The Deadliest Place In Mexico
Who’s killing the people of the Juarez Valley?
To reach the deadliest place in Mexico you take Carretera Federal 2, a well-paved stretch of highway that begins at the outskirts of Juarez, east for 50 miles along the Rio Grande, passing through cotton and alfalfa fields until you reach the rural Juarez Valley, said to have the highest murder rate in the country, if not the world.
The Juarez Valley is a narrow corridor of green farmland carved from the Chihuahuan desert along the Rio Grande. Farmers proudly say it was once known for its cotton, which rivaled Egypt’s. But that was before the booming growth of Juarez’s factories in the 1990s left farmers downstream with nothing but foul-smelling sludge to irrigate their fields. After that, the only industry that thrived was drug smuggling. Because of the valley’s sparse population and location along the Rio Grande’s dried up riverbed, a person can easily drive or walk into Texas loaded down with marijuana and cocaine.
For decades, this lucrative smuggling corridor, or “plaza,” was controlled by the Juarez cartel. In 2008, Mexico’s largest, most powerful syndicate—the Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman—declared war on the Juarez cartel and moved in to take over the territory. The federal government sent in the military to quell the violence. Instead the murder rate in the state of Chihuahua exploded. The bloodshed in the city of Juarez made international news. It was dubbed the “deadliest city in the world.” So much blood was being shed in Juarez that few outside the region noticed the violence spilling into the rural valley to the east, where killings and atrocities began to occur on a daily basis. Police officers, political leaders and community activists were shot down in the streets. By 2009, the valley, with a population of 20,000, had a shocking murder rate of 1,600 per 100,000 inhabitants—six times higher than its neighboring “deadliest city in the world”—according to government estimates. In one particularly gruesome stretch in 2010, several valley residents were stabbed in the face with ice picks, and a local man aligned with the Juarez cartel was skewered with an iron bar, riddled with bullets, then roasted over an open fire. The Juarez newspapers began to call the rural farming region the “Valley of Death.”
Most of the valley’s residents who survived fled to Texas or Juarez, where they felt safer. In the small towns of Guadalupe, Praxedis G. Guerrero, Porvenir, Esperanza and the even smaller hamlets that dot the valley, there’s been no official census in recent years, so no one knows exactly how many people have left, or how many residents have been killed or forcibly disappeared.
I located a dozen former residents, most of whom would consent to be interviewed only if they remained anonymous. They told me that after four years of terror and persecution, some of it perpetrated by the Mexican authorities, they no longer trusted anyone and felt safe nowhere. The official story is that the army was sent in to protect residents and drive out the cartels, but townspeople tell a different story. They say the soldiers, working in league with the Sinaloa cartel, perpetrated much of the violence. After hundreds of deaths, their towns are still held hostage by the cartels and the military. “The cemeteries are all full. There isn’t anywhere left to bury the bodies,” one former resident told me. “You’ll find nothing there but ghost towns and soldiers.”
On a gray morning in early November, I set out for the Juarez Valley in a rented car with Julian Cardona, a seasoned photographer and reporter from Juarez. After five years of reporting on drug-war bloodshed, Cardona wasn’t particularly keen to go. The place was too sparsely populated and crawling with soldiers. Like most Juarez residents, Cardona had come to fear the Mexican military, which has amassed hundreds of human rights complaints while patrolling the streets of his hometown. In 2010, President Felipe Calderon pulled the reviled troops out of the city, but in the neighboring Juarez Valley, the soldiers remained. They erected barracks in the small towns and maintain checkpoints along Carretera Federal 2—the only paved road in and out of the valley.
As we drove east, the ragged, coffee-colored peaks of the Sierra de Guadalupe rose in the south. Beyond the sierra were the vast Samalayuca sand dunes, where the science-fiction movie Dune was filmed. To the north was the Rio Grande, now just a dusty channel, and five miles farther the flyblown town of Tornillo, Texas. Just four years ago, it would have been a relaxing drive, but my hands felt tense on the steering wheel. Our destination was Guadalupe, population 3,000, the county seat and largest town in the valley.
