Tuesday, September 29, 2009

'Social cleansing' as Mexico goes to war with itself

Published Date: 29 September 2009
By Bernd Debusmann

WHEN Mexican president Felipe Calderon ordered 2,500 troops and federal agents into the city of Ciudad Juarez on the US border 17 months ago to crack down on drug violence, the average monthly murder rate there was 66.
In retrospect, those were the days of peace and calm.

Ciudad Juarez has since become the most active front in simultaneous and increasingly bloody wars. One is between drug cartels fighting each other for access to the US market. The other is betADVERTISEMENTween drug traffickers and the Mexican authorities charged with imposing law and order: they have been singularly unsuccessful.

Despite a vastly increased military presence (now about 7,000, plus 2,500 federal agents), the monthly bodycount this year has averaged more than 180. In August, it exceeded 300, a record. According to a study last month by a Mexican non-profit group, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice, Ciudad Juarez (population 1.6 million) has become the world's most violent city.

Nationwide, almost 14,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Mr Calderon took office and declared war on the drug business. Casualties on the government side number 725 police and soldiers between the beginning of 2008 and the middle of this year.

But bodycounts tell only part of the story. As residents of Ciudad Juarez tell it, there is a third war going on, waged by common criminals against citizens who are fast losing what little faith they had that the state could provide security. Common crime, from robbery and rape to extortion, car theft and kidnapping for ransom, is up. Ciudad Juarez, divided from its Texan sister city, El Paso, by the Rio Grande, has slid into what one long-time resident calls "a permanent state of criminal anarchy".

Most killings fall into the category of "bad guys eliminating bad guys" and don't inspire much, if any, investigative energy. And there is near absolute impunity for murdering malandros, a colloquial term for an underclass of young addicts, small-time drug dealers, homeless people and others at the bottom of the social pile, according to Gustavo de la Rosa, a senior investigator at the Human Rights Commission in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is the biggest city.

"We estimate that between 300 and 500 malandros have been killed since July of 2008," he said. "Not a single one of these murders has been solved, which leads one to believe what is going on is 'social cleansing' with the tacit permission of the state."

Oscar Maynez Grijalva, a former state forensics chief, has talked about death squads whose activities should be, but are not, investigated.

In the most brutal act so far of the suspected social cleansing, men wielding AK-47 assault rifles stormed into a drug rehabilitation centre this month, herded 18 youths outside, lined them up against a wall and shot them. For good measure, they also put a bullet through the head of the centre's dog. It was the fifth mass killing at a rehabilitation centre in a year, and it took place within sight of the US border fence.

Social cleansing, the targeted elimination of groups considered undesirable, worthless or dangerous, has been practised in a number of Latin American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Honduras, Argentina and Colombia. It has not been a Mexican tradition.

But now, looking too closely into the question "who is killing whom, and why" is becoming an increasingly risky business, as is following up on citizens' complaints about army abuses.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has documented rapes, executions, torture and arbitrary detentions in states where the army is fighting the drug cartels.

Since Mr Calderon began using the military to bypass notoriously corrupt police agencies, about 50,000 soldiers and 30,000 federal police have been deployed in drug-producing states and border cities. If Ciudad Juarez is a model, they can be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Take the case of Mr de la Rosa, who became an outspoken critic of the military in the course of his job – pressing the army to investigate complaints from victims or their families. That earned him ever more explicit warnings to cool his criticism, from telephoned death threats to the detention and beating of one of his bodyguards.

"I'm convinced my life is at risk and on 25 August, I asked the head of the state human rights commission to arrange for protection for myself and my office," he said.

His request was greeted with silence until last week, when he was suspended from his job because the commission saw no way to guarantee his safety.

He has sent a 3,100-word letter to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission urging it to take measures to protect his life and that of his wife and 21-year-old son. What effect that will have remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, he is going into hiding in the city where he has lived for most of his 63 years: criminal anarchy in action.

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