“Operation Chihuahua Plus”: A textbook case of Drug War failure?
by Frontera NorteSur
Posted on June 19, 2009
More than one year after Mexican soldiers were deployed in Ciudad Juarez to combat organized crime and drug trafficking, the Calderon administration’s military strategy is in crisis. Killings continue at the same or worse rate as last year, and drugs continue circulating on both sides of the border.
Alarmed by infringements on civil liberties and human rights abuses, growing numbers of Mexican citizens are demanding the modification or curtailment of military operations on the streets. And day by day, the gulf widens between sectors of Mexican society and the Obama administration and U.S. Congress, which are enthusiastically backing the Mexican government’s approach to the organized crime and drug problems.
On June 8, the legislative group of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the Chihuahua State Congress approved a resolution requesting that General Felipe de Jesus Espitia Hernandez, commander of the anti-drug campaign Operation Chihuahua Together, instruct his troops to not enter private residences without a legal warrant. The PRI is the governing party in both Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua.
Citizen complaints against soldiers in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Chihuahua have multiplied since last year. Numerous allegations of torture, murder, forced disappearance, robbery, and general mayhem have been documented by different agencies and the local press. The official Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission is reportedly looking into 2,500 alleged torture cases involving military personnel and federal police assigned to Operation Chihuahua Together.
The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) recently issued its first recommendations from Ciudad Juarez complaints presented in 2008. The first case involved 22 state police officers who were detained, while the second one concerned three residents of a subdivision who alleged they were robbed and treated badly by soldiers. In both instance, the CNDH recommended that victims be compensated for damages, that legal investigations be initiated, that administrative sanctions be levied against responsible parties, and that a memo be sent to military personnel reminding them to respect human rights. The CNDH’s recommendations can be accepted or rejected by recipient institutions.
Signs exist the army is beginning to hear the critics -- at least partially.
Quoting the Mexican Defense Ministry, the Mexico City-based Center for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET) reported this week that the armed forces have sanctioned five enlisted men and one officer for a June 5 incident in which El Diario photographer Jose Luis Gonzalez was pushed and hit by soldiers following a traffic accident Gonzalez was attempting to cover. Soldiers and federal police have been blamed for numerous accidents in recent months. A second photographer, Ernesto Rodriguez of the PM newspaper, had his equipment taken by soldiers. According to CEPET, the five responsible soldiers are serving 15 days of in-house military arrest; the officer got a lighter sentence of eight days.
Nonetheless, there is still no public word from the military hierarchy about two subsequent incidents, one on June 11 and the other last weekend, in which reporters and videographers for the Channel 44 and Channel 2 television stations, respectively, were physically prevented by soldiers and federal police from filming the scenes of a multiple homicide at the Las Palmas Motel and the excavation of a residential property where bodies were supposedly buried.
Commenting on the recent incidents pitting soldiers against reporters, Ciudad Juarez columnist Don Mirone contended that the latest obstructions to practicing journalism follow a long series of attacks on press freedom in the borderland.
“The situation is grave,” Don Mirone wrote. “For many years, the exercise of journalism on this border has been the object of aggression by part of organized crime and by part of the same municipal and state authorities.”
The army has its defenders in Ciudad Juarez. Juan Velazquez, a prominent criminal attorney with a military background, told the local press no crime fighting alternative existed at the moment.
“Who else could be entrusted with fighting an out-of-control and ferocious delinquency like the one we have?” Velazquez responded to an interviewer.
Nationally, the Mexican army’s drug war deployment continues enjoying public support, according to the latest poll announced by the non-governmental group Mexico United against Delinquency. The group reported that 80 percent of respondents supported the use of the army against organized crime. Paradoxically, 76 percent of respondents said the overall public safety situation is worse today than one year ago, while only 48 percent considered anti-drug operations a success.
In Ciudad Juarez, soldiers are everywhere. Accompanying transit officers, who are notorious for skimming bribes from hapless drivers, heavily-armed soldiers now even act as traffic cops. Drivers and walkers entering Ciudad Juarez from El Paso are subject to searches by Mexican soldiers stationed at international bridges, and pedestrians returning to El Paso could be forced to endure a bag search by more Mexican soldiers who, for all intents and purposes, are now acting as U.S. border guards.
