Strengthening Law Enforcement, Democratic, and Economic Institutions to Confront the Crisis in Ciudad Juarez

The photograph above shows two cities—El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua—that are literally joined at the hip. Despite the differences that appear, on closer inspection, they share geography, culture, climate and history. My own life reflects the symbiotic relationship between these two cities; for over thirty years, my teaching, research, and lived realities have taken place in the Paso del Norte Region.

More than 6,000 murders have occurred in our neighbor city, Juárez, over the past three years. The numbers climb each year: 1,600 in 2008, and 2,600 in 2009, with 2010 likely to break past records. Contrast these figures with the average 200-300 murdered annually before 2008 and we see that rates have increased tenfold since the “war on drugs” was launched in the city.

Juarenses live in an atmosphere of fear, not only of assassination, but also of kidnappings, carjackings, extortion, and abuse from police often in complicity with criminals. Tens of thousands of people have fled the city and abandoned their homes and businesses.

In a recent interview with Texas Monthly writer Nate Blakeslee, Congressman Silvestre Reyes was asked whether the situation in Mexico had reached a crisis. “We will know it when it happens,” Reyes replied, adding, “If it happens.” With all due respect, I disagree with the Congressman’s assessment. I contend that there is a crisis and that it requires immediate policy changes in both Mexico and the United States.

To resolve this deepening crisis in Ciudad Juárez, there are three kinds of institutions that must be strengthened: law enforcement institutions, democratic institutions, and economic and business institutions.

Strengthening law enforcement institutions necessarily implies analyzing the costs of current militarized solutions and the erosion of rule of law caused by extensive human rights violations. Strengthening democratic institutions means working on both sides of the border to assess and correct the costly failures associated with the war on drugs. Strengthening economic and business institutions requires paying living wages to the majority of workers in northern Mexico.

Strengthening Law Enforcement Institutions

On the El Paso side of the border, we not only feel safe, but FBI crime statistics show that we live in an unusually safe city—the second safest in the United States, according to the annual ranking by CQ Press. An independent poll all along the U.S. side of the border commissioned by the Border Network for Human Rights and released in August 2010 shows that 67% of residents perceive themselves to be safe.

On the Juárez side of the border, we see a very different picture. Since 2008, in addition to the murders reported, there have been and continue to occur countless other crimes. I say “countless” because many Mexican residents do not bother to report extortion, domestic violence, kidnapping, theft, rape, and carjacking to the police. Juarenses do not trust municipal and state police, based on past experience.

In the 1990s, border people got a preview of police impunity in Juárez when murder rates increased, especially the murders of girls and women. Mexico’s government missed the opportunity, back then, to cleanse state and municipal police of corruption and complicity with organized crime. In 2008, when the president sent military troops and federal police to fight the drug war, murder rates skyrocketed. Six thousand murders in three years is a crisis, leaving survivors and residents to live in fear or to flee for their lives.

This militarized approach to dealing with crime has aggravated, rather than solved, the problem. Yet the U.S. government continues to support the drug war model based on the use of the military and an emphasis on enforcement and interdiction.

The first three pillars of the Mérida Initiative–“disrupting the capacity of criminal organizations; supporting efforts to strengthen public institutions responsible for combating organized crime; developing a secure and competitive Twenty-First Century Border”—are essentially more of the same policies that have been applied so far with disastrous results. The fourth—“building strong and resilient communities in both countries”—appears to be mere rhetoric, since it has so far received almost no funding within the initiative.

There is also a serious question about the impact of U.S. technology and military equipment transferred to Mexican Armed Forces. Dr. Howard Campbell warned a year ago:

“President Calderón has relied on the military to fight drug cartels and crime to a degree unprecedented in Mexican history…yet the military’s record has been checkered at best. Violence, insecurity and crime are increasing, not decreasing, in Mexico…Human rights organizations have documented more than 2 thousand violations committed by the military including forced disappearances, torture, and murder…The U.S. must be careful not to worsen the situation by further strengthening the Mexican military with arms, equipment and money provided through the Mérida Initiative.”

The Mexican government claims that 90-95% of the murders are of individuals associated with the drug trade, but there are few investigations or prosecutions to back up this assertion. This is an historic problem in Mexico’s law enforcement institutions. The round-ups and killings, operating in an institutional culture that presumes guilt, at least through 2016, given the state governments’ responsibility and deadline for implementation of a 2008 change in law, has resulted in hundreds of complaints to the (toothless) Chihuahua Human Rights Commission and thousands of complaints, to the National Human Rights Commission.

