The City of Outrage: The Impact of Violence in Ciudad Juarez

By  |  5 / December / 2011

This post is also available in: Spanish

By Oscar Enriquez

Ciudad Juarez has become Mexico’s most obscene showcase of violence in the ongoing drug war. Its residents are living through one of the worst crises in the city’s history. Just a few short years ago it was still a happy city, full of music, late-night bars, casinos, and American tourists. It was a city of pleasure and fun, of intense migratory flow and full employment. It was a multicultural, bi-party city—and, yes, a violent one too.

Today it is a sad city, terrorized and debilitated, inside and out. The city has been leveled by profound emptiness and hopelessness, and brought to its knees by organized crime and the incapacity of the authorities to provide even basic safety for its citizens.

I. Part of the War

In the midst of this deep pain and surrounded by a war declared by the Mexican government on organized crime, we are forced to bear the costs of a war that is not ours. And now, from the perspective of peace and human rights, Ciudad Juarez is hurting… and outraged.

Outraged by violent executions

The most horrific, tell-tale sign of the crisis is the sheer number of crimes that have occurred here in recent years. By the end of 2008 when the violence began, there were 1,608 murders in 2008. In 2009, even with daily patrols of soldiers and federal police, there were 2,658 killings. In 2010, that number increased to 3,111 homicides. Up to Oct., the tally for 2011 was up to 1,663. A full 70% of the victims are youths between 18 and 25 years old. As of October, 65 of these killings have been carried out by armed commandos.

Murder is the complete negation of the right to life. Human dignity counts for nothing and family and social cohesion are broken. One of the most severe consequences is the pain and suffering of victims’ loved ones. How do you begin to measure or quantify, in social terms, the psychological impact that more than nine thousand families have suffered? For 47 months this city hasn’t stopped bleeding. It’s an ordeal with no end in sight.

Outraged by kidnappings and extortion

The kidnappings and extortions are uncountable. People witnessing these crimes are afraid to report them. They fear threats and retaliation from organized crime syndicates, but they also often suspect complicity of the federal police and politicians in these crimes. Stories of their mutual participation abound.

Extortion is a cancer that has spread throughout the city. It affects bars and nightclubs, selected street vendors or businesses selected from the phone book. It affects junkyards, mechanics, schools, funeral homes, convenience stores, street merchants, and local markets. The dilemma: close down or be shaken down.

Extortion causes a culture of fear and anguish. Livelihoods are lost in the shuffle. Some people—those lacking the protective cover of friends and family—find themselves more exposed to the cruelest elements of the extortion racket than others. So, how do we reinstate peace and security to the victims of kidnapping and extortion? How do we rid the city of this cancer?

Outraged by robberies, threats, and murders

We are outraged by the violent auto-thefts and carjackings that have become a daily occurrence. We are outraged by the 230,000 Juarez residents who have abandoned the city due to fear and insecurity. By the deaths and endless threats that human rights defenders have suffered—the emblematic deaths of Josefina Reyes and Marisela Escobedo among them.

Outraged by femicide

The period between 1993 and 2003 is called “the Tragic Decade” in Ciudad Juarez for the cruelty exhibited by the number of women who were murdered. In ten years of femicide, more than 400 women were killed. But in the last four years the number of femicides has grown even larger. In 2008, there were 87 officially recognized murders of women. In 2009, there were 164. In 2010 there were 304. By September of 2011, 184 femicides have already been registered.

The government refuses to accept that these are femicides and attributes the deaths to a settling of scores among traffickers, or maintains that they are products of domestic violence. In doing so, they avoid their responsibility to investigate the cases and, most importantly, to do something to stop them.   

The most bitter complaint of the families of the murdered women has been the authorities’ irresponsibility, negligence, and cynicism. Not only do they not investigate, but they criminalize the victims.

Outraged by Forced Disappearances

This crime has expanded throughout the entire northern part of the country. There are hundreds of disappeared people. The state of Chihuahua has 200 registered disappearances, 107 in this year alone (source: Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas). Forced disappearance is a perpetually open wound.

Two particular cases illustrate these disappearances. In 2008, the army disappeared two brothers, Jose Luis and Carlos Guzman Zúñiga. There is a recommendation from the National Commission of Human Rights against the Secretary of Defense for this case. The other case is the disappearance of Nitza Paola, Rocio and José Angel Alvarado. The army took them from the town of Ejido Benito Juarez in December of 2009 and to this day we still know nothing about them. This case is heading through preliminary precautionary measures, while it works its way through the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

How is it possibly understandable, under the rule of law, that human beings disappear and nobody knows anything about them? The pain of the victims is inconceivable and the culpability of the state is obvious— especially when they negligently and irresponsibly fail to investigate these cases.

