The Most Violent City on Earth Ciudad Juárez Takes on the Drug Cartels

The border town of Ciudad Juárez is the front line in the Mexican government's war against the drug cartels. Even hardened locals are shocked by the current homicide rate in what is being called the world's most violent city.

The sun is beating down as Elizabeth Padilla is laid to rest in the Garden of Eternity cemetery. She lies under a pane of glass. Her pretty face has been made up one last time.

"Open your eyes, my darling," her mother cries. "There is something I wanted to tell you." "Princess," her sister wails. "I'll never forget the way you danced and sang." "Why you?" her mother screams. "You were so good."


Photo Gallery: Casualties of the Drug Wars


Elizabeth Padilla was 29 and had been a policewoman for eight months when she died. She was killed one Wednesday just before 1.30pm while on her way to work in her dark Plymouth. Her murderers fired six 9mm bullets, hitting her in the right arm and in the head.

She was one of 14 people murdered that day in Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Just another ordinary day.

Before the white wooden casket is placed into the concrete vault, her unit reports for duty one last time, shouting out in unison, "Elizabeth Padilla, present!" Her brother, who is also a policeman, says there is no justice in this country. But he will carry out justice, he says. The squad car sirens wail a goodbye.

A City at War

Ciudad Juárez, a border town in the north of Mexico, is at war: a war the government is fighting against the drug cartels and a war the drug cartels are fighting against each other. More than 1,500 people have been murdered there this year alone. A total of 1.5 million people live in the city, which is considered the most violent in the world.

Ciudad Juárez has become a symbol for the battle Mexican President Felipe Calderón is waging against the drug cartels. And perhaps also for the fact that he is losing.

A little under three years ago, shortly after he took office, he promised he would defeat the Mexican cartels. Ever since their Colombian counterparts lost their influence in the 1990s, the Mexican gangs are now the world's most powerful. They provide cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine to the world's largest drug market, the US. It's a multi-billion-dollar business. In its annual list of the world's richest people, Forbes magazine this year placed the boss of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Guzmán, nicknamed "El Chapo," at no. 701, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion.

The "narcos" or drug barons have always been closely bound up with politics. Governors, mayors and police chiefs are their business partners; policemen, civil servants and journalists are on their pay-roll. The president can trust no one -- which is why he's waging this war using the army. He has dispatched 45,000 soldiers and federal police officers around the country.

The army is rounding up drug bosses and mayors and destroying laboratories and warehouses. Now the cartels have started to fight amongst themselves. Mexico has been a country in the grip of violence ever since. More than 13,000 people have died. Every day newspapers bear reports of kidnappings, massacres and dismembered corpses.

Unprecedented Death Toll

This is the world Luz Sosa lives in and reports from. Sosa, a police reporter for Ciudad Juárez's El Diario newspaper, is a small, slim woman of 39. Any sign of youth has long since left her angular face and been replaced by something hard.

When she starts her shift at 8am, news of the first murder of the day -- the boss of a security firm specializing in guarding restaurants -- has already come in. He was found in a Hummer, his body riddled with AK-47 bullet-holes.

Luz Sosa explains that she has been a reporter for 14 years and that there has always been violence in Ciudad Juárez. There was a time when the city was notorious for a mysterious series of brutal murders of women. But she has never seen anything like the current level of violence, she says.

She point out the Seven & Seven bar, where eight people were recently murdered. On that corner over there, the prison director was killed. A soldier was murdered in this parking lot. A man was killed in that S-Mart supermarket over there. And over there on the right, at the Onix Nightclub, three people were shot.

She drives through the city like a tour guide who has done the tour too often; she casually lists the death toll as she drives past. "Sometimes I cry in the evening," she explains. "Sometimes I have a beer. But if I let every death get to me, I'd have been finished a long time ago."

Waging War for the Cartels

Rival gangs are fighting each other on behalf of the drug cartels. The once-powerful Juárez cartel is defending its turf against the expanding Sinaloa cartel. They are fighting over control of a city which is ideally placed for getting drugs into the US.

Luz Sosa and her photographer are driving around Ciudad Juárez this morning. The city sits in the dusty heat of the desert like an ulcer, an endless maze of multi-lane highways, low-rise buildings, billboards, fast-food chains, supermarkets and maquiladoras, the factories that produce goods for the US market.


Photo Gallery: Casualties of the Drug Wars


There have been 8,000 soldiers and federal agents stationed in Juárez since March. They patrol alongside the police, standing heavily armed and in full combat gear on the beds of their pickups. The army is there to stop the killing. For a few weeks in May, it looked as if their presence might bring peace. But the murder rate is now back up to what it was before they came. "There's no strategy," Luz Sosa says.

