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Juarez massacre may mark a turning for Mexico

The January killing of 15 young people has created a furor and left some wondering whether it's a tipping point, a moment when Mexicans overcame their fear and fatalism to confront the violence.

February 19, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson

Reporting from Mexico City — The slaughter last month of at least 15 young people with no apparent criminal ties has galvanized the Mexican public in ways not seen here in more than three years of bloody drug warfare and has forced the government to enact long-resisted policy changes to combat violence.

Some in Mexico are wondering whether this is their nation's tipping point, a moment when public outrage that has bubbled along finally overcomes the fear and fatalism that largely silenced or intimidated Mexican society.

Led by parents of the victims in the Jan. 31 massacre, citizens of Ciudad Juarez have marched, protested, challenged Mexican President Felipe Calderon and demanded a new strategy for reducing the number of the gruesome crimes that have made their city one of the world's deadliest. Joining grieving parents in their wrath have been civic leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians, educators and priests.

"For the very, very first time, people, civil society as a whole, have come together and decided, this is enough," said Marcos Fastlicht, a prominent Mexico City businessman who heads an organization dedicated to the uphill task of promoting citizen participation in crime-fighting. "And they've said that to Calderon . . . to his ministers . . . that they are not going to take any more" neglect and broken promises.

Calderon, an often aloof leader seemingly impervious to criticism, has responded by apparently heeding the complaints and making the remarkable concession that his military-led offensive against drug cartels has proved insufficient.

He traveled to Ciudad Juarez twice in less than a week, amid noisy street demonstrations demanding that he resign and with key Cabinet ministers in tow, and received long litanies of grievances from the beleaguered public. He quietly took a tongue-lashing from a middle-aged maquiladora worker, mother of two of the teenagers killed in the massacre, who confronted him at a town meeting.

"President, I cannot welcome you here," Luz Maria Davila started, voice raised; Calderon waved off an aide who moved to whisk Davila away. "We are living the consequences of a war we did not ask for."

It was a highly unusual rebuke from a humble woman in a country that retains paternalistic tendencies and demands a certain reverence for presidential figures.

Almost since its inception when Calderon took office in December 2006, the president's anti-drug policy has been roundly criticized for emphasizing military and police repression and largely ignoring other components of the multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking industry.

Poverty and lack of opportunity send thousands into the ranks of cartel foot soldiers in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso. The Mexican city became the extreme, terror-gripped example of the policy's shortcomings.

Even as 10,000 army troops and federal police officers were deployed, Ciudad Juarez last year had a homicide about every three hours on average, and up to half a million residents fled, a quarter of the population. As early as last summer, authorities told The Times they were planning to make changes in the strategy for combating organized crime in the troubled city, a pledge made throughout the rest of the year, but never put into action.

Calderon has now been forced to offer a mea culpa and take action. Embracing the citizens' slogan, "We are all Juarez," he acknowledged that his strategy had neglected socioeconomic factors and established a $50-million fund for new schools, clinics and job-creation programs, while also promising to assign a large contingent of judicial investigators to the city.

"By hearing the demands and the indignation directly," political analyst Alfonso Zarate in Mexico City said, Calderon "has an opportunity to rectify and to act differently."

Skeptics accuse Calderon of moving now because it's an election year. Both the governorship of Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, and the mayor's post in the city are held by Calderon's chief rival party and are up for grabs in voting scheduled in July.

Whatever his electoral calculations, however, Calderon is also keenly aware of the Ciudad Juarez disaster's corrosive political damage to his government, an erosion that goes far beyond the screaming crowds in the border city's streets.

A poll out this week showed a dramatic decline nationwide in support for Calderon's government. An overwhelming majority said violent crime had increased substantially in the last six months, and solidly half the nation said the president's war on drug cartels was failing. The poll by Buendia & Laredo surveyed 1,000 people in face-to-face interviews and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

And there has been a busy confluence of voices of criticism from segments of society, such as the Roman Catholic Church, that had remained largely on the sidelines.

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