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The border area between the United States and Mexico has become so violent that the State Department issued a travel alert last month. The warning says, “A war between criminal organizations for control of the lucrative narcotics trade continues along the border. Foreign visitors, including Americans, have been among the victims.” It’s one thing for visitors to avoid the border cities or at least to be alert to their surroundings. It’s another thing for the folks who live there. The World’s Lorne Matalon has our story.
Matalon: I’m walking across a pedestrian bridge from El Paso, Texas into Juárez, Mexico. The two cities are for all intents and purposes one entity with separate governments sharing the same problems. Right now the overriding problem is the influence of the Mexican drug cartels, principally here the Juárez Cartel which is involved in a horrific fight between it, the Juárez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel.
Matalon: Juárez today is a sprawling cauldron of chaos and violence one of the cartels’ preferred routes to “el otro lad,o” the other side, the U.S. The Mexican Army arrived 3 weeks ago after the latest spike in murders included the execution of a police commander who refused to protect the Juárez Cartel. At the same time, the editor of the daily ‘Norte de Ciudad de Juárez’ has pulled his reporters from further cartel investigations after 2 reporters were killed and others threatened. Alfredo Quijano says his paper now only publishes gov’t reports of arrests and deaths.
Quijano: “Nuestra ciudad practicamente ha sido abondonada durante muchos años. ”
Matalon: Our city’s been practically abandoned for many year ,says Quijano, maybe 20 or 30 federal police officers for a population of 1.5 million. Drug trafficking has increased tremendously during these years. 70% of the cocaine bound for the U.S. passes through Juárez. And with the millions of dollars in drug money has come corruption. It’s become a monster.
The monster is out-of-control because the federal gov’t ignored pleas from Juárez to purge the notoriously corrupt state and local police forces concedes Juárez police spokesman Jaime Torres.
Torres: “Unfortunately there are police involved in criminal activity. It’s difficult to compete because we pay them $ 1,000 a month. Criminal groups can buy police for 20 or 30K dollars a month.
Matalon: And cops that don’t take cartel money are targets: 11 were assassinated this year. And at least 200 others have been killed, the majority drug traffickers caught up in turf wars. 34-year-old teacher Jessica PeÃ±a is a lifelong Juárez resident.
PeÃ±a: “For me it’s fear, and it’s also frustration and also it’s kind of an anger because you know you can’t really walk out of the door of your house and feel comfortable walking anywhere. Right now if you go the mall, or even if you to church, there’ve been killings in front of the churches after masses.”
Matalon: The violence is hurting the region’s economy. Many US companies run assembly-line factories known as maquilladoras–or maquillas–on the Mexican side. Maquillas account for 35 per cent of Mexico’s GDP, sending auto parts, electronics and medical equipment to the United States. And they provide jobs, housing and health benefits for 100-thousand people in Juárez alone. Now Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferris worries that some investors may shy away from opening new factories here.
Reyes: “The economy is affected greatly, not only Juárez’ economy but El Paso’s economy. Both cities depend on each other for trade, for business, for family and the affect has been hard on both communities. It used to be that somebody in Mexico would go to have lunch in El Paso or someone in El Paso would come to have lunch in Juárez. That barely happens anymore.”
Matalon: In El Paso, a recent survey shows that 64 % of residents fear that Juárez violence may spill across the border. Manny Becerra owns several businesses in El Paso. Mexican shoppers spend half a billion dollars a year in his city. Now he says fear of getting caught in cartel cross-fire means fewer shoppers are coming to El Paso and vice-versa.
Becerra: “People who are doing drugs, they know what they’re getting but they stop the customers from coming back and forth.”
Matalon: El Paso’s Mayor says drug violence has not spilled over to his town. But it is affecting the local economy. Mayor John Cook’s fed up with what he describes as Washington’s heavy-handed border politics. Cook says the bridges linking El Paso and Juárez are needlessly clogged as vehicles are inspected for drugs. Cook mentioned a recent visit by the head Homeland Security.
Cook: “The last time Secretary Chertoff was here I asked him if he wanted did he want to take a trip into Juárez and see how long it took him to get back, and he said no he only had half an hour. So, I mean if he doesn’t have time to get stuck in traffic on the bridge, if he’s not willing to experience it firsthand, then I wonder how genuine his love of the border really is.”
Matalon: Howard Campbell of the University of Texas at El Paso says the economies of all major border areas will continue to suffer unless Mexican President Calderón makes a radical decision.
Campbell: “The Mexican government has to compromise with the drug traffickers. They’re not going to engage in open, formal negotiations with traffickers which would be politically incorrect and impossible. But they have to accept the limitations, that it’s not possible to wipe out all the cartels. And typically what happens is one cartel is weakened by the attacks of the military and the gov’t against it which strengthens another cartel.”
Matalon: Or starts a gang war – there was a long gunfight between rival traffickers in Tijuana last week. When it was over, 15 people were dead. Nearly 1900 miles away, in Reynosa near the Gulf of Mexico, five Mexican soldiers were killed in mid-week. In Juárez, people are killed almost every day. While many in Juárez say they’re confident the Army will quell the violence, some maquilla workers are returning to their hometowns in southern Mexico and Central America because they say they fear the constant insecurity.