An Invisible Enemy

Their first call this morning is to a small pink house in a residential area which is surrounded by 40 soldiers with heavy weapons. A machine gun is trained on it. The word is that the house could be a hideout; maybe hostages are being held captive there.

The men stand there in silence for perhaps 20 minutes and then withdraw. The house was empty. It is as if this brief moment demonstrates the helplessness of an army pursuing an invisible enemy.

Luz Sosa receives news of the latest murders with hisses and bleeps via police radio and her cell phone. Toward midday there is a death at a car wash and then one dead and one injured at a location about 35 kilometers (22 miles) outside the city; there's no time to go to all the crime scenes. At 2.17pm, the fourth and fifth murders are reported at the junction of Morelia and Balcón de la Nube. By the time they arrive, the street has already been cordoned off by the military police. A beige Chrysler is standing on the street corner. A dead body is lying on the road by the passenger door and on the driver's side there are six bullet holes in the window.

Luz Sosa has a couple of minutes to find out the victims' names and ages, and then she has to make her way to the next crime scene. Most of her articles don't appear in her own name, and there's much she can't write. The newspaper has decided to protect her as much as possible. Last November, her colleague Armando Rodríguez was murdered. Maybe he'd written the wrong thing, got mixed up with the wrong people. There's no way of knowing for sure.

Unsolved Crimes

Luz Sosa's job is dangerous because she has to know both sides: the police and the gangs. She is working between the front lines. There are people at City Hall, for example, who think that Luz Sosa is too passionate about what she does and that she should take more care or else it could all end badly. "They all say that to me," is all she has to say about that.

In her tiny cubicle in the open-plan editorial office, she has laid out things she's found at crime scenes. She collects them, as if they proved something: bullet casings, police tape, bloodstained rocks. She says she lives in a city where a boy is a drug addict at 17 and a sicario, or hit man, at 20, a city where you're promised 1,000 pesos -- around €50 or $75 -- for a contract killing, but are normally paid less.

It's a city where each police investigator has 150 cases to work on and where most crimes are never solved. Every now and then the army will present, as if out of nowhere, murderers confessing their guilt, though without any evidence against them. Recently three were paraded who were allegedly responsible for 211 deaths. Luz Sosa laughs. She thinks it's just a way of massaging the clear-up rate.

In Ciudad Juárez, it's hard to know what's right and what's wrong, who's good and who's bad. The Juárez cartel recently complained in a narcomanta -- a message to the public, sprayed on bedsheets and often misspelled -- that the army is actually working for their rivals, the Sinaloa cartel.

At the end of the day, Luz Sosa sits in the Pocket Billiards bar with a large beer. She works too hard. She writes six articles a day and only sleeps six hours a night. There were 11 deaths today.

What would her solution be? "There isn't one. No, wait, a nuclear bomb," she says. "And then see who's left." She roars with laughter.

A Difficult Task

The next morning, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, José Reyes Ferriz, is sitting drinking his first coffee of the day outside Fratello's restaurant. A fat little man with a florid face, he is wearing a light-brown suit with matching tie.

His six bodyguards have got the place surrounded. His armor-plated Chevrolet Suburban is right in front of the entrance. He is one of the country's best-known politicians in the fight against the drug cartels and is effectively the local representative of President Calderón's strategy.

Nevertheless, he can still manage a cheerful smirk. "The problems this city is facing were not in the job description," he explains. He does not want to say the task is impossible; he would rather describe it as difficult. But things are on the right track, he adds.

He continues that his city is in the middle of a huge crisis which is partly economic in nature -- a quarter of all industrial jobs have been lost due to the downturn in the US. Then there is also "the security crisis, which is the worst our country has ever seen."

His father was also mayor. When José Reyes Ferriz speaks of the Juárez of his childhood, it sounds a little like an upbeat episode of "The Sopranos." "Of course the cartels existed back then too," he says, "but they were local and all they did was transport drugs into the US. There were killings too, but the criminals would carry them out very carefully, so that no one would notice. One of the big gang bosses was our butcher, and when we were kids, our parents always took us to his place to eat tripe tacos. And then one day we saw him on TV being led away by federal authorities and prosecuted as the head of the Juárez cartel."

Reyes says that these relatively harmless times ended when the gangs started to sell drugs in the city itself in the early 1990s. In early January 2008, shortly after he took office, war broke out between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels as a result of the offensive by government forces. "First they killed one district police chief, then the head of police operations," he says. "The situation was getting completely out of control until the governor and I called in the army in March. The army came and they were very successful."

Caught Up in a War by Chance

José Reyes Ferriz has to leave for an appointment. He gets into the back of his SUV and it drives off, accompanied by another car with his bodyguards. As the mayor speaks, he looks out through the bulletproof glass at the streets of his city.

