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Eduardo Verdugo/AP
A forensic police officer works at the crime scene where a body was found in Ciudad
Juarez, northern Mexico.

Mexican Citizens Answer Drug Violence With Vigilante Justice

February 24, 2009 12:59 PM
by Christopher Coats
Frustrated with a legal system perceivably unwilling or unable to quell the violence that has overtaken Mexico's northern border, citizen groups have begun organizing and arming themselves, adding a third front to the battle that is tearing the region apart.

Citizens Take Up Arms

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Covert community groups have promised to get involved in some of the most violent areas of Mexico, should authorities not be able to curb the region’s spike in drug-related violence.

In Ciudad Juarez, which had the highest homicide rate in 2008 with more than 1,600 dead, a group called Juarez Citizens Command issued a declaration in mid-January promising to execute one criminal a day, beginning July 5, should police not be able to restore order.

Further south, the Popular Anti-Drugs Army has been connected with the deaths of individuals tied to the country’s drug trade, which resulted in over 5,500 deaths in 2008 alone.

Frustrated with an inherent level of corruption in both local cartels and police forces, these groups have added a third front to what Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based publisher of global intelligence, calls Mexico’s three wars.

Coupled with an ongoing battle between drug cartels and an often-violent war between those same gangs and law enforcement agencies, the vigilantes have added a level of instability that has some law enforcement experts worried.

"When the state cannot keep control in certain areas, it leaves a vacuum for these type of organizations to step in and in many ways they become the state," Gustavo Duncan, who wrote a book on the Colombian paramilitaries, told Time magazine.

In February, struggles between cartels and law enforcement in Ciudad Juarez resulted in a series of murders, and the resignation of the city’s highest-ranking officer under a cloud of threats from local gangs.

Despite the efforts of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who took office in 2006 and deployed 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police officers to the area, drug-related violence in Mexico has surged as a result of cartel turf wars, centered mostly around border towns, especially Ciudad Juarez.

Calderon’s push to quell the violence has been hampered by local-level corruption in a number of cities and towns along the border, with some police officers accepting bribes to look the other way, as well as high-level fraud.

In the last year, two of Calderon’s anti-drug chiefs have been arrested for accepting bribes from cartels.

According to MSNBC, should U.S. Marines be cleared to travel into Mexico, they will be given special safety training and be equipped with contact information in case they encounter an emergency.

The security concerns that have led to the warning of U.S. Marines appear to have spread to tourists as well, as towns across the country have witnessed sharp decreases in business, compounded by a weakened economy.

According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, tourist-friendly towns saw the number of visitors decline anywhere from 13 to 21 percent in 2008. In Tijuana, a town specifically mentioned in the warning to the Marines, recent violence has been the “final nail in the coffin,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Since 2005, when visitors numbered 4.5 million annually, Tijuana has witnessed a dramatic decline of 90 percent, leaving the once bustling town center nearly vacant.

While not mentioned specifically in the order to Marines in California, the new rules regarding Tijuana could be related to a spate of violence that saw 200 people killed in December alone, including 37 deaths in only three days.

Response: Some exceptions to violence

Despite the growing reputation for violence and instability along the border, some towns have managed to reverse the trend, though not through traditional police and military efforts.

After reaching a peak of instability in 2006 that saw its new police chief gunned down just hours after taking office, the town of Nuevo Laredo saw their murder rate decrease from 180 to 55 in 2008.

The decline, which has resulted in a return of investment and tourism, came not from government efforts, however, but only after the two cartels that had been violently fighting for control of the area called a truce.

Deciding that neither group was truly profiting in light of the violence and lives lost, the two established a tax system that saw the Sinaloa cartel pay the Gulf cartel for use of the area’s smuggling routes.

Unfortunately, the truce also sent the Sinaloa in search of expansion further up the Rio Grande River, resulting in the current explosion of violence in Ciudad Juarez.

Opinion & Analysis: Mexico’s stability (or lack thereof)

Urging swift and comprehensive efforts to root out corruption within the Mexican government, Joel Kurtzman suggested in The Wall Street Journal that the stability of Mexico is in more danger than most realize, and could have a devastating effect on the United States should Calderon fail to get the cartels under control.

“Not only must Mexico fight its drug lords, it must do so while putting its institutional house in order,” Kurtzman wrote. “That means firing government employees who are either corrupt or not willing to do the job required to root out corruption.”

Human rights advocates stress, however, that whatever efforts are implemented to combat the cartel violence, they should be accompanied by safeguards to avoid the type of increase in mistreatment seen in Tijuana over the last year.

The town saw complaints to the Baja California Attorney General for Human Rights rise to 1,622—over 1,000 more than the year before, with most complaints aimed at state and federal authorities and police.
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