police department.
The Public Speaks Out
Given the depth of the public safety crisis, many residents of Ciudad Juárez initially applauded the surge. Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, secretary of a local organization of health care professionals, said the extra troop presence was a “necessary” measure because of the emergency situation confronting his city. The military’s visibility, Valenzuela argued, gave the citizenry a special chance to “come together, organize ourselves and make Juárez different.”
Taxi driver Javier Hernández offered a mixed assessment of the surge. “I have confidence in the soldiers that stop and search you,” Hernández said, “but the federal police made me pay 200 pesos for not carrying identification and wanted to take away the car.”
On March 12, top Chihuahua state and Ciudad Juárez officials met with business and religious leaders who belong to the citizens’ council of Joint Operation Chihuahua, including maquiladora industry founder Jaime Bermúdez.
Also in attendance was President Felipe Calderón’s national security advisor, Jorge Enrique Tello Peón, who served as head of CISEN, Mexico’s equivalent of the CIA, during the administration of former President Ernesto Zedillo in the 1990s.
Meeting participant Daniel Murguia Lardizibal, president of the Ciudad Juárez Chamber of Commerce, was optimistic of the surge’s potential for restoring order to a crisis-ridden city. Only days into the deployment, the atmosphere on the streets was noticeably different, Murguia said. Restaurants and commercial centers—public places where shootings and kidnappings have been common since last year—witnessed more customers on a recent weekend, he added.
Molly Molloy, a New Mexico State University librarian who carefully monitors press stories for her Frontera news service, reported the murder rate in Ciudad Juárez averaged two homicides per day during the first two weeks of March, a dramatic drop from last month’s toll, excepting the mass slaughter at the prison.
Frequent government-sponsored television spots tout Operation Joint Chihuahua, detailing reported drug and weapons seizures.
But prominent social activists are criticizing the militarization as an elite exercise in attempting to resolve a crisis at the point of a gun while marginalizing broader, popular input and missing an opportunity to tackle varied facets of complex social problems.
“A serious plan has to be made in coordination with the Juárez community, something specific and having to do with security plans,” said Cirpriana Jurado of the local Worker Research and Solidarity Center (CISO). “There are many examples from other countries of preventing such public insecurity.”
No timetable has been announced for the duration of the military occupation of Ciudad Juarez’s streets.
In a press conference almost one year ago, Mexican security czar Genaro García Luna said a possibility existed the military could be withdrawn from its law enforcement functions by the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009. As the spring of 2009 fast dawns, the Mexican government is banking on the army more than ever.
Enrique Torres, spokesman for Joint Operation Chihuahua, told the Albuquerque Journal the troops would stay until the cartels are “exterminated.”
On the streets, however, few Mexicans agree that the government will ever truly succeed in stamping out the narco business.
Where Does the Surge End?
The Ciudad Juárez surge is front-page news in both Mexico and the US. Especially omitted from US stories is the issue of the operation’s illegality under current Mexican law. The nation’s constitution does not allow military personnel to act outside their bases during peacetime or permit soldiers to assume civilian functions like running police departments.
Mexican legislators are quite aware of the legal conflict, but many argue the extreme violence of the narco war coupled with rampant police corruption leaves the country no choice but to turn to the military.
In 2008, for instance, the Mexico City daily Reforma’s news agency reported the army and Federal Police initiated legal actions against 752 police officers suspected of involvement with the narco underworld in 16 states. The state of Mexico, which has served as a recruiting ground for Ciudad Juárez police officials and officers in the past, led the naughty list with 536 municipal and state police officers implicated in criminal violations.
In a ceremony outside Mexico City last month, President Felipe Calderón extolled the armed forces as an essential institution that will guarantee the triumph of moral values. Yet many analysts concur that the more the military becomes involved in enforcing drug laws and waging war against organized crime, the more susceptible it becomes to falling prey to the very corruption it is supposed to counter. Indeed, previous instances of narco-induced military corruption abound.
In the latest scandal to touch the army, 12 active-duty soldiers were quietly picked up early this month in the central state of Aguascalientes and accused of working on behalf of the notorious Zetas gang.
Signs are emerging that the Calderón administration’s anti-drug offensive, which has dragged on for more than two years even as Mexico has witnessed more than 10,000 slayings connected to narco violence, is beginning to tug at the armed forces.
In unusual comments last month which were not followed up by the press, Mexican Gen. Ramón Mota Sánchez urged the federal government to speed up the establishment of reliable, clean police forces so soldiers can return to their barracks—at least the medium-term.
Columnist Jorge Luis Sierra, a veteran analyst of military affairs, recently described how soldiers are increasingly becoming the targets of violence as well as the alleged perpetrators of human rights violations.
“It is necessary to honor the fallen soldiers and at the same time prosecute the ones responsible for abuses committed,” Sierra wrote.
Recent reports from both the official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and the non-governmental Miguel Agustin Pro-Juárez Human Rights Center (PRODH) have documented alleged human rights violations committed by the armed forces during the course of the drug war in Ciudad Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico.
Nationwide, the CNDH processed 1,602 complaints against soldiers from Jan. 1, 2007 to December 31, 2008. In at least eight cases, the CNDH documented instances of illegal detention, torture and excessive use of force.
In a separate study, the PRODH found that civilian law enforcement authorities turned over 500 legal complaints against soldiers to military officials for possible prosecution between January 2006 and November 2008. In Mexico, crimes and human rights violations allegedly committed by soldiers are usually investigated by the military itself.
The PRODH’s study discovered that initial legal actions were taken in about one third of the referred cases, resulting in a grand total of 11 prosecutions.
Rising concerns over military impunity and human rights violations prompted the Mexican Senate to pass a resolution March 5 appealing on the army to cooperate with the CNDH in fomenting a “solid culture for the respect of human rights.”
In Ciudad Juárez, it was announced this month military representatives will receive human rights training at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez. On a similar note, the offices of Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz and two city council representatives, Leopoldo Canizales Sáenz and Gustavo Muñoz Hepo, announced they will accept citizen complaints against personnel attached to Joint Operation Chihuahua.
Others continued to express worry at the sight of soldiers in the streets.
The Mexico City-based PRODH, for example, said the military deployments in Ciudad Juárez and other regions of Mexico carry far-reaching political ramifications. During the Calderón administration, “civilian controls over military power have disappeared,” the group charged. In an era when Latin American military governments are a relic of the past, “military involvement in [Mexican] civil life blocks the road to democratization,” the human rights organization warned.
This story first appeared March 17 on Frontera NorteSur.
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