Pubdate: Mon, 28 Dec 2009
Source: News Tribune, The (Tacoma, WA)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Authors: William Booth and Steve Fainaru; The Washington Post


Mexico: U.S.-Backed Strategy for Ciudad Juarez Under Scrutiny

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - Senior Mexican officials have begun a 
sweeping review of the military's two-year occupation of this 
dangerous border city, concluding that the U.S.-backed deployment of 
thousands of soldiers against drug traffickers has failed to control 
the violence and crime, according to officials in both countries.

The multi-agency review, which has not been made public, represents a 
"serious reassessment" of President Felipe Calderon's anti-narcotics 
strategy and reflects growing alarm that Juarez, across from El Paso, 
has descended into lawlessness, U.S. officials familiar with the process said.

The war on Mexico's powerful drug cartels has been the defining 
policy of Calderon's administration, involving unprecedented 
cooperation with American political and law enforcement authorities. 
Failure in a high-profile battleground such as Ciudad Juarez would 
represent a major defeat for Calderon and for U.S. officials 
determined to curb the multibillion-dollar flow of drugs across the border.

If the Army Can't Help ...

"There is an almost unanimous consensus in the city that the strategy 
hasn't worked," said Hugo Almada, a sociology professor at the 
Autonomous University of Juarez who earlier this month organized a 
peace march of more than 3,000 people.

"The most terrifying question that everyone asks is, If the army 
comes in and can't control the situation, what happens to us now?" Almada said.

Calderon declared Juarez the "tip of the spear" in the fight against 
the ultra-violent drug cartels, and it is here that the Mexican 
president has most militarized the fight. Calderon sent 10,000 
soldiers and federal agents into the city of 1.3 million to bolster 
the local police and replace corrupt or incompetent elements. This 
month, for the first time in Mexico, the government distributed 
German-made assault rifles that fire up to 750 rounds a minute to 
hundreds of newly trained municipal police officers, also the first 
to receive urban combat training by the army.

But criminal outfits fighting over Juarez have overwhelmed even 
military authorities in this crucial port of entry into the world's 
largest market for illegal narcotics. With more than 2,500 homicides, 
Juarez accounts for more than one-third of the 6,000 drug-related 
murders in Mexico this year; since April, when a surge of federal 
troops brought a brief lull in the death toll, the city has resumed a 
pace of eight to 10 murders a day. The violence has also spilled over 
into the suburban neighborhoods of El Paso.

Countless Victims

The city estimates that the violence has created 7,000 orphans and 
displaced 100,000 people, many of whom have fled across the Rio 
Grande to Texas. Most of the members of the business and political 
elite of Juarez, including the mayor, now either sleep or maintain a 
second home in El Paso. The chief human rights advocate also 
retreated across the river.

Prosecutors, professors, attorneys, doctors, executives and 
journalists have been assassinated. Victims also include a growing 
number of small-shop owners because extortion is rampant; last week 
an elderly woman selling burritos at a busy intersection near the 
tourist zone was shot dead.

Mexican officials will weigh why the military has failed to stem the 
violence and what new options may be available. The soldiers have 
proved to be a blunt instrument; they lack experience handling 
criminal investigations and frequently have been accused of human 
rights abuses. Calderon has said the military will return to its 
barracks when federal and local police officers are ready, but 
reforms have moved slowly and may be years away, U.S. and Mexican 
officials caution.

There is now widespread debate over the way forward in Juarez, with 
some officials and civic leaders proposing additional troops and 
others a complete withdrawal. The head of the powerful business 
organization that represents the local assembly factories, or 
maquiladoras, recently called for the United Nations to send 
blue-helmeted peacekeeping soldiers to Juarez.

The new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, abruptly canceled 
a fact-finding trip to Juarez this month after learning of the 
Mexican government's policy review. U.S. officials said they are 
waiting to learn whether the discussions will lead to a shift in 
Calderon's military-led strategy, which has come under fire even from 
members of his own party.

The United States backed that strategy under the 2007 Merida 
Initiative, signed by President George W. Bush. The bulk of the $1.4 
billion aid package funds Black Hawk and Bell 412 helicopters, CASA 
CN-235 surveillance planes, police training and inspection equipment.

'Get to the Children'

But with the three-year initiative due to expire next year, U.S. 
officials have indicated that they plan to move from military 
assistance to a "softer" approach focusing on issues such as 
institution building, judicial reform and support programs aimed at 
impoverished youths like those who are recruited by the thousands 
into criminal gangs. Two-thirds of those killed violently in Juarez 
are between 14 and 24 years old.

"If you can get to the children, you are not just giving assistance, 
you are contributing in the development of a person, of the society," 
said John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.

Calderon has resisted calls to alter his military strategy, saying it 
would be tantamount to surrender. But a growing chorus of civic 
leaders and lawmakers here has urged the government to focus on the 
roots of drug trafficking rather than efforts to eradicate the cartel 
leaders, who draw their power from billions of dollars in drug sales 
in the United States. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake