Extra troops fail to staunch Mexico bloodshed

Scorched by a blistering desert sun, military troops near Ciudad Juarez form the frontline security cordon in a bitter battle against crime playing out in the heart of Mexico’s bloody drug wars.

The post lies 35km from Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1,3-million inhabitants that borders the United States and has become the crime capital of the Latin American country.

Hundreds of men, who painstakingly search vehicles for drugs and weapons, are at the frontline of the massive military deployment Mexican President Felipe Calderon ordered following his 2006 election.

The conservative leader has mobilised 36 000 troops and policemen, including more than 10 000 in Ciudad Juarez alone, seeking to achieve his top domestic priority: a return of security.

But just days before Sunday’s legislative elections, the death toll in the vicious war that has pitted drug cartels against each another remains stubbornly high.

While Calderon insists the crime rate is falling, a steady stream of bodies fills the morgue in Ciudad Juarez, which takes in an average of seven victims a day, according to Hector Jaule, who heads the city’s Centre for Expert Services and Forensic Science.

One swathed body lay on a stretcher, while another two were stacked on pallets, suffusing the morgue with a powerful stench, the smell of death that is ever present in this violence-plagued city.

The morgue is located in a modern complex where 110 people work in criminology, ballistics, chemistry and genetics as well as anthropology, all trying to unveil the hows and whys of the dozen murders that take place almost every day.

On June 23, figures from the centre showed 1 164 people had already been killed this year—most victims of organised crime—compared with 2 392 for the whole of last year.

“I think that there will be more this year than in 2008,” said chemist Rosa Almeida.

Most of the victims are young drug dealers, sometimes minors, who fight a bloody battle to control neighbourhoods street by street.

Powerful cartels
But this fight pales in comparison to the war between the powerful Juarez and Sinaloa cartels to control drug-trafficking routes toward the United States, the world’s biggest consumer of cocaine.

The local forensics centre’s ballistics department resembles a military arsenal.

“This is the most powerful weapon confiscated in Juarez: a Barrett .50-caliber sniper riffle, which can pierce through any armour,” explained ballistics expert Adriana Saenz.

Despite controls on the Mexican side of the border, firearms continue to flow into the country from the US. On the side of the road that leads to Chihuahua, capital of the northern Mexican state of the same name, the military is at pains to confiscate illegal weapons.

And despite state-of-the-art equipment, including a huge metallic arm with gamma rays that can detect even the smallest trace of drugs in a truck, drug seizures remain pitifully small.

“Since this system was installed this year, the biggest seizures have been 51kg of marijuana in a van and 5,8kg of the same drug in a semi,” said Mariana, a federal police officer who declined to give her last name.

In Ciudad Juarez, 1 800 federal agents and 8 500 troops regularly patrol the main avenues, but in tense neighbourhoods, among them “Heroes of the revolution”, located north of the airport, such patrols are less frequent.

“The situation hasn’t changed. The military and federal police no longer come here,” said Maria Contreras, a 35-year-old pastry cook.

Collaboration between federal reinforcements and local police is also at a bare minimum.

“We work little with the local police because they are not reliable.
Many have been fired, but not all,” a top federal police said.

Troops are relieved every 30 days to avoid them building up links with the wealthy cartels.—AFP