The Mexican army and federal police patrol the streets of Ciudad Juárez aboard Humvees and pick-up trucks, their automatic rifles menacingly pointed at the population. People have learned to give way to these security forces, but otherwise pay little attention to them. The city remains abuzz, congested with traffic, crowded with street vendors, shoppers, and workers. Life seems almost normal.
The local tabloids hanging from newsstands though invariably carry grim pictures on their front pages, depicting the latest victims of the cartels lying on the ground in a pool of blood or crumpled on the wheel of a bullet-riddled vehicle.
In this city of 1.5 million located right across the border from El Paso, Texas, drug-related violence has reached the scale of civil war: over 2,000 people have been killed here in the past year and a half, some 200 of them in the month of June alone.
I walked past a murder scene in late June, at the intersection of the streets Argentina and Carlos Villareal. The site was sealed off in yellow tape and the federal police were attempting to gather information from eyewitnesses.
"Let's go before they come ask us questions," whispered a young woman. Her friend turned around with a sneer and said: "All I know is that los federales are good for nothing." She was referring to the 7,500 soldiers and 2,300 members of the federal police that Mexico's President Felipe Calderón has dispatched to Ciudad Juárez to subdue the warring cartels and relieve the notoriously corrupt and inefficient municipal police. It was a remark that I had heard time and time again. Indeed, as the killings continue unabated, those who live in the city's most violent neighborhoods have come to the conclusion that the national government has failed in its efforts to secure the city.
When I went to visit the mayor of the Ciudad Juárez, José Reyes Ferriz, I had to pass through cordons of soldiers guarding the perimeter of City Hall. Inside the building, policemen screen everyone with metal detectors and X-ray machines, like in an airport.
Reyes Ferriz, who works from a large office with sweeping views of El Paso, told me self-assuredly: "The army is doing an excellent job. In recent months security has improved considerably." He even showed me a chart illustrating the homicide rate from January through May, and stressed that there had been a steep drop after the army surge in early March.
But the mayor brushed statistics aside as soon as I mentioned that June 2009 had been one of the five deadliest months in Ciudad Juárez since the beginning of the drug wars. "These are not the cartels," said the mayor. "These are small gangsters competing for the local market." Then I asked Reyes Ferriz if the "small gangsters" were on the payroll of the cartels but he eluded the question and reiterated that security would improve. "I think that in the next few months we will be able to bring the number of murders back to normal levels, which in a city the size of Ciudad Juárez would mean an average of one per day," he said.
After leaving the mayor I went to the working class neighborhood Zapata, in the northeast of the city. On a street of dilapidated houses with broken windows, crumbling paint, and graffiti, I met Oscar, a gang member who deals cocaine and methamphetamines. I asked him about the soldiers and he said: "They drive by once or twice a day but they don't mess with us."
Seemingly unconcerned about the army, Oscar went on to explain that his gang is part of a larger structure that responds to the Juárez Cartel. "It's like that all over the city. Those who try to work independently get wiped out," he added. But Oscar does not believe that this is what is driving up the homicide rate. "All this killing, it's people from outside," he said. When I asked him whether he was referring to the agents of the Sinaloa Cartel, who are allegedly attempting to take over the city from the Juárez Cartel, he became nervous and defensive: "Why do you ask me if you already know?"
Maryam Ishani contributed to this report.