On the U.S. side, the Mexican military campaign is complemented by new Department of Homeland Security operations that ultimately imply questioning and searching millions of people. For example, travelers headed into Mexico on one of the international bridges could be requested to produce identification and asked questions about carrying cash and weapons. In the opposite direction, travelers headed north or west might run into a phalanx of curious U.S. Border Patrol agents at El Paso’s Greyhound Bus Station, as well as more questioning and even dog-sniffing at checkpoints in New Mexico.
A day visitor to Ciudad Juarez could be forced to endure as many as five revisions from Mexican and U.S. government agents before returning home.
Perhaps not surprisingly, long lines await returning pedestrians at the Paso del Norte (Santa Fe) Bridge, which just celebrated a 900-day, $26 million renovation. On two recent weekend days, however, 45-minute waits were the rule even outside peak crossing times, and the number of visible inspectors, two to seven at a time, was pretty much the same number employed during much of the Bush era when crossings grew more cumbersome.
On Sunday (June 14) an older woman fainted in line as temperatures outside nudged 100 degrees.
A dynamic of criminalization and militarization could be costing the border economy dearly. On a recent Sunday afternoon, formerly a popular time for visitors from the U.S., a mere handful of tables were occupied at the main tourist market, many shops on Avenida Juarez stood empty and a group of barmen was the only visible life inside a once-hopping tourist bar.
Mexico City and Washington decided to tighten the vise on border travel at the very same time tens of thousands of people were without work in Ciudad Juarez’s maquiladora industry and the economy sputtered and crashed.
Until now, there is little evidence the security measures implemented by the Calderon and Obama administrations are seriously undermining their stated targets: Gangland violence and drug trafficking.
With nearly 800 murders tallied this year so far, the violence in Ciudad Juarez matches and will possibly even surpass the record blood-letting last year. Perhaps more posters than ever of disappeared young women (and a growing number of men, too) plaster the downtown section of the city, while a message scrawled on an exterior fence of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez campus, “Todos Somos Manuel,” “We are all Manuel,” cries for justice in the killing of university professor Manuel Arroyo, whose unsolved murder last month became another entry in the Hall of Impunity.
A recent story in El Diario de El Paso newspaper reported that drugs are widely available in a section of the U.S. city known for its seedy bars and used car dealerships. According to the newspaper, $2 marijuana cigarettes and $10 cocaine hits are easily obtainable, despite notable drug seizures on the border.
“Buying and selling continue without problems,” said one purported drug retailer.
Elsewhere, drug traffickers continue to display the innovation that has characterized the business for decades. Capable of carrying 200 pounds of marijuana or cocaine, ultra-light planes that can fly low and avoid radar detection are reportedly in vogue, as are frozen shark carcasses, including the ones confiscated this week by the Mexican navy that contained nearly a ton of coke.
Interestingly, the current drug war paradigm was the object of criticism in a monograph posted last month on the website of the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. Criticizing the focus on supply-side, law-enforcement strategies promulgated by the U.S. and Mexican governments, author Hal Brands contended that the anti-drug Merida Initiative launched by the two nations was unfolding at the expense of drug abuse prevention and treatment programs. While still supporting prohibition, Brands underscored the absence of effective anti-corruption and anti-money laundering initiatives.
Citing the failure of drug crop eradication programs in Colombia, Brands noted the persistence of poverty in Mexico, the gutting of social programs, the lack of economic and social development alternatives, and the uncontrolled rise in the cost of living south of the border as other important factors needing consideration. The drug dilemma is a complex one, Brands concluded, and a problem that requires comprehensive solutions.
-- Milenio TV, June 18, 2009.
-- La Jornada, June 18, 2009. Article by Jesús Aranda.
-- El Diario de El Paso, June 14, 15 and 16, 2009. Articles by Martin Orquiz, Luz del Carmen Sosa, Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, Notimex, and editorial staff.
-- Norte, June 14, 2009. Articles by Beatriz Corral Iglesias, Claudia Sanchez, Luis C. Ortega, and editorial staff.
-- CEPET, June 15 and 16, 2009. Press releases.
-- Juarez-El Paso Today, June 2009.
-- Semanario, May 25, 2009. Article by Rodrigo Borja.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico
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Art from the exhibit The Disappeared/Los Desaparecidos, up now at various locations
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