by Moira Birss
“Ciudad Juárez won’t be a big deal. You spent two years in Colombia!” my friend reassures me.
“Yeah,” I reply with nervous knots in my stomach, “but isn’t Juárez one of the most dangerous cities in the world?”
The violence wracking Mexico, largely fueled by the country’s drug war, is magnified in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. So even though I spent two years as a human rights accompanier in Colombia visiting some of the country’s most dangerous regions, the concentration and apparent randomness of the violence in Juárez left me apprehensive about my upcoming trip.
Just days before my departure the last weekend in October, four maquila factory workers were killed and fifteen more injured when gunmen shot up three company buses carrying the workers home. The following weekend, 20 more were killed. Since 2008, the murder rate has surpassed 6,500 in a city of about 1.5 million.
But despite my nervousness, I was determined to go. I planned to attend the Foro Internaciónal Contra La Militarización y la Violencia – the International Forum Against Militarization and Violence – on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization I had worked for in Colombia. As U.S. government officials suggest the application of a U.S.-Colombia-style 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 discussion.
I flew from San Francisco to El Paso, took a cab to the Sante Fe Bridge, and crossed over the Rio Grande. I met up with my hosts on the Ciudad Juárez side and they took me to the starting point of the “walk against death,” the Foro’s opening event and the eleventh such march the organizations planning the Foro had organized since the violence intensified earlier this year. I marched with a small group of about forty, with a few signs, a few drums, and a bullhorn. Four or five cars accompanied us to give us a buffer from the traffic on the busy streets we traversed. Banners carried by the marchers read Ni un muerte más (Not one more death) and Por una cultura diferente (For a different culture). The most common chant translates roughly to “Juárez isn’t a barracks! Get the army out of here!”
About halfway through our route I noticed a small group of student marchers with big cardboard cutouts and cans of spray paint in hand. Soon, “savage capitalism” and “not another death” adorned the empty walls the march passed. Though the marchers tried to stick together for protection, the group kept spreading out.
As we approached the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez where the Foro was to take place, a siren wailed behind us. Near the front of the march, I turned to check on the rear, but before I 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. The little group I was with did not know whether to run towards or away from the shots. We wanted to aid to the rest of the marchers now surrounded by federal police, but did not want to put ourselves in danger. As we vacillated, word began to spread that the shots had been into the air. Then two more rang out. We decided to move away from the commotion and entered the university from another gate. As we approached other marchers and bystanders, we pieced together the story of what had happened.
As spray painters were finishing their last tag, federal police had pulled up, yelled at the kids to stop, then fired a round of shots into the air. The students, spooked and unarmed, turned and ran through the university gate. That is when the federal police shot the second round.
Those shots, however, were not fired into the air but at the kids running away. One bullet struck sociology student Dario Álvarez Orrantia in the back from such a close range that his guts spilled out where the bullet left his stomach. Seeing that they had perhaps mortally injured a student, 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 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. Others cursed the federal police, exclaiming that the shooting served as yet another example of the violence and corruption of the forces sent to Juárez in response to the city’s violence.
Federal police took control of security 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 had controlled the city since March 2008. In mid November, however, the state government announced that the military would re-join the federal police on Juárez streets.
As evidenced by Dario’s shooting, the federal police have not become a beloved community police force, however. Nor have they succeeded in reducing violence in the city. On my last day in Juárez, October 31, there were 10 murders.
Despite the heated emotions caused by the shooting, Foro organizers decided that the event should continue. 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. Participants and presenters regularly referred to the incident.
The government handling of Dario’s shooting is indicative of its general approach to murder and human rights abuses. Throughout the weekend of Foro activities, just steps from the crime scene, I did not see crime scene markers or investigators. Two federal police officers were eventually detained; but on November 5, the Friday following the shooting, one of the officers was released on bail. He was eligible for bail because he was charged only minor infractions of duty - not for having shot Dario. The other officer was charged with injuring Dario. Since the charge is minor he may also be eligible for bond.
Many Juarenses have wanted to rid the city of federal police since they arrived, not only for the excessive use of force but for their 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 Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission (the state in which Juárez is located) received 60 complaints for abuse of authority. 50 of those were against federal police for murder, theft, kidnapping, and extortion.
Silvia, who works at a local human rights organization, lamented the lack of options for young people in Ciudad Juárez, a city that has lost 10,000 jobs in recent years and whose remaining economy relies largely on maquila sweatshops. With so few jobs, and tightened border security cartels are giving local kids “jobs” to sell drugs in their neighborhoods, thus creating a local market.
Silvia also told me that Dario’s shooting was unprecedented for its directness. Dario was extremely lucky to have survived, as the bullet just barely missed vital organs. Other innocent victims have not been so lucky, particularly those who, like Dario, voice opposition to government abuses. 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 Rosa 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.”
Some good seems to have resulted from Dario’s shooting. The incident has galvanized youth in Juárez to organize. They have formed the Asociación Estudiantil Juarense (Juárez Student Association), and on November 2 organized several hundred marchers to denounce Dario’s shooting and protest the military and federal police presence.
Mexican organizations are not the only ones demanding demilitarization of the drug war in Mexico. Dozens of U.S. and Mexican organizations have signed a letter calling for a halt to U.S. drug war funding to Mexican security forces. They are demanding that the U.S. government focus instead on “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 root causes of the spread of crime such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, and the lack of opportunities for youth.”
You can join me in signing this letter here.
About the Author
Moira Birss recently returned to the U.S. after two years in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira's articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at www.1peaceatatime.blogspot.com. You can follow Moira on Twitter @moira_kb.