Even if the vast majority of the murders did turn out to be of individuals who had some relationship to organized crime, the nationwide number of deaths of 28,000 and counting represents a tremendous cost in civilian lives and massive bloodshed. Such figures are comparable to the 1970s ‘dirty war’ (guerra sucia) in Argentina.

The context of near total impunity for these murders compounds the damage to society. Some egregious, bizarre examples of institutional weakness, with solutions embedded, include:

  • Routine inattention to investigation, such as no follow up, violation of crime scene rules, inadequate forensics, and instant declarations of guilt and association with drug cartels. People worry that if they die as innocent bystanders, their reputations will be maligned as well.
  • Growing emphasis on public relations and press releases regarding criminal capture, after which many of the suspects are then released with little to no public comment or press attention.
  • Forced confessions extracted through torture.
  • The Durango prison incidents of July where Gómez Palacio prison officials released inmates at night to carry out revenge killings, killing 17 at a party in Torreón. The authorities even lent the assassins the weapons and vehicles to carry out the murders.
  • On August 7-8th, 2010, 250 federal police officers in Ciudad Juárez held public protests to call Mexico City’s attention to their commander’s corruption and participation in murders, kidnappings, and extortion. This remarkable event raised questions about the call from Calderon and his appointees to centralize municipal police departments under the federal police or the state judicial police.
  • While the Mexican Congress passed judicial reforms in 2008 to be instituted over eight years, it offered few incentives/resources to implement them at state levels: we could call this unfunded mandates (which we know so well in the U.S.).
  • Obstacles to civil society oversight: Journalists have been assassinated, and civil society activists intimidated. When parents press publicly to locate disappeared young-adult children, the bodies show up soon thereafter and officials make instant judgments about alleged drug involvement.

This brings me to the second set of institutions to be strengthened.

Strengthening Democratic Institutions

Both Mexico and the United States have flaws in their democratic institutions. One gaping flaw in U.S. democracy is the reluctance of most public officials to discuss alternatives to the 41-year-old U.S. ‘war on drugs’ and the stigma and penalties leveled against those who even talk about it.

Prohibition is the driving issue behind the havoc currently being wreaked in Mexico. After all, U.S. drug consumption fuels the profitable multi-billion-dollar business of drug trafficking. Nonetheless, U.S. policy and budgets overwhelmingly focus on the supply of drugs, through interdiction strategies, rather than reducing demand through drug treatment and prevention programs.

For over four decades, U.S. anti-drug bureaucracies have grown–gorging themselves on multi-billion dollar budgets.

According to figures from Customs and Border Protection, marijuana constituted 99% of the drugs confiscated at our ports of entry in 2008. Fourteen U.S. states have relaxed their marijuana prohibition laws, and California will vote in November on Proposition 19, to control, legalize, and tax marijuana for adults.

This situation places some serious questions on the table. Why not focus limited security budgets on hard drugs and serious crime problems by eliminating enforcement activities related to regulated marijuana use? Do politicians and political appointees have the nerve to discuss alternatives to militarization and the war on drugs? Or do they consider such a discussion to be too embarrassing – an admission of the failures of the domestic and foreign drug wars, especially the Mérida initiative?

Earlier this year, a group of border people in the region began meeting to discuss changing U.S. policies that have contributed to the explosion of violence in Ciudad Juarez. With Dr. Oscar Martínez as convener and several courageous El Paso City Council members, El Pasoans prepared a declaration that offers seven solutions (see box). The declaration was printed in a full-page local newspaper ad, and now has more than a 100 signers.

Call to Action

It is time to recognize that the U.S. 40-year War on Drugs has been a dismal social, economic and policy failure. It has not achieved any of its goals. Narco-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border is raging at unprecedented levels with no end in sight. We join many prominent Americans, including ex-U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, U.S. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, ex-presidents of Mexico Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, ex-president of Colombia César Gaviria, an ex-president of Brazil Fernando Enrique Cardoso in calling for a comprehensive revamping of the failed War on Drugs waged by the United States and other countries.

  • We support a well-funded and aggressive U.S. national educational campaign to encourage people to refrain from the use of illegal drugs by connecting their use to cartel-related terror.
  • We support increased U.S. emphasis on treating substance abuse, including the building of more substance-abuse facilities
  • We support U.S. drug policy initiatives that do not result in wasting government funds and empowering criminal gangs and trafficking organizations
  • We advocate, as an important first step in drug reform, the repeal of the ineffective U.S. marijuana drug laws in favor of regulating, controlling and taxing the production, distribution, sale and consumption of marijuana by adults. The sale of marijuana in the U.S. black market contributes 50 to 70 percent of Mexico’s cartel revenues.
  • We oppose unsuccessful militaristic approaches and demand that any future U.S. aid involve a rigorous accounting of allegations of human rights abuses and have strict performance metrics.
  • We support U.S. aid that is tied to social, educational and economic development in Mexico and support that country’s fight to establish effective and just rule of law.
  • We call on the U.S. government to properly and without bias make decisions on applications from Mexicans seeking asylum from the violence in Mexico, as well as make use of other existing avenues available under U.S. law to ensure that all asylum seekers whose lives are in danger are not unjustly rejected

One of the seven recommendations calls for the control, legalization, and taxation of marijuana to put an end to prohibition, supply-side policies. Marijuana, a vertically integrated business in Mexico, is the cash cow of drug-trafficking organizations, constituting an estimated 60% of drug cartels’ profits. While the reduction of profits would not be a magic-bullet solution to the violence, it would pull half the profit rug out from the Drug Trafficking Organizations. Some regional business and clergy leaders said they wanted to sign, that it was a ‘no brainer’, but were reluctant to be stigmatized.

Another institutional deficit in U.S. democracy is the inability to cope with the many refugees that have been exiting Juárez and northern Mexico. Dr. Mark Lusk has suggested that perhaps the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees should assist due the growing dimension of the problem. Our asylum policies are outdated, and only 2% of asylum seekers from Mexico are granted asylum. Refugees caught in this crime and drug war zone represent one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the 21st century.

The key to strengthening democracies lies in civil society voices and organized power therein—grassroots movements and non-governmental organizations through which people communicate to politicians and oversee swollen bureaucratic agencies. Border people’s civic capacity has been getting stronger, including with occasional in cross-border collaboration (see chart).

Source: Fronteras no Más: Toward Social Justice at the U.S.-Mexico Border (NY: Palgrave 2002). Kathleen Staudt and Irasema Coronado.

The business community is particularly strong, such as the chambers of commerce, La Red, and Paso del Norte Group. But we also need bottom-up, grassroots voluntary organizations. All people, regardless of income, deserve to have a voice.

Strengthening Economic and Business Institutions

Both U.S. export-processing factories (maquilas) and the Mexican government have missed opportunities to move workers from minimum wages to living wages. Currently, full-time assembly-line workers make approximately US$40 per week in take-home pay. This is less than El Paso workers make in a day. Many brag about ‘competitive’ wages in Juárez as a codeword for cheap wages.

Low wages contribute to the violence in Juárez, driving people to join the ranks of organized crime or to flee the country. Businesses that provide take-home pay of less than US$100 weekly are part of the problem, not the solution: they contribute directly to the crisis in Juárez.

Many Juarenses have no jobs at all. Youth in Juárez, between 15-26 years of age, who have finished secundaria (middle school), but lack jobs, have been dubbed Ni Ni’s: ni estudian, ni trabajan. They represent the crisis generation.

The region needs stronger and fairer economic institutions that pay people a living wage. Policymakers in Mexico and the United States must put this recommendation at the top of their list of reforms, along with investments in functional law enforcement; legalization/control of marijuana to reduce its status as profitable ‘cash-cow’ for the cartels; and the facilitation of civil society voices that include a cross-section of NGOs, grassroots organizations, CBOs, and investments in social and educational infrastructure.

Militarized Border Security is not a viable long-term development strategy.

In a recently released book called “Cities and Citizenship at the U.S.-Mexico Border: The Paso del Norte Metropolitan Region”, that I co-edited with colleagues at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, we pose the question: Is Ciudad Juárez a paradigm for the future?

The answer depends on what kind of a future we work to build starting now. For a peaceful, prosperous life? Or for continued infamy as the world’s murder capital?

The only way to address the evident crisis in Ciudad Juárez is through long-term investments in education and decent-paying jobs, and deep changes in security policy in both countries.

Kathleen Staudt, PhD (University of Wisconsin), is Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at El Paso. A version of this paper was presented at the 7th Annual Border Security Conference, August 12-13, 2010, in El Paso, Texas. She has published seven books on the U.S.-Mexico border, including Violence and Activism at the Border (University of Texas Press 2008), Human Rights Along the U.S.-Mexico Border (University of Arizona Press 2009), and Cities and Citizenship… (Palgrave USA 2010). She is a contributor to the CIP Americas Program

Editor: Laura Carlsen



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