Mexico's Drug Wars Get Bloodier

The recent killings of U.S. consulate officials in Juárez have drawn attention to the center of the war on drugs. Charles Bowden reports on the corruption and violence in this hellish city.

In Mexico, murder is an art form. Bodies are sometimes chopped up, corpses are left with pig masks on them or during the holiday season, with a Santa Claus hat. In one case in Sinaloa, a face was stitched on a soccer ball. Solving murders is a celebrated form of fiction. Confessions are normally solicited by beating people.

All this will no doubt be brought into play in dealing with the killing on March 13 of three people—two of them U.S. citizens—affiliated with the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez. The victims had been at a party for kids with other consulate families. They were executed in two separate incidents 10 minutes apart as they drove home. In one car, two children aged 4 and 7 were injured by bullets and shattered glass and saw their father shot to death. In the other, the man and woman were executed at point-blank range while their 7-month-old baby rode in the back seat and suffered no physical injury. She joins the ranks of some 10,000 new drug-war orphans made in Juárez since January 2008. The killers got away.

In 2009, there were 2,660 murders in Juárez but only 30 arrests—not convictions, just arrests.

The couple died in front of city hall as they were approaching the bridge to El Paso. No one saw anything, as is the custom. Ten thousand soldiers and federal police patrol the city with roadblocks everywhere, but somehow cars full of assassins go unnoticed. The presidents of Mexico and the United States said they were outraged, which was a refreshing change since the slaughter of 5,000 people in the city over a period two years and three months hadn’t seemed to upset them too much. Nor had the nationwide slaughter of 19,000 Mexicans in the same period during a joint U.S.-Mexico assault on the drug industry.

Within days, the governments floated the theory that the killings were the work of La Linea, a joint venture of the Juárez cartel and local police, and that they had employed the Aztecas, a gang with 3,000 members in both Juárez and El Paso, to perform the executions.

In El Paso, federal and local law enforcement rounded up Aztecas. No evidence was offered to support this theory but the simple accusation was a big leap forward. In 2009, there were 2,660 murders in Juárez but only 30 arrests—not convictions, just arrests. Murder is a more risk-free activity in Juárez than driving.

Mexican justice is slightly different than the U.S. version. A recent documentary, Presumed Guilty, filmed by a pair of Mexican lawyers discovered that 93 percent of defendants never meet a judge or see an arrest warrant. Conviction is routine (95 percent), trials are not public and 92 percent are convicted with no physical evidence. Torture is the basic investigative tool of police. But then only 3 percent of crimes are ever tried. Mexicans are reluctant to either report crimes or call the police.

The Aztecas themselves have prospered for years. They began about 20 years ago in the El Paso jails and are now binational. About two years ago, I had lunch in Juárez with a former leader in the Aztecas. He explained that he had done murders in the city at the orders of the state police. When I asked him how his outfit smuggled drugs from Juárez to El Paso, he looked at me as if I were a child and said, “We use members of the Border Patrol and of the U.S. Army.”

The response to the consulate killings was predictable. Both governments asserted they would fight the drug industry with even more vigor. A Washington Post editorial demanded more weapons be shipped to the Mexican army, a force that in Juárez alone has been accused by hundreds of Mexican citizens of rape, torture, kidnapping and murder. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, announced that he was implementing a plan to send more law enforcement to the border, an act of almost inspired idiocy since the murders occurred in Mexico and since El Paso is famously safe. Over 500 people have been murdered in Juárez this year while there has been one murder in El Paso.

None of the government posturing or the press speculation about the killings has explained why drug cartels—dependent upon quietly pursuing international trade—would kill U.S. officials and thus bring the wrath of governments upon their heads. So far, the only obvious beneficiaries of the murders have been U.S. law enforcement and the Mexican army since the slayings have underscored their importance and brought pledges of yet more support.

But facts and reality have very little to do with the War on Drugs. On the U.S. side it has created the largest prison population on earth, a standing army of agents, and, yet, after 40 years drugs are of higher quality, lower price, and more available than ever before. In Mexico, the current combat began in December 2006 when newly elected President Felipe Calderón unleashed the Mexican army against the Mexican people. Each wave of slaughter has been touted by the government as proof the cartels were weakening. The result of this triumph can be plainly seen in Juárez: 25 percent of the houses have been abandoned, 30,000 to 60,000 Mexicans have fled to neighboring El Paso, 10,000 businesses have closed, 500 to 900 gangs prowl the city, the highest murder rate on earth—200 per 100,000—has been achieved, at least 100,000 jobs have been lost and somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 people have left the city.

The slaughter of three people affiliated with the U.S. consulate has briefly caused the international press to look at this disaster. But soon, their attention will wander and the city can get back to business as usual. And both governments can hum along with their War on Drugs.

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Charles Bowden, the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award and the Sidney Hillman Award, is the critically acclaimed author of numerous books, including Down by the River and Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing. He is a contributing editor for GQ and Mother Jones, and also writes for Harpers, the New York Times Book Review, Esquire, and Aperture. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.