Ciudad Juárez is at the center of Mexico’s drug war. Just across the border from El Paso, Texas, the city of 1.4 million has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Mayor José Reyes Ferriz, who regularly receives death threats for his efforts to quell the cartels, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jerry Guo. Excerpts:
Mexico recently fired one 10th of its police. Is the force in disarray?
The full size of the federal police is 36,000, and 3,200 were let go. But this was federal forces, not from Juárez. We’ve already cleaned up our act. Half of our police department was let go in 2008. Now we’re going through yearly testing of our police forces.
You’re following Colombia, using the military to root out drug cartels?
We went from 1,600 officers to 11,000 personnel, including the military patrolling the city. In February of last year we had 10 killings a day. A month later, we went down to two. We’re learning a lot from the Colombians. I’ve been there three times in the last two years. We’re going to do in five years what they did in 15. [The violence] is a product of the successes the Mexican Army and federal government are having in fighting the flow of drugs.
But President Felipe Calderón has stepped away from saying Mexico is winning the war.
When money stopped flowing in from the international flow of drugs, these groups needed to find another way to sustain the flow of money. So they began fighting each other for control of local retail sales. The massive patrolling strategy we chose in early 2009 stopped working because these guys are fighting the guys on the next block, and patrolling doesn’t control that because they’re so close together.
So how would you rate Calderón’s approach so far?
I think he’s done a great job. Unfortunately, when you’re doing something like this, criminals don’t just sit still. They’ll change the way they operate. At the end of the day, [the war on drugs] was something that needed to be done. It’s not going to be easy.
Mayors have been murdered. What threats have been made against your government, including you?
In the state of Chihuahua [where Ciudad Juárez is located], three mayors have been killed. The mayor of the neighboring city to Juárez, Guadalupe, was killed in July. Fifteen or 16 mayors have been killed nationwide. There’s a lot of threats—not every day, but often. Security is a huge concern, especially with anybody having to do with the police department. Just in Juárez, in my term as mayor, more than 150 police officers have been killed.
Is Mexico a failed state?
It’s not. It’s very clear the crimes are being committed in certain areas that have to do with the flow of drugs into the U.S. Since December the war between organized-crime groups has gotten very difficult. This problem is concentrated along the borders, in eight out of 31 states and the federal district. The rest of the country is operating fine; there’s no problems or security risks.
What more should be done on the American side?
First, we need the flow of guns to stop.When President Obama came in, he sent 100 new ATF agents who checked gun-purchase records against food-stamp records and found a lady who was getting food stamps and bought 10 AK-47s. We need prosecutions. The second thing is for criminals to not be deported into the border cities. Third, the U.S. drug-war aid to Mexico needs to consider the border.
Should we legalize marijuana or other drugs?
If you legalize them in the U.S., even in California, that would have a very good impact on Mexico. Legalizing drug use in Mexico would not be good. We’ve done studies on the consumption of drugs, and as our rate is very low compared to the U.S., legalizing in Mexico will lead to a much larger problem than it would solve.