Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My trip to Ciudad Juarez: A glimpse into the hidden side of Mexico’s violence

I wrote this piece for the latest Colombia Update from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the organization I worked with in Colombia.

mural in Juarez1
A mural painted by Foro participants
When FOR staff asked if I could travel to a conference on civilian resistance to militarism in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico during the last weekend in October, I jumped at the chance to visit a country often compared to Colombia, where I recently spent two years as a human rights accompanier.

However, as my departure date grew closer, I became more and more nervous. The violence wracking Mexico, largely fueled by the country’s drug war, is magnified in the border town of Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, and often vies for the dubious title of most dangerous city in the world. So just because I spent two years in Colombia as a human rights accompanier, and knew that the mainstream news stories about Mexico I had read didn’t tell the whole story, the concentration and apparent randomness of the violence in Juarez, at least as portrayed in mainstream media, worried me.

Just days before my departure for Ciudad Juarez, for example, four maquila factory workers were killed and fifteen more injured when gunmen shot up three company buses carrying the workers home. Since 2008, the number of murders has surpassed 6,500 in a city of about 1.5 million. New York City, with a population of 8.3 million, had just 1,570 murders in a similar period.

But despite my nervousness, I had made a commitment and was determined to go. FOR asked me to attend the Foro Internaciónal Contra La Militarización y la Violencia – the International Forum Against Militarization and Violence. As U.S. government officials continue to herald the application of U.S. Colombia policy in Mexico, those of us who have worked in Colombia and strongly criticize the human rights implications of that policy are seeking to get involved in the Mexico policy discussion.

I flew from San Francisco to El Paso on Friday morning, took a cab to the Sante Fe Bridge, and crossed over the Rio Grande. I met up with my hosts on the Ciudad Juarez side, and from there they took me to the starting point of the “walk against death,” the Foro’s opening event and the eleventh such march that the Juarez organizations planning the Foro had organized. We marchers were a small group of about forty, with a few signs, a few drums, and a bullhorn. Banners carried by the marchers read “Ni un muerte mas” (Not one more death) and “Por una cultura diferente” (For a different culture). The most common chant translates roughly as “Juarez isn’t a barracks, get the army out of here!” A few of the student marchers had spray paint and where tagging phrases like “savage capitalism” and “not another death” on the empty walls that the march passed.

As we approached the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez where the Foro was to take place, a siren wailed behind us. Those of us near the front turned to check on the rear of the march, but before my brain even registered that the open-air black jeeps packed with men in balaclavas and assault weapons were federal police, four shots rang out. There was a collective gasp, and much confusion. Word began to spread that the shots had been into the air, but suddenly two more rang out. Though I was near the front of the march and the confrontation with the federal police near the back, I soon pieced together what had happened.

As the spray painters were finishing their last tag, the federal police had pulled up, yelled at the kids to stop, then fired a round of shots into the air. The kids, spooked and unarmed, turned and ran through the university gate, and that’s when the federal police shot the second round of shots.

That second round, however, was not fired into the air, but at the kids running away. One of the bullets struck sociology student Dario Álvarez Orrantia in the back from such close range that his guts spilled out where the bullet left his stomach. Seeing that they had perhaps mortally injured a student, some of the federal police jumped down from their jeeps and began to drag Dario by his leg, likely attempting to take him away to cover up what had happened. Witnesses, shaken though they were, somehow had the courage to stop the federal police from taking Dario, and instead rushed him to the emergency room in a private car.

Inside the university, tensions ran high. “He’s a compañero!” one of Dario’s classmates wailed as a friend dragged her away from the gate. Others cursed the federal police, exclaiming that the shooting served as yet another example of the violence and corruption of the federal forces sent to Juarez in February of last year in response to the city’s violence.

The federal police had taken over control of security in Juarez from the military in April of this year, ostensibly to bring more “community policing” to the city. The federal police takeover was in part in response to widespread complaints of human rights abuses by the military, which in turn had controlled the city since March 2008.

