Violence Flares in Juarez, Mexico The U.S. State Department is warning travelers about violence in Juarez, Mexico. Madeleine Brand talks with John Burnett about who is involved and what this means for tourists.

Violence Flares in Juarez, Mexico

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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. A report from the Supreme Court coming up in a moment, but first...

BRAND: More than 200 people have been killed in the first four months of this year in Juarez, Mexico. It's the result of a turf war between drug cartels. Juarez is just across the border from El Paso, Texas and the State Department, today, elevated a travel alert for Americans going to the border, in particular, Juarez. NPR's John Burnett is with us now. He just returned from Juarez. Welcome to the program.

JOHN BURNETT: Hi Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, tell us what it was like there? What did you see?

BURNETT: Well, the gang warfare - to give you a picture, think about that scene in the desert with all the pickup trucks in the movie, "No Country for Old Men," where the narcotics traffickers have all double crossed each other and everybody has either been killed or is trying to kill one another. Well, welcome to Juarez. That happens every day there, both in the Chihuahuan Desert, outside of the city and in broad daylight on city streets in front of school kids and shoppers. The conventional wisdom is that the turf war is between the Sinaloa cartel, which is run by Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from the Pacific state of Sinaloa. And that he is challenging, or has fallen out, with the dominant Juarez cartel which was weakened by the death of its leader, Amado Carrillo-Fuentes. And then now there's talk of a Gulf cartel, well, OK, now we have a third organized crime group from farther east, down toward the Gulf of Mexico, is also moving into the turf. But every person you talk to has a different theory of who the players are, and who's double crossing who, and who is fighting for this very lucrative smuggling corridor into the United States.

BRAND: And while you were there, I mean, you described this place, that just seems incredibly violent and lawless, what did you see?

BURNETT: Well, see, this is the bizarre thing about Juarez is that you can drive around all day long as a visitor - it's not like you hear gun shots in the streets. The Mexican Federal Government sent 2,500 federal troops and federal police officers to Juarez over the past month. This is the big news now and they are trying to combat the traffickers, particularly the police, who are in cahoots with the traffickers, to calm and try to cut down, on some of this violence. And so you see the army around town. I mean I was in Baghdad last summer. There are times when you can turn a corner and it, and you know, see these pickup trucks filled of masked, uniformed men with machine guns pointed at traffic and you know, your heart freezes. And then you turn the corner and it's just, you know, a big industrial gritty city of 1.3 million and everything seems normal.

BRAND: So you have the army actually getting into firefights with the local police?

BURNETT: No, they're not getting into firefights, but the army has come to town and all of these federal policemen, to target the local municipal police and the state police, who everyone knows, and really, from the governor of Chihuahua to the mayor of Juarez, will tell you openly, that these police forces have been completely subverted by organized crime. And they are being paid protection and no one in town trusts the local police. And everyone that I talked to in Juarez were cheering the federal troops, like the cavalry has arrived, to save us from our own police.

BRAND: John, what is it about Juarez, because it has been in the news, for all these kidnappings of young girls recently and it just seems to be a place where it's always violent. Why Juarez?

BURNETT: I really think the problem stems from the lack of public security, which goes back to the police department. Whether you are talking about rapes of young women, whether you are talking about narcotics traffickers operating the open. Whether it's bank robberies. There's now a wave of bank robberies going on there. All of this can not happen if you have a strong local police and state police. And the local police force has been so corrupt and so riddled with influence from the cartels, that the citizenry just do not feel protected. There's this criminal element, which has surged in Juarez because they can, because there's no one to stop them.

BRAND: NPR's John Burnett, just recently back from Juarez, Mexico reporting from Austin, Texas. Thanks John.

BURNETT: It's my pleasure, Madeleine.

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