Pubdate: Fri, 1 Jan 2010
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2010 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Author: Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News


CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - In 2009, the hit men didn't take a break, not 
even for holidays.

The trail of blood left by the gun-toting sicarios stains the entire 
city, but especially here in Barrio Azul, where families grieve for 
children lost.

"In this block alone, all the teens were either killed or 
disappeared," said Pedro Reyna Diaz, 46, whose two stepsons were 
among those swept up in the drug cartel warfare waged in this 
neglected neighborhood. "An entire generation was lost."

As the Mexican and U.S. governments prepare to shift their strategy 
in the drug war, from military and police support to a "softer" 
approach emphasizing jobs and education, neighborhoods like Barrio 
Azul are prime candidates for the new effort. The idea is to lessen 
the lucrative lure of drug cartels by creating jobs and educational 
opportunities in vulnerable areas, much like efforts in Afghanistan 
and Colombia.

It's in neighborhoods such as Barrio Azul where President Felipe 
Calderon's war could be won or lost.

"What struck me most after the short time I was in Juarez was not the 
threat of the violence, but what occurs if you lose a whole 
generation," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said after a tour of Juarez.

He and a senior Obama administration official both indicated in 
interviews that the U.S. and Mexico plan to focus less on a military 
response to drug violence and more on rooting out the problems that 
have left generations of Mexico's young vulnerable to unscrupulous 
cartel members.

Since January 2008, Ciudad Juarez has been a city on the brink - at 
the center of Mexico's war against violent drug cartels.

In two years, more than 4,200 people have been killed in this city of 
1.5 million people across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Two of 
Mexico's most powerful cartels are battling for control of the city, 
a gateway for drugs going to the U.S. as well as a growing domestic 
drug market.

In 2009, the city's 173 slayings for every 100,000 residents made it, 
by some estimates, the murder capital of the Americas, if not the 
world. Baghdad had 48 violent deaths per 100,000 residents, according 
to the Citizens' Council for Public Security, a nongovernmental 
organization in Mexico City. Dallas had about 14.

'Burning Everything'

Overall, more than 15,000 people have been killed in drug-related 
violence across Mexico since December 2006, when Calderon began 
deploying security forces to several troubled regions of the country, 
including 7,000 soldiers and 2,000 federal police in Juarez.

In the new year, the military is expected to gradually pull out and 
be replaced by a newly trained Juarez police force and federal 
agents. But few believe the violence will end.

"You hear it on the streets that capos would rather set the city on 
fire than give an inch to their rivals," said Alfredo Quijano, editor 
of the newspaper Norte de Ciudad Juarez. "And that's literally what 
they're doing, setting the city on fire, burning everything from 
vehicles to businesses, homes, to even people alive."

Slums such as Barrio Azul represent fertile ground for recruiting 
cartel foot soldiers. The neighborhood is a microcosm of the city's 
social ills, with poverty and rampant crime.

In recent years, cartels have recruited teens on the U.S. side as 
well, in cities including El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville. Kids grow 
up to become thugs, and many end up in cheap tin coffins.

In Barrio Azul, an area encompassing a couple of dozen run-down 
blocks, residents said in interviews that they attended as many as 30 
neighborhood funerals in the past year, mostly for teens. One of 
them, Eduardo Villalobos, 16, was among nine young men and one woman 
gunned down at a rehab center known as Annex of Life.

"He had problems, but he was a good son trying to turn his life 
around," said his mother, Dionicia Villalobos Jacquez, 42. "He 
deserved a second chance at a job, at an education."

The year before, as cartel violence spiked, Villalobos' 19-year-old 
son, Alberto, was gunned down. She now keeps her three younger 
children at home.

"We'll keep losing kids unless we can provide them with jobs, an 
education, anything to keep them away from trafficking drugs or 
killing people," said Reyna, stepdad to the two Villalobos boys.

Desolation and Despair

Today, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, freshly painted on the 
side of a Barrio Azul home, overlooks nearly deserted dirt streets.

The neighborhood is desolate, with stray dogs, piles of trash, and 
abandoned homes marked with graffiti. A young boy pretends he's a hit 
man, waving a toy gun

"It's all gone," Reyna said, "a whole life disappeared, as people 
died or fled."

Two blocks away, young kids play soccer on an unpaved street, 
stirring dust clouds as they kick the ball, someone's Christmas gift. 
Parents and siblings keep a close eye on them. Among them is Alma 
Nayeli Villegas, 18, watching from behind a white steel fence. Others 
warm themselves over open fires outdoors.

"The youth are the most vulnerable, easy prey," Villegas says as she 
watches her 13-year-old brother, Juan de Dios, a brown rosary 
dangling from his neck.

Is he religious?

"No, he just wants to believe in something," she says, "especially 
after what happened to our neighborhood this year. He wants to 
believe that someone or something will protect him from the evil."

Heading North

Around the corner is Abarrotes Oralia, the only grocery store still 
open in the neighborhood. Owner Oralia Rocha, 56, says her 
competition - three stores and a tortilleria - disappeared after they 
failed to pay the $1,000 monthly extortion fee. She, too, shut down 
for three weeks and then reopened under an "arrangement" that she 
refuses to discuss for fear of reprisal.

Rocha says that aside from jobs and schools, what residents need most 
"is renewed faith in our community, in ourselves."

But thousands of people have fled neighborhoods like Barrio Azul for 
El Paso or other U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Albuquerque, 
N.M., and Dallas-Fort Worth. They include the family of Ricardo 
Bolivar, 42, who sells pirated CDs and DVDs near the international bridge.

A few months ago he sent his wife, Angelica, and four children to 
live in North Texas, joining their oldest son, 19-year-old Richie, 
who was born in Fort Worth. Bolivar hopes that Richie, as a U.S. 
citizen, can "fix our papers so we can all live in Texas."

"Mexico," he says, "is no longer a place for young kids." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake