La prensa

Will Government, World Respond to Border SOS?

Created: 11 December, 2009
Updated: 26 July, 2022
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7 min read

Frontera NorteSur 

Boiling up from distinct social and political quarters, pressure is building on President Felipe Calderon and other Mexican authorities to drastically change the government’s drug war strategy and other public policies in the strife-torn city of Ciudad Juarez.

In a dramatic letter published on December 8, the 350th anniversary of the founding of Ciudad Juarez, the former head of President Calderon’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), issued a strongly-worded plea for Calderon to admit that the nearly two-year-old Joint Operation Chihuahua was an abject failure. In his letter, Manuel Espino called on Calderon to “assume responsibility for the tragedy in Ciudad Juarez.”

Despite the presence of thousands of federal soldiers and police, more than 2,400 people have been murdered in the city this year alone.

Claiming that members of his family who reside in Ciudad Juarez have been threatened with kidnapping, Espino characterized the ongoing drug war as a ”useless spilling of blood.” Although he urged Calderon to shift direction, Espino offered no specific alternative to the deployment of the Mexican army and Federal Police ostensibly to combat drug trafficking and the criminal gangs that roam the streets at will.

“It is common for my family to hear shootouts, and we have been witnesses to murders,” Espino wrote in his open letter to the Mexican president. “We know people who were executed. Our friends have been kidnapped. Even my own home was raided by soldiers.”

Espino serves as the president of the Christian Democrats of America, a group which represents Latin Americans of the center-right political persuasion.

Espino’s letter was publicized two days after an unusual, anti-violence protest drew between 1,000-5,000 people (depending on the media source) into the chilly streets of Ciudad Juarez. Endorsed by more than 100 civil society groups, the December 6 march attracted a surprising mix of business executives, middle-class professionals, religious leaders, students, human rights advocates, and left-leaning activists of all ages.

Marching from the giant Mexican flag on the edge of Chamizal Park, the protesters delivered a petition to the office of Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz.

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Besides specific actions, the nascent, cross-class movement proposed the formation of a citizen’s assembly to participate in the rescue of Ciudad Juarez along with elected officials and other authorities.

“Juarez requires new forms of the government-society relationship, new forms in which spaces of dialogue are opened up so the citizenry and government can do what is necessary to get Juarez out of this violent atmosphere which we are in,” said Antonio Gonzalez of Casa Promocion Juvenil, a group which works with teens in low-income neighborhoods.

Later elaborating on the citizen assembly idea, human rights activist Teresa Almada said grassroots political involvement could help break the exclusion of the citizenry from decision making and contribute to a new culture of civic engagement in a city where many people have thrown up their hands at the myriad problems afflicting society.

Another movement organizer, Leticia Chavarria, stressed that activists will hold authorities’ feet to the fire and did not discount acts of civil resistance.

At the December 6 rally, Soledad Maynez, president of local Maquiladora Association and Hugo Almada, university instructor and member of the Citizen Observatory for Public Safety and Social Security, both called on the United Nations, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other international observers to come to Ciudad Juarez. Earlier this fall, Maynez proposed the deployment of UN peace-keepers in Ciudad Juarez- a solution which was quickly rejected by the Calderon administration.

Organizers of the demonstration appealed on President Calderon to come to the city and learn its realities first-hand.

Interviewed by local reporters, participants in the December 6 march expressed alarm, anger and fear about daily events in their city. A pediatrician, Dr. Felipe Fornelli Joanis said physicians’ patient loads have plummeted 80 percent, mainly due to the abrupt drop-off in US medical tourists who once traveled to the border city across from El Paso, Texas, in search of inexpensive health care. Student Miriam Gutierrez Murguia insisted it was impossible to even go outdoors in peace and tranquility. “A change in this city is necessary,” Gutierrez demanded.

Several dozen residents of El Paso, which has witnessed an influx of Juarenses fleeing crime and violence, also participated in a public demonstration which was filmed by Mexico’s Federal Police.

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The march stirred up its share of controversy. Messages on the Internet accused the protest of being a stage show for the PAN, though organizers insisted the action was non-partisan in nature.

In a phone interview with Frontera NorteSur, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who closely monitors Ciudad Juarez from the ground said there may even have been an attempt to sabotage the march. According to Dr. Tony Payan, on the day prior to the demonstration mysterious e-mails circulated on the Internet claiming the action had been cancelled.

Payan added he was somewhat puzzled by the timing of the march, coming as it did after years of escalating carnage.

“It was a good sign in the sense that civil society in Ciudad Juarez for the last two years had been quite weak,” Payan said. “Organizers did not allow politicians to participate in the march for their own political ends.”

Still, Payan said he was skeptical the march would force an immediate government response or a change in conditions. As the violence deepens, the border scholar noted, Juarenses are “voting with their feet.”

A frequent visitor to his sister city, Payan estimated that between 200,000-300,000 people have abandoned Ciudad Juarez since 2005, resulting in a population drop from about 1.3 million people four years ago to one million today. In addition to the flight of affluent people to El Paso as well as to other parts of Mexico, Payan said the mass abandonment of government-supported housing subdivisions shows that “even relatively poor people who can exit are leaving.”

Complementing the endless bouts of violence, tens of thousands of jobs, especially in the maquiladora export plants, have evaporated during the last two years.

For Payan, the violence hits close to home. The specialist in Mexican political affairs recently discovered that nearly all the students in one of his classes (many UTEP students are Ciudad Juarez commuters or originally from the Mexican city) knew someone who suffered violence and crime. After urging his students to write letters to President Calderon detailing their personal experiences, Payan mailed the personal stories en masse about two weeks ago. So far, no response has been forthcoming. “I hope that President Calderon acknowledges receipt,” Payan said.

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Besides rising angst among local residents, the Calderon administration faces renewed pressures from abroad. Amnesty International, for example, issued a report this week that was highly critical of the Mexican army’s actions in Ciudad Juarez and other fronts in the Mexican drug war.

Announcing a worldwide protest campaign aimed at Mexican embassies, Amnesty International charged the Mexican military with perpetrating ”scandalous” human rights violations including torture and forced disappearance within the past two years.

At a December 8 Mexico City event held to deliver Mexico’s 2009 Human Rights Prize, President Calderon took a swipe at the critics. In a speech, the Mexican president defended an anti-crime strategy that relies on the Mexican army and expressed incredulity at persons who implied the problem of organized crime would disappear by “the art of magic.”

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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