The brave chronicler of Mexico’s deadly drug war
Ciudad Juarez, which shares a border with El Paso, in Texas, is the most violent city on earth. But you will not see smoking buildings or blown-up cars. What you notice is the deathly indifference in people’s eyes.
Since President Felipe Calderón launched his offensive against the drug cartels in late 2006, more than 50,000 people have been murdered in Mexico. Juarez, located in the northern state of Chihuahua, has hurt most in the drug wars, with 10,000 executions in the last four years.
Calderón’s crackdown has failed. In Juarez, where he ordered in the army and the federales to take over from corrupt police, all that has happened is they have brought one cartel, La Linea, to its knees, while permitting another, Sinaloa, to take its place.
A plaque of grotesque executions in recent weeks – bodies hanging from bridges, headless bodies dumped by roadsides, heads stacked in ice chests – has once again hit northern Mexico.
Amid this chaos lives and works Sandra Rodriguez, a journalist for El Diario de Juárez, a newspaper that lost two reporters to the cartels in 2008 and 2010.
Despite this threatening environment, Ms Rodriguez recently released a book, Fabrica del Crimen (Crime Factory), which shows how the failure of the justice system has contributed to the rise in violence.
“We have had 10,000 homicides in the last four years,” she says. “More than 95 per cent are still unsolved. Prosecutors say they cannot solve these crimes. For me, this shows how impunity works.”
Ms Rodriguez says prosecuting authorities take the view that the dead are most likely cartel members who have been killed by their own side for acts of disloyalty, or murdered by their opponents in the battle to control turf and smuggling routes.
Therefore, they’re not worth investigating.
“How can you say they worked for the cartels if you don’t investigate?” Ms Rodriguez says. “What are we saying? Even if they were part of the cartels, we as a society need to know who killed them and why. That is one of the most criminal attitudes our government has taken. They have abandoned their responsibility.”
This state-sanctioned negligence accounts for the downcast faces in the people of Juarez. That is what you see when you cross by caged footbridge from El Paso, across the concrete canal that is the Rio Grande, into the dusty city.
It is not a war zone as we know it; even though the death toll from this city of 1.3 million people over the past few years runs as high.
No one is untouched by the violence in Juarez. It plays into every facet of life, from the protection money shop owners must pay to making sure you do not look the wrong person in the eye as you pass on the sidewalk.
The place just feels sad.
When someone is murdered, the most his or her loved ones can expect to learn is the cause of death. They will never learn who killed them.
In such an environment, lack of respect for life becomes total. As the narcos string up bodies from bridges, people just look away. They know no one will ever be brought to account for it. And they’d rather not risk their lives informing to police officers who could easily be cartel members.
“It’s creating an anarchic state,” Ms Rodriguez says. “When the state doesn’t punish homicide, it sends a message that it’s almost legal. The human life doesn’t have any value.
“Across the whole country, you may kill the person and hang his body from a bridge. It’s a result of all this lack of respect. If I am the state and I don’t care about killing, I’m saying human life doesn’t count.
“This creates a lack of confidence from the victims. They cannot trust the state institutions. When you lose someone in a violent way, nobody turns up and says, ‘We are going to solve this.’ People don’t trust justice. They don’t expect justice. It is like the death of the state.”
Ms Rodriguez says Mexico does not have the death penalty but it has a “de facto death penalty”, whereby the state permits mass executions of criminals by not intervening.
“The world should know the problem of corruption and the policies that haven’t worked,” she says. “The world needs to know what’s going on in Mexico. It is corruption – this is the problem in Mexico. Corruption is everything. I don’t know if it’s a failed state but it’s a broken political system.”
What is hardest to understand about Mexico is the cruelty. Ms Rodriguez says this is something she thinks about often. It defies comprehension. She can only explain it by understanding the level of degradation in her country’s institutions.
“It’s like a staircase,” she says. “If the top of the stair is guilty, how can you expect the bottom of the stair to be guilty? It just shows the lack of respect for everything.
“There is no respect for human life, since no one is punishing them. If I am the state and I don’t care about killing, I’m saying human life doesn’t count. It’s so horrible, it’s so cruel, it’s so nasty.”
Asked whether she feels safe, she says: “I feel confident because most of the people that I expose, we have been exposing them in newspaper before the book came out and in some ways I feel most of the people from the Juarez cartel (La Linea) are losing power.”
That is true, but it is to be hoped that Ms Rodriguez, who received Spain’s 2010 El Mundo International Journalism Prize, and her colleagues stay safe now that the Sinaloa cartel has taken La Linea’s place.
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