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July 16, 2008 -- Los Angeles Times (CA)

Mexican Citizens in Cross Hairs of Drug War Mayhem

Mexico Under Siege: A Girl's Violent Death Strikes a Nerve in a Chaotic Border Town.

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- Scooped up by gunmen as she walked near her home, 12-year-old Alexia Moreno hardly had a chance. The gangsters were driving straight into a shootout. Within minutes, she was dead, shot in the head as she cowered in the back seat.

It was two weeks before her sixth-grade graduation.

Alexia's death in a city so accustomed to death struck a nerve because she was, in this city tortured by killings, broad-daylight gun battles and rampant kidnappings, an innocent victim.

That description isn't redundant in a country in the grip of a raging drug war: The vast majority of the thousands of dead are thought to have some connection to the cartels. They have been hired hit men, drug runners, corrupt police officers.

Suddenly, however, this rough-and-tumble town and other Mexican cities have become citadels of fear even for many who thought they were safe from the mayhem: a pregnant woman washing her car, a 4-year-old, a father and son in their home. And Alexia, who was killed last month.

"Over the years you get used to the violence, but then, in 10 minutes, everything changes," said Alexia's aunt, Cecilia Rodriguez, 37.

In the last few days, the neighboring state of Sinaloa has been shocked by a wave of violence that has taken the lives of many innocents, including another 12-year-old girl. Authorities said Tuesday that more than 1,200 additional federal police were deployed to Sinaloa as part of a nationwide government offensive involving about 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police officers.

Ciudad Juarez has become a singular symbol of Mexico's drug war, a concentration of everything that can go wrong. About 3,000 troops of the Mexican army arrived here after President Felipe Calderon launched an all-out offensive against drug traffickers, yet the killings have soared.

Gun battles interrupt traffic in the middle of the day along Triumph of the Republic Boulevard and the city's other main drags; corpses, sometimes mutilated or headless, turn up at shopping centers and fast-food joints; hospitals come under machine-gun fire. Ominous voices break into emergency-frequency radio traffic, warning paramedics not to pick up bodies, journalists not to approach the scene.

Nearly a third of Mexico's drug-related killings in this record year have been registered in Juarez and its surroundings.

Take last month, for example: In one not particularly unusual weekend, 17 people, including a journalist, were killed; the sister-in-law of a U.S. congressman was kidnapped; and a dozen businesses were set ablaze after receiving threats.

The month before that, Juarez's top police commander resigned and fled after his second- and third-in-command were assassinated along with a dozen or so other officers, some named on a hit list. In a setback to basic democracy, civilian authorities have essentially been supplanted by the army. Retired artillery officer Roberto Orduna Cruz took over public security, pledging tough measures to crack down on violent organized crime.

In Juarez, as in much of Mexico, the drug war boils down to a turf battle between rival drug gangs, often referred to as cartels. Here, one faction led by the notorious Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from the neighboring state of Sinaloa is trying to wrest control from the consortium of gangs that has traditionally dominated the drug trade, the so-called Juarez cartel.

Both groups have well-armed private armies that mercilessly eliminate enemies and potential impediments such as police detectives. Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz says he believes people can still live a normal life in Juarez, and that most residents support the government's actions. But he also evinces the kind of resigned fatalism that breeds despair. The drug war, he suggests, will end only when both sides have ended up killing each other.

"It is more probable that a decision by the two groups ends this than does intervention by the government," Reyes said in an interview. Like many residents of Juarez, he also maintains a home across the border in El Paso.

Reyes acknowledged that the performance of the police has not inspired confidence. Last year's police commander was arrested in February on charges of attempting to smuggle a ton of marijuana into the U.S. through El Paso. He pleaded guilty in a U.S. court. Reyes said the police are being overhauled and screened in an effort to remove the corrupt and the drug users among them.

Up to 20% of the police force is corrupt and will be fired, said a senior official who requested anonymity because the purge is ongoing.

It is true, as the mayor insists, that the number of "innocent victims" is minuscule in the grand scale of things, which is why there isn't much public outrage at a sustained or national level.

But as the violence becomes more widespread, and the number of innocents caught up in it grows, support for Calderon's campaign could erode.

In Juarez, according to a tally by the Excelsior newspaper, 52 innocent men, women and children have been killed this year, though in some cases the victims were the offspring or spouses of targets. It may be that the cartels are breaking with their tradition of avoiding civilian casualties in order to put pressure on Calderon.

Father Mario Manriquez, a parish priest, said the spillover violence was infecting a population that preferred to look the other way and say the bloodshed didn't touch it because it wasn't involved -- a posture adopted either out of survival instincts, or self-deception.

"We have been pretending that we were living just fine, but in reality we chose a bad path," Manriquez said. "It's time to look in the mirror and correct the makeup."

As a young activist priest, Manriquez is determined to save his working-class parish from the drug war. But he is losing the battle. The teams he sent out to survey residents, in hopes of identifying needs and providing better social services, had to be pulled back. It has reached a point where no one would open their doors because of fear and alienation.

Or, as the priest put it, because of a hardening of the soul.

Juarez still has a somewhat ambivalent reaction to the violence. People are killed every day and fear is pervasive, yet residents don't lock their car doors when they park, and City Hall, though it looks like a fortress, has no metal detectors or other ways to screen visitors. Mariachi musicians and the cowboy-hatted singers of norteno ballads, guitars in hand, gather along Juarez Boulevard at dusk, even though tourists have all but vanished.

Alexia's family thought of itself as immune, even if the young girl was disturbed by the daily news reports and longed to go away.

She was walking with two other girls, a cousin and her good friend, to buy the insurance that border Mexicans need to cross into the U.S. Her aunt was planning a trip.

By most accounts, the three girls were picked up by young men in a dark SUV, which almost immediately came under gunfire. In the back-and-forth shooting, Alexia was killed; the other two girls escaped when the vehicle crashed.

Alexia was buried in her favorite color, pink. At the funeral, her father, Hugo Moreno, found it necessary to proclaim that he in no way worked for drug traffickers. One of the other girls was whisked away to El Paso, and the third is in therapy, her family says.

To the horror of Alexia's family, one group of traffickers tried to seize upon her death for its own propaganda. Using the traffickers' preferred form of communication, they strung a banner across one of the city's main thoroughfares, accusing their rival, Guzman, of killing innocents.

Alexia had dreamed of escaping her tortured city, to flee across the river to El Paso, where she longed to join her mother, the family recalled.

"I still can't believe I wake up and don't see her," said Alexia's grandmother, Belen Reyes, 75. She raised the girl, after the mother moved to El Paso, here in a gritty neighborhood of small houses sitting side by side on dusty, cracked-asphalt streets, all named for lagoons, though there isn't a body of water in sight.

"With everything that is going on here, you cannot live as you wish," she said. "They said it would get better with the soldiers, but it's only gotten worse."

Reyes; Rodriguez, the aunt; and other relatives gathered on the family's concrete porch laughed bitterly when asked if they thought the authorities would find Alexia's killer.

There will be no justice, they said.

Despite more than 500 killings here this year, no one has been prosecuted.

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