Doctors See The Frontline Of Juarez Drug Violence

Health care workers in Juarez, Mexico are often placed in the middle of drug-related violence, treating everyone from bystanders to those involved in the drug war that has seen thousands killed and a countless number injured. Host Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, a surgeon at Juarez general hospital who is one of the few still taking late-night calls. He also leads a local doctor's committee that discusses how to protect physicians from gang warfare.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

In Ciudad Juarez, doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers often find themselves in the line of fire because they care for innocent bystanders as well as assassins employed by the drug gangs. It is not uncommon for hit men to follow patients all the way into the operating room to finish the job.

We wanted to know what it's like to be a doctor on the frontlines of the drug war, so we've called Dr. Arturo Valenzuela-Zorrilla. He's a surgeon at Ciudad Juarez General Hospital in Mexico, and he is one of the few who still takes late night calls. He also leads the local doctors' committee, which is talking about how to protect members from drug gang warfare. Dr. Valenzuela-Zorrilla, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. ARTURO VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA (Ciudad Juarez General Hospital, Mexico): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: When did you start to realize that there was a problem? I have to assume you didn't go into medical practice with the idea that you would be practicing under these conditions, but do you remember when you started to realize that something really something was going on here?

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: Well, it's been around a few years that we noticed that the violence was increasing dramatically here in our city. And in 2008, we, the doctors, said, well, something must be done. And we start doing some strategies to change a little bit our condition here. So, we're trying to fight back.

MARTIN: There are a couple of particular situations that medical professionals face. I want to talk about them separately. But over the course of a day or week, for example, can you tell us how many patients you think you would see, who have injuries as a result of the situation there, who have gunshot wounds or something related to that?

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: Well, there's two or three we have to operate daily, I mean, myself. Of course, there are some that doesn't reach the hospital because the weapons that they are using has a high velocity projectile bullets and that destroys the body completely. So, there's a very small chance that you can reach a hospital alive.

So, really, we are here in a kind of a war situation. And I feel pain because I arrived in the city, usually when I was a kid, I was free in the streets, and now you can't even walk.

MARTIN: I think a number of people might remember the doctors and other health care workers had a demonstration a while back. I think it was in December of 2008, where they, you know, hundreds of people gathered and they covered their faces to protect their identities. Why did they do that?

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: Well, you're right. In 2008, we did a march to call the attention to the authorities and to call the attention internationally because, really, really, we need help. Something must be done here. I was without a mask. But a lot of physicians were covered with surgery masks, because they thought the criminals were going to see them and they eventually will kill them or kidnap them.

MARTIN: That's what I'm trying to understand. Why are medical professionals a target? Are they target for kidnappings or are they target for people to extort money from them?

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: Yes.

MARTIN: Or are they targets because people want them only to treat patients from their side?

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: We have received a lot of cases of doctors kidnapped. So, that's why they cover the face in that march because they thought that if the kidnappers see in the news their faces, they will harm them or kidnap them or kill them even, right? That's the reason.

MARTIN: Why do you think you stick with it when a number of your colleagues have not? I know from our own reporting that there are a number of medical professionals who have either abandoned the city or they've moved their families out of the city and commute in. There are a number of doctors who are now refusing to practice. Why do you think you stick with it when other people will not?

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: I think I have a responsibility to here. There are people that cannot leave. I have the facility to leave this place. But if something happen to my neighbor and I think it's not my business, when something bad happens to me, could be that the other neighbor is not going to do anything about it.

So, we must care for each other. And I'm not talking about the ones that are living here. This responsibility is shared. We are, as a third world country, we're the producers of a lot of narcotics. But the first one is the consumer. We must think about the people that is getting sick because of consuming drugs. And the consumers must think that each time they play with drugs, with cocaine or marijuana or whatever, they are producing these amount of crimes. They should feel responsible for 4,000 and something people that are being killed here.

MARTIN: Well, finally, can I ask you, what is sustaining you during these difficult days? How are you maintaining the fortitude, the strength, the hope, whatever it is to keep you going every day?

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: Well, I usually deal with some other's pain daily in the hospital and I have seen mothers crying or children crying because they somebody killed their father, right? Or even kids have been killed even. And in see my daughter and I say, well, there are people that are being killed and are fathers also like me or are kids like my daughter and something has to be done. That's why I will teach my daughter and my nephews and all the kids that they have a responsibility to take care of their neighbors and never give up.

MARTIN: Dr. Arturo Valenzuela-Zorrilla is a surgeon at Juarez General Hospital in Ciudad Juarez, and he joined us on the phone from his office. We thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. VALENZUELA-ZORRILLA: Thank you very much. Have a nice day.

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