As evidenced by Dario’s shooting, the Federal Police haven’t exactly become a beloved community police force, however. Nor have they succeeded in reducing violence in the city. On just one day, October 31—my last day in Juarez—there were 10 murders.          

Despite the heated emotions caused by the shooting, Foro organizers decided that the event should continue, albeit with many changes in the schedule. Dario was a constant presence the entire weekend. “An injury to one is an injury to all," read a banner hung from one of the buildings, and participants and presenters regularly referred to the incident.

Juarez mural 2Impunity appears to reign in Mexico with as much of an iron grip as in Colombia. For example, since the early 1990s, hundreds—maybe even thousands, according to unofficial figures—of women have disappeared in the city, most never to be heard from again. Those whose bodies were recovered showed signs of torture, rape and mutilation. Despite the horrific nature and widespread occurrence of these crimes, the government has opened few investigations and barely followed through on any of them. Though media attention has waned and investigations are nearly nonexistent, the killings continue: nearly 150 women have been killed in Juarez so far in 2010.

After the experience of Dario’s shooting, along with stories told to me at the Foro, I began to realize that Mexico and Colombia have more in common than I may have realized. True, I’ve known that the U.S. has sent billions of dollars—over $1.5 billion in the last three years—for the war on drugs in Mexico, comparable to the $5 billion in Plan Colombia funding since 2000. But I hadn’t realized that human rights abuses by the Mexican military are nearly as rampant as in Colombia, or that there seems to be an institutional effort to stigmatize the defense of human rights in Mexico, as I know from personal experience exists in Colombia.

In September 2008, for example, Mexican General Felipe de Jesús Espitia accused human rights defenders of being financed by narcotraffickers to discredit the army. Such rhetoric is all-too-similar to former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe’s regular statements that human rights defenders have links with the FARC in order to discredit the army.

Though Silvia, who works at a local human rights organization, told me that Dario’s shooting was unprecedented for its directness, many Juarenses have wanted to rid the city of federal police since they arrived, not only for their excessive use of force but for extortion and complicity with drug cartels. In September the government fired 3,200 federal officers—10 percent of the total force—after widespread allegations of misconduct including corruption. Between May and September, the Human Rights Commission of Chihuahua (the state in which Juarez is located) received 60 complaints for abuse of authority. Fifty of those were against federal police for murder, theft, kidnapping and extortion.

Like in Colombia, human rights defenders have been specific targets. In January, human rights activist Josefina Reyes was killed by armed men who, before shooting her in the head, referred disparagingly to her work with NGOs. Reyes had worked to document abuses by the Mexican military. Chihuahua State Human Rights Commissioner Gustavo de la Rose Hickerson now works from exile in El Paso because he fears the same fate. Responding to Josefina’s death, de la Rosa Hickerson said that human rights defenders “are in grave risk, we become enemies of the criminals and of the Army: the cartels don’t want us to investigate their crimes and their arrangements with the police and the Army, and the soldiers don’t tolerate that we denounce their abuses.”

Nonetheless, some good seems to have resulted from Dario’s shooting. The incident has galvanized youth in Juarez to organize. Before the shooting, students in Juarez didn’t have an organization of their own. They have now formed the Asociacón Estudiantil Juarense (Juarez Student Association), and on November 2 organized several hundred marchers to denounce Dario’s shooting and protest the military and federal police presence in Juarez.

Mexican organizations aren’t the only ones demanding demilitarization of the drug war in Mexico. Dozens of U.S. and Mexican organizations have signed and are circulating a sign-on letter calling for a halt to U.S. drug war funding to Mexican security forces, which adds to more than $1.5 billion in the last three years. The organizations are circulating a sign-on letter right now demanding that the U.S. government focus instead "on attacking the causes and structures of organized crime within the United States' drug addiction and the demand for black-market drugs, international financial transactions and transborder corruption, arms trafficking--and aid Mexico in eliminating the roots causes of the spread of crime such as poverty, inequality, unemployment and the lack of opportunities for youth." You can read, and sign on to, the letter here.

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