Soldiers Take on Police in Mexican Drug War

The city of Juarez, across the border from Texas, is the newest epicenter of drug violence in Mexico. The Mexican government has sent in 2,500 army troops and federal police to root out corrupt local police. Many in Juarez are cheering for the soldiers.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The city of Juarez has become the latest epicenter in Mexico's drug wars. Juarez is just over the border from El Paso, Texas. Since the beginning of the year, more than 200 people have been killed, mostly young men.

These men are dying in a turf war between drug trafficking organizations. The dangerous situation is made more complicated by collusion between Juarez police officers and the drug cartels.

The Mexican government has made cleaning up corruption in the Juarez Police Department a priority, and it's sent 2500 army troops and federal police to the border region. NPR's John Burnett traveled to Juarez to find out what it takes to root out dirty cops.

JOHN BURNETT: To get an idea how Juarez has lost control of its notoriously corrupt police force, the army is poised to take over the city's 911 system. The reason is that some dispatchers on the take of the drug cartels will not send police units to shootouts between the narcos. People talk openly here about how organized crime has infiltrated the Juarez police - even their boss, Mayor Jose Reyes.

You welcome the arrival of federal troops and police to clean up your own police department.

Mr. JOSE REYES (Mayor, Juarez): Sure. We, we really do. It's really a good thing that we have the support of the federal police and the army within the city. You have to realize that in Mexico, fighting organized crime, federal authorities are the ones who do that.

BURNETT: It's been a tough first term for Mr. Reyes, a mild-mannered 46-year-old corporate lawyer with a degree from Notre Dame. One of the first things he did when he took office six months ago was fire his police chief, Saulo Reyes - no relation. U.S. federal agents then arrested the police chief in January on drug and bribery charges. Then came Easter weekend, when the body count peaked.

Mr. REYES: The most extreme violence between them, we had a period of three days where there were more than ten dead each day.

BURNETT: The mayor says, since the army has arrived homicides have dropped to two or three a week. A veteran journalist in town says it's more like a murder a day, but that's still an improvement. The mayor's ornate office inside the Palacio Municipal looks out on one of the most lucrative smuggling corridors in the world. Currently the Juarez and the Sinaloa cartels are fighting over access to the international bridges to El Paso and the billion-dollar American narcotics market.

(Soundbite of Spanish song)

The backdrop for this gangland war is a gritty sun-broiled industrial city of factories nightclubs, and shops that sell cowboy boots, cell phones, and pirated CDs.

(Soundbite of hiphop music)

Shiny Ford pickups full of hooded federal agents idle at stoplights, their M16s pointed at the ready. Since coming to town the federales have targeted the local and state police. The word on the street is all the kingpins have gone to Acapulco and Cancun with their girlfriends until the federal occupation ends. The mayor says so far about 70 city police have retired, gone AWOL, or been arrested. The entire force of 1600 must now undergo drug tests, polygraphs and psychological exams to weed out the crooked cops. Juan Reyes, a Juarez optician, seems to relish the confrontation between military and police.

Mr. JUAN REYES: (Through translator) Unfortunately before, we said who should I fear more, the delinquent or the police? Now the police say, who should I fear, the delinquent or the soldier? It's the same question we citizens asked ourselves.

BURNETT: Since taking office 16 months ago, President Felipe Calderon has sent more than 25,000 soldier and federal police to hotspots in nine states beset with drug violence. Juarez is the most recent. Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in El Paso says that Calderon's drug war is real. And for the first time the DEA agents feel like they can trust their counterparts across the river.

Mr. JACK RILEY (Drug Enforcement Administration): Our extraditions are up, our ability to pass information confidently to the authorities over there is certainly up. And I think it's good news, certainly compared to where it was four - five years ago.

Whereever federal counternarcotics forces have landed, however, citizens have complained about abusive treatment. The Mexican army's new human rights office has received more than 400 complaints since the drug offensive began.

In Juarez, two female state police officers reported they were blindfolded and were forced to undress in front of soldiers. And 12 municipal police officers say they were detained and tortured by soldiers. Eight policemen remain in custody under illegal weapons and drug charges. Father Oscar Enriquez is a longtime human rights advocate in Juarez.

Mr. OSCAR ENRIQUEZ (Parish Priest, San Pedro-San Pablo): (Through translator) We are aware the police have committed acts against the population. They've tortured, there's corruption, there are abuses, nevertheless they don't lose their human rights.

BURNETT: Though the city's legal office is defending the policemen who complained of army mistreatment, they don't seem to have much sympathy around town. Again, Mayor Jose Reyes.

Mayor REYES: There are those who are going to allege human rights violation to keep doing bad things within the police departments. And we also have to be aware of that. So, I think, at the end of the day the work the army's doing is a very good job.

BURNETT: A police spokesman said they know the department has bad cops who endanger the community and the city government wants the force purified from top to bottom.

Civil libertarians in Mexico complain that their constitution does not give soldiers the power to investigate civilian crimes except to enforce weapons laws. But the army's battle against the drug gangs has undeniably been popular. The Diario de Juarez published poll results last week in which nine out of 10 people said they're glad the army is there and they believe the police are involved in organized crime. Cecilia Sulorsuno(ph) cuts hair in a shopping mall on Avenida Tecnologico.

Ms. CECILIA SULORSUNO (Employee, Avenida Tecnologico): (Through translator) Now it's more tranquil. You can go out with your family without fear. I've encountered the troops and they've greeted me very courteously. They don't scare me at all.

BURNETT: But, given this city's history of cyclical violence, Gustavo dela Rosa, the State Human Rights Ombudsman in Juarez takes the long view.

Mr. GUSTAVO DELA ROSA (Ombudsman, Human Rights): (Through Translator) About four years ago there was a state of emergency with lots of homicides and violence. The federal police arrived and stayed for six months. During those six months, the violence went down.

BURNETT: But when the federal police left, he said, the drug violence returned as bad as ever. In a show of just how embedded and brazen the drug traffickers are along Mexico's northern border, last week cartel hit men known as the Zetas hung recruitment banners across major roads in Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. The banners read: the Zetas want you, soldier or ex-soldier, we offer a good salary, food and family care, and it listed a phone number to call.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.