He talks of a success story, of how the army has hit the right targets thanks to information from the intelligence services, how they have curbed drug sales in Juárez and how the gangs have had to look for other sources of income. "They started robbing banks so we put a stop to that with the police. They started targeting ATMs so we concentrated those in one area. They started robbing shops so we sent out civil police officers to distribute alarm buttons. Then they started extorting money and kidnapping people."


Photo Gallery: Casualties of the Drug Wars


José Reyes Ferriz became a politician in the middle of a war quite by chance. He could have chosen a very different path in life. He studied in the US, speaks perfect English and has a Californian license to practice law. He is actually a university professor for international commercial law. And sometimes it seems as if the crisis his city faces is also something he thinks can be resolved with scientific methods.

He has a lot of numbers in his head which seem to back up his success stories. He says that US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told him recently that only 60 percent of the cocaine in the US now comes through Mexico, down from the previous figure of 90 percent.

But hasn't the security situation got a whole lot worse all over the country? "Everything comes at a price," he explains.

Isn't the number of deaths in his city still just as high as it was before? "It's the same and still it's different," Reyes says. Last year 95 percent of murders were committed with assault rifles whereas now 90 percent are committed with handguns. Some months ago a gunfight involving AK-47s took place in broad daylight near the café where he had breakfast. That sort of thing has stopped, he says.

The Upper Hand

The mayor says that basically the authorities now have the upper hand, at least on a structural level, even if things might still feel exactly the same to the public.

He has transformed the police this year, something he is proud of. He says that when he came to office, the police were in the cartels' pocket and refused to do their job. "The chief of police called me and said his people didn't want to go out on patrol that night because they were scared. The gangsters taunted the police over their radios, played narcocorridos, the songs of the drug cartels, and announced who they were going to kill. When the music started, my people would run."

The mayor fired the chief of police, who was caught a few weeks later trying to smuggle drugs across the border. Reyes fired half of the police officers because they were considered to be corrupt or had failed lie-detector tests. He raised their salaries from €300 a month to €650 and sent them to army camps to be trained in the use of heavy weapons. And he doubled the size of the police force to over 3,000 officers.

He thinks his police force is now so well trained that it won't be a problem if the army makes a partial withdrawal. Of course he can't guarantee that the new police officers won't also be corrupted. "But it will definitely never be the same as it was," he says.

'Tell Your Friends Not to Join Gangs'

As his car pulls up in front of Federal School 1, his bodyguards secure the parking space. One of them holds an assault rifle under a huge plastic cover. It's meant to put the public at ease.

The schoolchildren, all dressed in brown sportswear, stand beside the new swimming pool which the mayor is here to inaugurate today. This was once his own school. He has two messages for them: "Finish school. And tell your friends not to join gangs." He may confer with foreign ministers and army generals, but at the end of the day he is still mayor.

Back in the safety of his car, Reyes says that his city has lost a whole generation. Everyone in the city had always worked in the factories and no-one looked after the children. So they started taking drugs and joining gangs. Now they're the ones who are getting shot out there. He is now extending the day-care system so that the same thing won't happen again.

His template is Medellín in Colombia, a city that has gotten back to normal thanks to a tough security policy and social programs for young people.

Under Control

When you listen to him, it all sounds under control. The solutions to every problem are already in place or just around the corner. You sometimes get the impression there's a lot more separating him and his city than just a layer of bulletproof glass.

From the window of his office on the top floor of City Hall he can see the neighboring city of El Paso in Texas. The mayor explains that part of the problem lies across the border. The drugs being fought over in his city are headed for the US. And the weapons being used in the fight come from there. He talks of American women on welfare smuggling Kalashnikovs over the border for $100 a piece.

He himself crosses the border only very rarely, he states. "The opposition claims I live in El Paso. They say the guy crosses the bridge to come to work. But nobody's got a picture of me in El Paso."

But many of his officials do live in El Paso, as does everyone else from his city who can afford to. Is he perhaps too optimistic? He shakes his head. "One day you'll come back." He smiles broadly. "And you'll say, 'This guy did it.'"

'Deaths, Deaths and More Deaths'

In Ciudad Juárez's prison, Mauro Adrián Villegas, known as Blacky, leans against the wall of his cell and says that something is wrong in the city. "Deaths, deaths and more deaths," he says. It's not good, he adds.

Blacky is one of the leaders of a gang called Los Aztecas which smuggles and sells drugs and carries out killings for the Juárez cartel. It is said to have 5,000 members. Blacky, 23, is muscular and has a brutal-looking face. He is wearing sunglasses and has Aztec symbols tattooed on his upper arm.


