Pubdate: Fri, 4 Sep 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: A1, Front Page, continued on page A34
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ken Ellingwood, Reporting from Mexico City

Mexico Under Siege


Gunmen Kill 18 at a Rehab Clinic, After a Week When 75 Died. Since 
Last Year, 3,000 Have Been Slain.

The deed was stomach-turning: Hooded gunmen burst into a Ciudad 
Juarez drug treatment center, gathered together those inside and 
lined them up before opening fire with semiautomatic weapons. When 
the shooting was over, 18 people were dead.

Attention focused immediately on the site of Wednesday night's 
killings: a rehab center, where addicts go to get clean, suggesting a 
new level of depravity in Mexico's drug violence.

Theories abounded: The victims were targets of rival gang members. 
They owed money to the wrong people. They were pawns in a turf war 
between cartels that has made Ciudad Juarez the scene of a bloody 
death match for 20 months.

Odds are that the slayings, like hundreds of others in the border 
city, will never be solved. The crime is a further sign of the chaos 
enveloping Ciudad Juarez and a reminder of another tragic development 
that has accompanied the flow of cocaine and other drugs through 
Mexico: a big and growing problem of local drug addiction.

What was remarkable about the rehab center killings was how 
unremarkable that sort of violence has become in the city, which has 
seen about 3,000 violent deaths since the start of last year. True, 
the attack stood out for the spot where it took place, and the toll 
was higher than the usual daily tick-tick of slayings in ones, twos, 
sixes, 10s.

In the previous week, at least 75 people were killed in the city, 
including a man who was beheaded, another suspended by handcuffs from 
a chain-link fence and four whose bodies were piled on a sidewalk.

Those killings went largely unnoticed outside Ciudad Juarez. And 
there was little fanfare last week when the Mexican army announced 
the arrests in the city of three men it said had confessed to killing 
211 people. It provided almost no details on the allegations.

The clinic killings, which President Felipe Calderon labeled 
"dramatic and terrible," underscored Mexico's emerging struggle with 
drug abuse. Mexican leaders say some of the country's escalating 
violence is connected to growing domestic consumption, which is 
sparking turf battles over local markets. Once merely a pipeline for 
narcotics bound for the United States, Mexico is now grappling with 
its own problem of drug use and addiction.

"Criminal activity went from being low profile and non-intrusive in 
the lives of citizens to being defiant and, particularly, violent," 
Calderon said in his state of the nation speech Wednesday.

"The search for markets for consumption in Mexico has spread 
practically throughout the whole country," the Mexican president 
said, defending his government's 33-month-old offensive against drug 

Government data show that addiction rates here have risen quickly as 
residents experiment with relatively cheap versions of cocaine and 
methamphetamine. It has gotten easier to find drugs on the street in 
Mexico because tighter U.S. border enforcement has made it harder to 
move them north, some experts say.

A government survey released last year found that more than 460,000 
Mexicans were addicted to drugs, a 51% increase from six years earlier.

In response, thousands of clinics have sprung up around the country, 
many of them small fly-by-night operations that are largely unregulated.

The Ciudad Juarez clinic, a converted house called El Aliviane and 
one of dozens of such centers in the city, sits in a neighborhood 
next to the border that is plagued by gangs, prostitution and drug 
use. On Thursday, the floor of the pink-painted house was coated with blood.

The attack followed assaults on at least four other rehabilitation 
clinics in the city during the last 13 months, according to news 
reports. In one attack last year, gunmen killed eight patients and wounded six.

Victor Valencia, public security secretary for the state of 
Chihuahua, said 20 people were in a meeting room when the attackers 
burst in. The gunmen ushered them into a central patio and opened 
fire with AK-47 assault rifles, he said. Investigators found at least 
80 spent casings. Two of the victims were wounded but survived.

The father of Jaime Saul Perez, a 17-year-old who was slain, said his 
son had finished eight months of rehab but continued living at the 
center to attend prayer meetings.

"He was getting out," said Jaime Perez, the father. "He promised me 
he was going to change."

Valencia, interviewed on Mexican television, said the slayings may 
have stemmed from a dispute between rival criminal gangs. El Diario 
newspaper reported that a number of the dead were members of a 
well-known gang called the Aztecas.

Alberto Islas, a Mexico City-based security specialist, theorized 
that the slayings were in retaliation for a weekend shooting that 
killed eight people at a street party in the neighboring state of Sinaloa.

"We are entering a new dimension of terrorist attacks between 
cartels," Islas said.

Others said the Ciudad Juarez attack was the latest episode of 
killings of young members of street gangs who use or sell drugs. 
Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz told The Times several months ago that the 
death toll in his city was rising fastest among youths trying to 
break into the street trade in drugs.

Tony Payan, a border scholar at the University of Texas at El Paso, 
said the victims may have owed money to suppliers or been hit by 
rivals because they remained involved in the drug trade under the 
cover of the treatment center.

"They're after particular people," Payan said. "In the end, the 
people who end up in these centers are involved in the business."

Drug treatment centers in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico draw 
some clients from street gangs that serve as foot soldiers for drug 
cartels, particularly two rival groups based in the city and in 
Sinaloa. Gangs often use the facilities as recruiting grounds, 
creating potential targets for enemies.

Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million, has for more than a year been 
the scene of the worst violence in Mexico amid the government's war 
against drug traffickers.

More than 11,000 people have been killed nationwide since Calderon 
launched the crackdown in December 2006. Most of the killing is a 
product of fighting between drug rivals over control of coveted 
routes for smuggling drugs to their main destination, the United States.

Calderon has mobilized 48,000 troops and 5,000 federal police in the 
nationwide offensive. But despite the deployment of more than 9,000 
soldiers and police to Ciudad Juarez alone, the bloodshed continues 
there, stemming from a variety of forces: rival cartels, conventional 
street gangs and small-time crooks, dirty cops and the government crackdown.

"It's a free-for-all," Payan said.

"You have a very chaotic situation." 
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