MEXICO CITY – Activists, students and relatives of murder victims in Ciudad Juarez urged Mexican lawmakers to immediately withdraw army troops from that hardscrabble border city, saying their presence has only exacerbated drug-related violence.
“I’m not an educated person, but I’m speaking to you from the heart ... to make our voice heard because there are deaths every day,” the mother of Juan Antonio, one of 13 young people killed at a party in late January by suspected cartel gunmen.
The president of the lower house’s executive board, Francisco Ramirez Acuña, acknowledged that Mexico’s three branches of government had failed to guarantee citizens’ security.
“Today we must admit it, seeing you face to face and looking you in the eye: we’ve failed,” he said.
The wave of violence afflicting Ciudad Juarez, which lies across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas and has been Mexico’s murder capital for the past two years, poses a daily threat to local residents and has also affected the student-age population.
In the latest incident, at least six people were killed and five others wounded late Thursday when gunmen barged into a wake for a student slain days earlier.
President Felipe Calderon’s government has responded by militarizing the fight against the violent drug cartels in the city, dispatching 8,000 soldiers and upping the presence of federal police from 400 to 1,200.
Calderon, whose six year term began in December 2006, has depended on the army and federal police to battle heavily armed drug-trafficking gangs due to rampant corruption among Mexico’s underpaid municipal police officers.
Thus far, 50,000 soldiers and 20,000 federal police have been deployed nationwide to combat drug cartels and other criminal organizations.
However, following the late-January massacre in Juarez of 13 young people and two adults with no apparent drug ties, Calderon has also unveiled a social and economic development strategy to supplement security efforts and rebuild the city’s social fabric.
The activists, students and relatives of victims also called on Congress to provide more protection for students and human-rights defenders in the city, where 1,600 people were killed in 2008 in violence attributed to organized crime and 2,650 last year.
The number of homicides in Mexico’s murder capital so far this year has topped 470, according to media accounts based on official information.
“Security is a basic right of all of us living in Ciudad Juarez, but it’s also true that the murders of students and activists thus far this year has increased,” Cipriana Jurado, a human-rights advocate and director of that city’s Worker Research and Solidarity Center.
The activist said that from 2008 to the present more than 1,000 complaints have been filed against the army and federal police, mainly for violations of basic rights, abuse and harassment of women with the pretext of searching them for drugs, as well as other irregularities.
“Many of the people who have registered complaints have (subsequently) been threatened by soldiers and police and many of them have
had to leave the city to avoid being killed,” Jurado said, adding that disappearances of activists and human-rights lawyers have also continued.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued a report on the human-rights situation in Mexico, pointing to problems such as “extrajudicial killings at the hands of security forces, physical abuse, overcrowding and precarious conditions at prisons and arbitrary arrests.”
Referring to the common practice in Mexico of trying soldiers accused of abuses against civilians in military tribunals, the report also cited Mexican rights groups as saying that an “opaque military justice system led to impunity.”
The Mexican government responded to the report on Friday, saying that the government “has taken the actions necessary to recover public spaces that had been occupied by organized crime.”
It also defended the military tribunals and said trials held in those forums “are not a privilege nor a space for impunity for soldiers that commit human rights violations.”
In the same meeting Friday with lawmakers, the representative of the University Networks organization, Rodrigo Callado Zuñiga, called for greater vigilance and protection for the student population.
Calderon plans to travel on March 16 to Ciudad Juarez – his third visit there in just over a month – for a briefing on his recently announced program to bolster health, education and welfare programs in the city.
The president says the federal police and soldiers deployed to Juarez must stay.
Experts say much of the violence in recent years in that northern border city – prized by drug mobs as a smuggling corridor and for its local drug market – has been due to a brutal turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels.
Long before becoming Mexico’s most dangerous city and the scene of frequent shootouts between rival drug traffickers, Ciudad Juarez had been infamous for the murder of some 500 women since 1993, with the vast majority of the crimes still unsolved.
The spate of recent homicides in Juarez is part of a larger nationwide problem of drug-related violence in Mexico, as heavily armed cartels battle each other over lucrative smuggling routes to the United States.
Shortly after taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon militarized the struggle against the cartels, yet the pace of killings has only accelerated and the nationwide death toll since then has already topped 17,000.