Photo Gallery: Casualties of the Drug Wars


In his view, the blame for the violence lies with cartels from elsewhere who want to secure Juárez for themselves. And it's not just the Sinaloa cartel, he says; it's also cartels from the Gulf and even the "Familia" from faraway Michoacán. They all want the city so they can gain a toehold in the US. Their partners are local gangs such as the Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos, the Aztecas' rivals, he says.

"The cartels say to them: 'I'll bring a ton of marijuana and cocaine. Let's work together. Kill all the Aztecas and we'll give you cars, weapons and money.'" Blacky says the gangs are full of young boys, just 16, 17 or 18 years old. The only thing they know how to do is to fire an AK-47.

"Recently they went into the Seven & Seven bar," he says. "They didn't even ask who was who. Instead they just went boom, boom, boom. Everyone was dead. We've got a heart. You don't have to say to me, here's 10,000 pesos, go and kill the asshole. If he deserves it, he will die anyway."

Blacky doesn't want to go into too much detail about what his role was before he ended up in prison. He dropped out of school, worked in construction and then found a family in the Aztecas. He did "communications" for them, he says -- he always knew where everyone was and who did what. He never killed anybody, he says, explaining that everyone has their own talent.

Blacky is in prison for kidnapping and robbery because he hijacked a car with two women in it, threatened them with a weapon and forced them to drive through the city with him. He was on the run with five killers chasing him; he didn't even want anything from the women, he says. He then had to give the judges a 250,000-peso bribe so that he would give him six years, not 40, which meant him selling his houses, cars and motorbikes. He explains, "You're only worth as much as you've got."

Family Time

It's Sunday, visiting day in prison. Families are having picnics with their incarcerated fathers. There are baskets full of food and meat is sizzling on the barbecue. A band is playing and there are swings for the children.

But it wasn't always so peaceful in the prison. In March, before the army was deployed, the Aztecas massacred 20 members of the Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos. Since then the gangs have been housed in separate wings.

Blacky officially had nothing to do with the massacre. But in May rival gangs complained in a narcomanta that he is protected by some police officers in prison and that they have provided him with weapons.

Blacky says it's all peaceful here now. In the past, rival gangs had even managed to kidnap people in their wing and demand protection money, but that's all changed now, he says -- now that the prison has a new director. He's someone you can work with, Blacky says. He takes care of your concerns personally, makes sure there is paint for the walls and looks after the workshops.

The director, a cheerful plump man, is only too happy to admit that he grants all the prisoners' wishes. "So that they don't complain to their friends on the outside!" he says with a laugh. His predecessor was murdered. He says he misses his tropical home town of Veracrúz.

'My Word Is Sacred'

It's an open secret that the Aztecas are in charge of the prison. Blacky does nothing to dispel the impression that he might actually be the real prison director. "Do you know why I'm the boss here?" he asks. "My word is sacred. I look out for a lot of people." He thinks he'll soon be released. The only problem is that on the outside there is a price of 10,000 pesos on his head. He grins.

He shows his cell. In contrast to the other prisoners, he doesn't share a cell with five other men. He has his own room with a double bed and red-painted walls with a poster of the Mafia film "Scarface." He also has a laundry service.

He proudly shows off his cell phone and plays the Juárez cartel's song at full volume on his stereo. He has girls in here every night, he boasts. It's no problem getting them in from outside.

"We call it the Cherry Palace." He lies back contentedly on his bed. "Five stars." He says the Aztecas will win the war. "The others will never defeat us. They're killing each other now."

Just a few days later, a group of killers murder 17 people at a drug rehabilitation center in the city. The police are reporting that the victims were Azteca members who'd gone into hiding there. Blacky has nothing to say on the matter.

Out of the Blue

The war, which is now in its third year, goes on and it doesn't look as if President Calderón is winning it. His party has just lost an important parliamentary election and he is under pressure because of the lack of security across the whole country.

Margarita Rosales sits at the kitchen table in her modest house in the south of Ciudad Juárez. She's spread papers out on the table: the official autopsy report for her son Javier.

He disappeared out of the blue in April. Days later, one of his friends got in touch and told her that soldiers had arrested them both when they were out -- the soldiers has assumed they were Aztecas because Javier had a dragon tattoo. The troops had tortured them for two days and then left them in the desert.

Margarita Rosales found her son dead, his teeth smashed in and with bruises on his body. There were traces of electric shocks on his penis. He was wearing clothes she had never seen before.

The national human rights commission is now investigating the case, along with many others. Luz Sosa made the story public. The mayor says he has never heard of it.

Since April, Margarita Rosales has read the autopsy report over and over again and looked at the photographs of her disfigured son. She says she hopes to find some kind of answer in it. But there is none.

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