On-Scene: Mexico's Crime Crackdown

The signs of the beefed-up military presence are everywhere. At the airport, freshly deployed soldiers in camouflage uniforms closely scrutinize passengers and their bags. On the road, a taxi driver says he is pleased that the arrival of the troops has curtailed the shootouts, arrests and round-the-clock raids enough to allow residents out on the streets again. "Look," he points with relief as a truck carrying about 20 soldiers drives by. "They're here."

No, this is not Baghdad.

Rather, this war is being waged just across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez. Some 30,000 soldiers and federal police have now been deployed to a dozen states throughout Mexico as part of President Felipe Calderon's war on drug cartels and organized crime, and Juarez is just the latest front. On March 28, after the murder toll here rose to more than 200 in just three months--a more than tenfold increase compared to the same period in 2007--Calderon sent in 2,500 soldiers as part of Joint Operation Chihuahua, named for the state in which Juarez is located.

Juarez may be just another front in the broader war, but it's a front Calderon needs to win. All along the U.S. border, in cities like Tijuana, Reynosa and Matamoros, organized-crime-related violence continues apace. Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert regarding these cities, as well as Juarez, warning that drug traffickers, Mexican police, justice officials, journalists, foreign visitors and residents--in effect, pretty much everyone--have been victims of attacks and homicides.

Perhaps more important for the Mexican government's war on drugs, the difficulties faced by the Army are becoming apparent. The military has made strong gains since Calderon took office in December 2006, seizing record amounts of cocaine and extraditing 73 suspected drug traffickers to the United States for trial in 2007, but there is growing reason to believe the drug cartels are outfoxing the Army or, at the very least, outlasting its efforts. And many soldiers are losing the will to fight: in 2007, more than 18,000 soldiers deserted, and reports of deserters joining the drug cartels as "zetas," or hired guns, are growing.

Military successes, where they do occur, seem short lived. After Calderon sent soldiers into his home state of Michoacan, crime levels dropped. But this year they're up again, and seem set to surpass 2006 levels. The same goes for Tijuana, where soldiers were once again deployed in January 2007, after a daytime shootout between a gang of kidnappers and local police forced the evacuation of three nearby schools. Just over a year earlier, mission supposedly accomplished, the Army left Tijuana. It had to come back, forcing crime down again, but experts doubt the peace will last. Across the country last year, some 2,500 people were killed in organized-crime-related violence. Not even four months into the new year, unofficial tallies are as high as 850.

With statistics like that, it's no surprise that Calderon's tactics are under fire. "This strategy doesn't work," says Jose Ramos, a security expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. Ramos and other drug-war experts say that while the military might may work in the short term, better intelligence, investigations and judicial processes are needed to maintain momentum. More important, they say better cooperation is needed between soldiers, federal police and local cops in order to tackle organized crime, something the president himself has admitted.

Ironically, in Juarez--as in Tijuana before it--the soldiers are not only fighting some of the most powerful drug traffickers in the country, but also local police officers long accused of being corrupt, inept or ill-equipped to maintain law and order. "Police cadets join the force and go, 'Ha, ha, I'm going to rob the world'," says Juarez resident Julio Bernardo Washington. He welcomes the Army's arrival. Before the soldiers came, he says, people would report drug dealers and other criminals, but the cops would just "come and kill people for reporting on other people." The Juarez police department, while admitting that corruption does exist in the force, denies the allegations of murder.

For now, at least, the Army has instilled a sense of security in Juarez. A combination of foot patrols, random roadblocks and some psy-ops--posters depicting a soldier with a firearm line the city streets promising WE'RE HERE TO HELP YOU--is aimed at sending an intimidating message to criminals while putting pressure on the local police to do their jobs. "[The police and criminals] are scared. No one's selling drugs in the streets anymore," says Bernardo Washington. "They're scared of the power of the state." Not everyone's happy about it, though. A recent demonstration by members of the local police force against the military's presence and allegations of police corruption brought tensions between federal and local authorities to the fore. A predawn shootout just hundreds of yards from the border with El Paso between local cops and soldiers on April 2 took the friction a step further.

The municipal police, many of whom earn less than $10,000 a year, are fed up. Felipe, a policeman who asked that only his first name be used for fear of reprisals from the drug cartels or even soldiers, says the military's presence actually endangers police lives because they could rile up the cartels. The police are indeed under serious threat: early this year, a death list posted on a monument dedicated to the Juarez police named the drug cartels' next 17 police targets; in one 48-hour period in late March, three cops were found murdered in the city, though it is unclear whether their names were among those listed.

Carrying out his duties near the border crossing into El Paso, Felipe also says that promised cooperation between the Army and the police in the so-called Joint Operation Chihuahua is a joke. And echoing several other policemen interviewed, Felipe says that soldiers are abusing their authority, harassing civilians and policemen alike, on some occasions even torturing them in detention centers.

At the behest of the National Human Rights Commission, Mexico's Defense Department says it is investigating all claims of abuses, but the Juarez police department is skeptical. "Sedena [the Defense Department] has its position, the agents have theirs," says Jaime Alberto Torres Valadez, chief spokesman for the Juarez police department. "The municipal police, with their lawyers, are doing their own investigating."

The Juarez department admits it is trying to clean up its act, firing corrupt cops and instituting policies that aim to instill honor--antidrug tests, as well as competitive benefits to outweigh low salaries, for instance. But Torres Valadez admits that overhauling the force is a "process" rather than a "magic trick." "We're trying to change the culture so that they don't fall into corruption," he says. "But even if we pay them $3,000 a day, the mafias will pay $6,000."

With six months left in the Army's mandate to stay in Chihuahua, many Juarez residents are already hesitant about the future. At best, many say, things will go back to normal, with the local police hopefully having learned something. At worst, their concerns echo those of drug-war analysts and a growing number of ordinary Mexicans who believe the military is simply pushing cartels from region to region, capturing several key leaders and cutting off the "hydra's heads," but never making solid ground.

Nadio Rivera, 32, is one such pessimist. His neighborhood, known as Plutarco Elias Calles, has been the subject of several recent military raids for drugs and weapons. Rivera says that most people in his neighborhood are fine with the raids as long as the soldiers maintain some sense of peace and crime stays down. Because if and when they go, he says, "it will be the same." For the residents of crime-ridden Juarez, that's a daunting prospect.