Juarez Mayor: Success in Mexico is Drug War Moves to Another Country

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It’s not everyday you go to a press conference at UT Austin and have your purse searched by a member of a bomb squad team. But this is the reality for Jose Reyes Ferriz, mayor of Juarez, a city often described in the press as the “world’s most violent city.”

Reyes Ferriz came to UT Monday to talk about the violence that has engulfed his city and what Mexican officials are doing to bring back Juarez from the brink. The mayor has had three employees murdered by cartel hit men. Recently a severed pigs head was left on the street with a note saying he had two weeks to live.

Reyes Ferriz who looks like a mild mannered, bespectacled, investment banker clearly had the worst timing imaginable. He took office in 2007 shortly before the narco wars began in Juarez and the city became known as a lawless hellhole.

The press conference was standing room only and packed with UT students, some who were from Juarez. They held protest signs. One sign read in Spanish: “The impunity in Juarez is the shame of Mexico.” It was odd sitting there surrounded by pissed of Juarenses watching the mayor calmly give a PowerPoint on how their city slid into chaos.

As far as politicians are concerned, the mayor seemed very forthright in describing the extreme corruption within the city and state police forces. He described the difficulties of fighting the rampant corruption and replacing more than half of his police force, which were openly working for the Juarez drug cartel. During his first week in office he said the chief of police was busted for smuggling a million pounds of marijuana into the United States.

(UT Prof. Ricardo Ainslie emailed me Tuesday to kindly correct my statement above about the chief of police Here’s his correction:)

“You’ve confounded to different stories. He entered office in October 2007. Shortly thereafter, his chief of police was killed.  A few months later, in January of 2008 Saulo Reyes, who had been the Juarez Municipal Police department’s Director of Operations (but fired by Reyes Ferriz when he took office), was busted entering for smuggling almost a ton (that’s 2000 pounds) of marijuana.”

Reyes Ferriz had requested help from the Mexican military, which came to his city in 2008 and took over the police force. The military left last Thursday, he said.

The mayor had nothing but good things to say about the military’s record in Juarez. The perspective from many Juarenses is very different. They say the military only added to the violence by kidnapping and killing civilians and robbing homes.

NPR Reporter John Burnett who was also on the panel, told the mayor he had been to Juarez numerous times and been told by many residents that the army had committed human rights abuses against them.

The mayor dodged and ducked without ever answering the question Then Cecilia Balli another journalist on the panel and a professor at UT pressed the mayor again on the issue. The mayor bobbed and weaved again but would not acknowledge that any human rights abuses had been committed by the military in his city.

He touched again on the difficulties of cleaning up a corrupt police force, which had been allowed to run amuck for the past 15 years. His administrative assistant, who had two small children at home, had been murdered because she had delivered the notices firing corrupt cops. After sacking several officers the mayor also received death threats. “It’s very painful but important for us to do it,” he said.

He emphasized that his term would be up in six months. “Whoever wins has to continue this job,” he said of purging corrupt cops from the force. My thought was who would want his job?

The mayor said that a failure to invest in schools and other public infrastructure had led to the lawlessness in his city. Instead of schools and daycare centers, city leadership only invested in maquila parks and roads. Children were left on the streets to fend for themselves as their parents worked in the maquila factories for meager wages. “We’ve lost maybe one or two generations to the streets,” he said.

He also faulted the U.S.’ deportations of thousands of Mexicans into Juarez over the years, some of them hardened criminals which fueled the violence and unrest.

The good news is the mayor it seems has made much progress in Juarez in the past three years. Finally, the government is investing in schools and daycare centers. The United States has stopped the deportations of criminals to Juarez. The police force is cleaner than it has been in decades. U.S. law enforcement under the Obama Administration are working jointly with Mexican officials like never before to break down the cartels.

“I never had one person in the Bush Administration open his door to me,” he says. “The view was ‘There’s a problem in Mexico. Let’s build a wall so the problem doesn’t cross into the United States.’”

This is great news but it’s hard not to feel pessimistic. How can you ever wipe out corruption and end the cartel violence in Juarez, and in Mexico for that matter, when there are so many billions to be made from the world biggest market for illicit drugs next door?

I asked the mayor what his definition of success would be? Could his city, or Mexico,  ever win the war against the cartels without the U.S. changing its drug policies?

After 40 years of the fighting the War on Drugs, the U.S. hasn’t made a dent in its drug consumption. Instead it’s increased.

“Mexican government officials are losing their lives to stop drugs from reaching the U.S.,” he said. “And once they are in the U.S. nothing happens.”

When drug cartel activity is reduced in one country the violence and corruption only boils up in another country. Since President Calderon declared war on the cartels Mexico has reduced the amount of cocaine being funneled through the country from 90 percent to 60 percent, says Reyes Ferriz.

The cocaine is still being produced in copious amounts, only now it’s being funneled through the Caribbean as it was in the ‘80s. Already, drug related violence is increasing in Puerto Rico and other countries in the Caribbean, he said.

The mayor acknowledged that all Mexico could hope for was that another country shoulders the burden of being America’s biggest dealer.

“Our definition of success for Mexico unfortunately, is to have the drugs go somewhere else, because it’s not stopping. We just don’t want it in our backyard. That’s the only definition we can have as long as the United States is the biggest consumer of drugs in the world.”

That might be the most honest thing I’ve ever heard a politician say about the War on Drugs.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.