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Extreme drug violence grips Mexico border city

Two journalists visiting Ciudad Juarez for three days find that death is always just around the corner. Killings in 2008: 1,350, and counting.

December 19, 2008|By Ken Ellingwood
  • Marcos Rodriguez, holding his son, says of the violence in Tierra Nueva, his neighborhood in Ciudad Juarez, “There are shootouts in the streets. You donÂ’t go out on the streets at night and you donÂ’t let your children out.”
Marcos Rodriguez, holding his son, says of the violence in Tierra Nueva,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — The two victims rest at the same 45-degree angle, embraced by seat belts that at this moment seem an odd precaution, given the manner of death.

Gunmen had pulled alongside the forest-green Chevy Tahoe on a gritty downtown street and, in broad daylight, pumped 52 shots into where the bodies now lean.

Onlookers, at least 125 of them, press wordlessly against yellow police tape. About 50 olive-clad Mexican soldiers and blue-uniformed federal police take up positions around the perimeter, though it is unclear against what.

Ghostly quiet gives way to the beating blades of a police helicopter.

"That's 12 today?" a young man standing nearby asks, in the matter-of-fact tone of a baseball fan confirming the number of strikeouts. "Ten," I answer, meaning that 10 people have been slain in Ciudad Juarez so far on this chilly Tuesday. It is barely 3 in the afternoon. Seven more people will die later, bringing the day's total to 17 in the city of 1.3 million residents.

The young man nods. Around us, amid cut-rate dentist offices and bars with names like Club Safari, the looky-loos keep their rapt silence as workers from the coroner's office wrestle the newest victims from their car.

It is a time of extraordinary violence all over Mexico. Feuding drug-trafficking groups and the federal government's military crackdown against organized crime have left 5,376 dead this year.

Nowhere has the bloodletting been worse than in Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling border city that has registered more than 1,350 slayings in 2008, about a fourth of the country's total. The city's main drug-smuggling group, known as the Juarez cartel, is battling with rival traffickers from the northwestern state of Sinaloa for a piece of the lucrative drug trade into the U.S.

The gangland-style violence has left almost no corner of Ciudad Juarez untouched. Drug-related slayings take place in houses, restaurants and bars, at playgrounds and children's parties, and in car-to-car ambushes.

The dead, mostly little-known foot soldiers but also innocents caught in the crossfire, make up a ceaseless procession of clients for harried coroner's workers and daily fodder for the so-called red pages of local newspapers.

The killings here are carried out in a style best described as baroque, with bodies hung headless from bridges, stuffed upside down in giant stew pots, lined up next to a school's playing field. Often, they are accompanied by taunting, handwritten messages, the hit man's equivalent of an end-zone dance.

In a country that each month finds new ways to scare itself with violence, Ciudad Juarez has become emblematic of how nasty things can get.

A three-day visit by a pair of Times journalists to the rough-and-tumble factory town, across the border from El Paso, Texas, reveals a fear-struck place where most residents assume -- often correctly -- that the police are crooked and where the government's control of the streets appears tenuous at best.

In the Ciudad Juarez of 2008, you don't have to wait long for the next casualty.

Beyond a dreary, low-rise landscape of AutoZone outlets, Bip Bip convenience stores and the boxy assembly factories known as maquiladoras, lie the "laboratories." Here, in an antiseptic complex of buildings in southeastern Juarez, the results of the city's daily carnage come home. Bodies and bullets are examined, measured, tallied, matched, bagged and, occasionally, employed to solve crimes.

It is Monday. The man in charge of the state of Chihuahua's crime analysis and forensics unit here is Hector Hawley Morelos, an affable 39-year-old investigator with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and a black goatee.

Hawley, a native juarense, ran a hamburger-and-burrito restaurant for 10 years before spotting a newspaper advertisement offering classes for crime investigation. His training led to a night-shift gig, then to the homicide squad and the forensics post here.

Hawley investigated some of the hundreds of slayings of women that last put Ciudad Juarez on the map as an emblem of brutal violence. More than 300 women were killed and dumped in dusty lots around the city from 1993 to 2006, murders that remain largely a mystery.

The $6-million, high-tech laboratory complex that Hawley oversees is a legacy of those killings. After an outcry over what was widely viewed as a slipshod investigation, international donors chipped in to help Chihuahua build an unusually well-equipped forensics operation. It boasts a ballistics lab, chemical and genetic testing, DNA analysis and a morgue capable of storing nearly 100 bodies.

The lab facilities opened a year and a half ago, in time for the unexpected wave of drug killings that has swamped Hawley and the 110 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, or peritos, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state.

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