Outraged by the actions of the government

It was amid the context of a breach in agreements between the Mexican government and organized crime (previously such agreements indeed existed), that the confrontation in Ciudad Juárez began in 2008.

This raises questions with different underlying assumptions. Is the confrontation really about the control of drug routes between rival cartels? Is this a military occupation that attempts to enforce a policy of border security to respond to U.S. interests and the necessity of legitimizing Felipe Calderon? Is this about a war between two groups that already permeate all sectors of Mexican society—economics, politics, and the military?

In the face of violence, the three levels of government have responded with the logic of force without taking into account the welfare of the people. Since then, we’ve been caught living in the crossfire. In this war neither justice nor human rights exist. With a militaristic strategy and an abuse of power, the government has sent thousands of soldiers and federal police to confront organized crime. What’s happened in Juarez has shown that the operatives have been unable to contain the violence. The army and the police participate in human rights violations on a daily basis: burglaries, illegal detention, extortion, forced disappearances, torture, etc., etc.

II. Roots of the violence

Outraged by the economic and political power

The extreme violence that we’ve seen hasn’t surfaced through spontaneous generation, nor have the “bad people” invaded us “good people” (like the childishly simplistic rhetoric of the federal government suggests). This violence has deep roots that are diverse, complex, and increasingly intertwined.

Much has been said and written about the crossroads at which Ciudad Juarez finds itself. Much of the analysis, hypotheses, and theories about this situation are centered around the following factors:

  • Its location at the border with the United States
  • The strengthening of criminal organizations and their ability to penetrate and corrupt police forces at every level
  • Globalization, through the process of the maquiladora industry and its attraction-repulsion strategy that generates sudden employment and population explosion. The population of Ciudad Juarez doubled in twenty years. The authorities weren’t prepared to receive the mass of new migrants to the city and failed to create the infrastructure necessary to provide housing, healthcare, transportation, public services, education, culture and recreation required for a dignified standard of living. The profound social gap portended tensions in the short term. Little by little, the uprootedness of the new migrants’ culture and the dynamics of social exclusion led to a deterioration of the social fabric. Poor labor conditions progressively ate away at the family structure leading to divorce, single mothers, neglectful childcare, dropouts, gangs, and drug abuse.
  •  The establishment of a new criminal justice system that lacked proper preparation and training and the subjugation of the judiciary to executive control.

Certainly these elements, within the context of impunity and corruption, explain to some degree the dynamics of the violence detonated by the confrontation of cartels and the militarized strategy of the government. Whatever the causes, the situation definitely isn’t as simple as black and white (the underlying message in the media narrative).

A few consequences of the war

In Chihuahua, we have learned how to survive and develop in the adversity of the desert. Today, in the middle of a travesty of pain and violence, we still find signs of life and hope. Life cuts against that current of pain and violence, and we’ve learned to value everyday events as expressions of resistance and dignity: going to work, filling our schools, going shopping, celebrating family gatherings. Groups of young people express their anger and their hope through art and music. New dialogues and citizen action have sprung up, there are innumerable testimonies of struggle, resistance, solidarity, demonstrations…

Despite everything, life goes on and it is lived intensely in our beloved Juarez.

Conclusion

We believe that it is urgent to reconstruct the social fabric, the confidence, and the dignity of the city so that we can focus on a collective process of building a lasting peace. A peace that addresses the root causes of the conflict. A peace that is structural and cultural—the only kind that will put an end to the violence.

With the backdrop of so many murders and disappearances, we must work to develop very specific demands, like naming all of the dead and listening to all of the victims. The greatest challenge is getting the victims to participate in the process, because once they do, they become the subjects in the full exercise of their rights.

Peace is the product of justice and will only be constructed on the condition that we first guarantee life and dignity.

Facing the militarized police state that has been installed in northern Mexico, especially in Ciudad Juarez, we believe that it is fundamental to demand demilitarization and oppose the National Security Law. Based on what we’ve lived through in Ciudad Juarez, we ask that we stop this useless, absurd war.

Oscar Enríquez is the director of the Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte in Ciudad Juarez. A version of this text was presented at the BASTA! conference at the University of Texas, El Paso on October 13th, 2011 and published by the Americas Program www.americas.org.  

Translation: Mikael Rojas