Pubdate: Sat, 22 May 2010
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Nicholas Casey


CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico- Authorities battling drug traffickers in this 
violent border city have begun to suspect that their efforts to 
impede the flow of drugs into the U.S. has fostered demand-and turf 
wars-on their own territory.

Ciudad Juarez, which lies across the border from El Paso, Texas, has 
become ground zero in Mexico's fight against its powerful crime 
organizations. Drugs from methamphetamines to ecstasy funnel through 
the border bridge here on their way to U.S. cities. Around 10,000 
Mexican federal police and military now patrol the streets to stanch the flow.

In the case of marijuana, for example, U.S. and Mexican authorities 
agree that the crackdown made a dent on what was coming across the 
border. After President Felipe Calderon ordered security forces to 
the area two years ago, yearly seizures of marijuana in the New 
Mexico and Texas area near Ciudad Juarez fell by 58% from 2007, 
according to U.S. authorities. Cocaine sales in that region fell in 
2008 from 2007, though made a resurgence again in 2009.

Yet authorities also see an unintended result of the crackdown: 
Traffickers, unable to get some drugs to Americans, began to sell 
them in Ciudad Juarez. That has left the city of 1.3 million 
people-once mainly a transit center for drugs-with a pattern of 
mounting crime similar to that of the U.S. cities where drugs are 
headed, namely killings at street corners between gangs vying to be 
the town's principal drug dealers. Even in cases when drugs begin 
flowing back across the border into the U.S. again, some amount 
remains destined for local consumers.

"What we're seeing is a retail market here in the city," says Mayor 
Jose Reyes Ferriz, who has run the city since 2007 and was there when 
the soldiers arrived. "The killings you're seeing now are one gang 
going after another to sell [drugs] here."

The trend hasn't gone unnoticed across the border. "What you have to 
understand is that if drug traffickers can't get cocaine across the 
border, rather than having it sit in a warehouse where they risk 
losing it, they'll distribute it locally," says Joseph Arabit, who 
heads the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's operation in El Paso.

Signs of trouble in Ciudad Juarez emerged last year, though local 
authorities say the cause and effect weren't easy to correlate initially.

In response to rising violence between drug cartels over cross-border 
trade in Ciudad Juarez, President Calderon sent 5,000 more soldiers 
into the city in early 2009. Seizures of marijuana continued to fall, 
as did homicide rates, which dropped from about nine a day earlier in 
the year to two per day, according to estimates by the city. City 
leaders were cautiously optimistic; for a short time, violence in 
Ciudad Juarez appeared to have been calmed.

Then homicide rates suddenly skyrocketed, to 12 a day, the highest 
level in the city's history. The year ended 2009 with about 2,750 
drug-related homicides, up from 1,600 the year before.

"We didn't understand what was going on," says Mr. Reyes, the mayor.

It seemed that drug organizations resumed their killings after 
figuring out the new patterns of army and police patrolling. But that 
didn't explain why homicides were surpassing original levels.

Authorities now believe two large local gangs, known as Barrio Azteca 
and Los Mexicles, began to focus on selling the surplus drugs that 
didn't get across the border to Ciudad Juarez residents. The gangs, 
already fighting in the cross-border trade, were engaging in local 
turf disputes to decide who controlled street corners in the city.

Some in Ciudad Juarez fear the cross-border crackdown has also led to 
spikes in other crimes here from kidnappings to carjackings, as some 
drug traffickers got pushed out of the business completely. "People 
needed a way to support themselves," says Oscar Cantu, the publisher 
of the daily newspaper El Norte. "Marijuana was like the tortilla in 
Juarez"-the staple that supports the economy.

Cocaine offers a slightly different but equally troubling case. While 
authorities had some success between 2007 and 2008 in reducing its 
passage across the border, in 2009 U.S. authorities seized twice the 
amount seized in 2007, indicating smugglers were circumventing blockades.

Yet consumption of cocaine in Ciudad Juarez isn't believed to have 
decreased either; as the majority continues on into the U.S., a 
portion is still sold in the city, authorities believe. One reason: 
Selling the drug locally is quicker and easier, even if the profits 
are smaller.

Mr. Reyes says the jump in violence may be a necessary step in 
exorcising the city of cross-border drug trafficking. "These are 
collateral problems," he says. "But you can solve these collateral 
problems." The city is in the process of replacing and retraining 
much of its local police force.

Mexican federal officials say there are signs the violence in Ciudad 
Juarez, which has claimed 996 lives so far this year, has peaked.

Analysts say any such hopes are probably premature. One reason: Blood 
spilled by this year's turf wars won't be forgotten quickly, gang 
members say, meaning the fighting in Ciudad Juarez could continue 
even if the government succeeds in reducing drug sales and transit.

"The Aztecas have killed our families, friends and kids," says 
Nicolas Sosa, a leader of a Ciudad Juarez gang called The Artistic 
Assassins, in a jailhouse interview. Mr. Sosa said he didn't see an 
end to the violence anytime soon.
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