Guadalupe is the hometown of Jose Rodolfo “El Rikin” Escajeda, a hyper-violent, heavyset thug who controlled the valley for the Juarez cartel until his arrest in 2009. The Sinaloa cartel’s battle to unseat El Rikin had started the bloodshed. El Rikin, in his 30s, ran the plaza for nearly a decade with his brother Oscar Alonso Escajeda, known as “La Gata,” who worked for the Sinaloa cartel. The Escajedas were one of the valley’s oldest families; they had founded Guadalupe after the U.S.-Mexico War was settled in 1848. One of the town’s streets was named Francisco Escajeda after one of El Rikin’s ancestors. But the drug lord generated a different kind of respect, wrought from the fearsome reputation he’d earned as capo over the region. It was said that El Rikin fed his unlucky victims to a lion he kept on one of his many ranches.
As we approached the outskirts of Guadalupe, an army checkpoint loomed ahead. Four soldiers in camouflage, dwarfed by their assault rifles, stood in the middle of the two-lane highway around an improvised shelter of sandbags and wood. One of the soldiers waved a red flag for us to stop. They were barely out of their teens, with the dark indigenous features of southern Mexico. As we rolled to a stop, the soldier with the red flag peered at us through the window. He still had a teenager’s acne. He looked at us for a moment, vaguely curious, then waved us through without a word.
Guadalupe is laid out in a simple grid just nine or 10 blocks in either direction, fading at the edges into the Chihuahuan desert scrub. The sky had cleared to a vibrant blue, but the town was dusty and desolate. Rows of brick and cement-block homes were charred to their foundations and gutted. No one had made an effort to clean up the destruction. As we drove on we noticed some life at an improvised market in the center of town where used clothes, vegetables and fruit were for sale on folding card tables. A few people milled around but hardly anyone seemed to be buying. The townspeople made a point of not seeing us as we passed by in our white rental with Texas plates, but by now everyone must have known we were there. Two young boys rode by on dirt bikes and stared. Before I left El Paso, a former Guadalupe resident had told me the Sinaloa cartel liked to employ young children as lookouts.
Cardona got out and started picking his way through some of the burned and gutted homes, taking pictures. I felt spooked and stayed in the car watching for trucks with tinted windows. But no one came to ask what we were doing there. Just the two boys on their bikes passed by from time to time. I finally got out of the car and started prodding through a burned-out home looking for clues about its former inhabitants. Were they among the living or the dead?
In one room there were coffee cups, half a ceramic angel and the melted remains of a pair of silver high heels. Each house looked as if its inhabitants had left most everything behind. I unearthed a charred page from Don Quixote and a blackened chapter from a Bible reader. The only page still legible was titled “Espiritus Malos.” In another corner of charred rubble, I found an assemblage of porcelain baby doll heads, and their disembodied doll parts in a pile that conjured a macabre crime scene.
We moved to the next devastated home, where I found a collection of melted family albums of a wedding party. We tried to make out their faces, but the plastic crumbled in our fingers. Behind the house, I noticed a one-room structure that hadn’t been torched. I gingerly made my way toward it through broken glass and blackened rubble. Along the perimeter of the house someone had raked little pyramids of desiccated dog turds into tidy piles. Inside the one-room structure, birth certificates, land titles and other personal documents were strewn across the floor beneath a layer of sand. Scattered among the papers were glossy campaign leaflets with a photo of Apolonio Amaya, a former Guadalupe mayor for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. I would later find out that gunmen had killed Polo in 2006, and his son Omar, also a former mayor, in 2007. Polo’s daughter, a schoolteacher, was shot dead in 2008 while driving her car on the outskirts of town. Polo’s wife was also killed. The documents in the small wood-paneled room were all that remained of the family.
On our way back through town we stopped to ask where we might find the bakery that once belonged to the Reyes Salazar family, well known for its community activism in Guadalupe. The family became the center of an international human rights scandal after gunmen murdered six members of the Reyes family—crimes the Mexican government failed to even investigate. I pulled over, and Cardona rolled down his window to ask a young woman selling used clothes in front of her house where we might find the bakery. Her eyes grew wide as if she’d been struck, then she shook her head “no” without saying a word. We encountered a similar response from two more residents. “No one wants to be seen talking to us,” Cardona said. “Let’s try the mayor’s office.”
Little remains of the town’s government. Anybody who worked for the town of Guadalupe prior to 2008 has either been killed or fled. There was once a police force of 10 officers, but by the end of 2010 none remained. More than half of them had been killed, some of their heads placed on the gazebo and park benches of Guadalupe’s town plaza as a warning. The remaining officers fled. The mayor and city council left town after two city council members were gunned down in 2009. Gunmen caught up with Mayor Jesus Manuel Lara in 2010, killing him outside the home he’d fled to in Juarez. After Lara’s death, Tomás Archuleta, an accountant, became Guadalupe’s new mayor. Upon assuming office, he asked Erika Gandara, his 28-year-old niece and a former security guard, to be the town’s lone police officer.
At the same time, in the neighboring county seat of Praxedis G. Guerrero, population 2,200, Marisol Valles, a 20-year-old criminology student in black-rimmed glasses, was appointed police chief after the entire police force was killed and city hall strafed by machine gun fire. Newspapers called Valles the “bravest woman in Mexico.” Archuleta and other mayors were desperate to assemble some sort of civilian law enforcement in their towns. They hoped gunmen would not target young, unarmed women who served mostly administrative roles. Two days before Christmas 2010, armed men kidnapped Erika Gandara. Her body was found several months later in the desert. After Gandara disappeared, Marisol Valles and her family began to receive death threats and fled to the United States.
We found the mayor’s office on the second floor of Guadalupe’s city hall. An older woman at the reception desk seemed unhappy to see us. “I’ll ask him about an interview but I doubt it,” she snapped. “He’s very busy.” Three elderly people sat in the reception area staring at a TV screen affixed to the wall, blaring a morning talk show. No one made eye contact with us. We sat down and waited. Finally, the door opened, and to our surprise, the receptionist ushered us into Archuleta’s office with a faint smile.
The mayor stood to welcome us. In his early 50s, he had dark circles under his eyes. He looked at us warily but tried to be jovial. He showed us a trophy recently awarded to Guadalupe by the Mexican government for “excellence in administration.” Archuleta and other mayors across northern Mexico had recently traveled to the state of Sonora to be feted by Calderon’s administration and collect their awards. I asked him if the other mayors were having similar problems with violence. “Events are cyclical,” he said, taking a seat behind his desk. “There was a revolution in 1810, another in 1910 and in 2010. Every 100 years there are events that mark the social environment of the country.”
After Archuleta carried on about moral and patriotic values for a while, I asked how the violence was impacting his town. The mayor chose his words carefully. “Four years ago there were events that arose that had never been seen in the Juarez Valley. Some people left for the United States, while others went to other states in the republic because of the uncertainty of the security. Right now the Mexican military is in charge. We don’t have the capacity or the administrative structure to provide public security.”
“Do you trust the soldiers?”
The mayor fidgeted in his seat. “Of course, of course. I should have trust in the military, which is the representative of our nation. There are no police officers because no one wants to be a policeman.”
Archuleta was polite but offered few details about his town’s plight. When I asked how many people had left, and how many burned and abandoned homes there were, he said his administration had been unable to take count. “They won’t let us,” he said, but he wouldn’t say who “they” were. When I asked how to find the home and bakery that belonged to the Reyes Salazar family, he said, “They tell me not to go over there.” He blinked. “In fact, I don’t know where the house is.”
The mayor closed our interview by insisting I return in three days for a parade commemorating the start of the Mexican Revolution. “I will be leading the parade because that is my role as mayor,” he said. “Things aren’t easy, but the biggest strengths of the men and women of Guadalupe are measured in the value of their decisions and devotion to rebuild the social fabric. I was born here and I must have confidence in myself and reflect that confidence in my town. If not, who will my people follow? Who is the leader of the town?”
We eventually found the Reyes Salazar bakery. A man on the street furtively informed us that it was just down the road. In fact, it was only a few houses down from the girl selling used clothes who had looked at us with mute terror. The bakery was across the street from the town’s former gymnasium, a large, squat building that now serves as the army’s barracks. The bakery was a charred ruin. As we picked through what little was left, a soldier with an assault rifle stared at us from behind a wall of sandbags and wood across the street. Soldiers ringed the gymnasium, heavily armed, scanning the horizon. All around, the houses were burned and pillaged, streets deserted and businesses shuttered. The soldiers were guarding a ghost town. Who or what were they protecting?
For decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years, had allowed drug traffickers to do business as long as political leaders got their cut of the profits and cartels limited the violence to their underworld associates. It was well known among Mexicans that drug profits flowed through the chain of command from local police up to army officials, governors, and eventually the presidential palace. From time to time, a high-level bust was made to appease the U.S. government. And if traffickers became too public in their violence or balked at paying their government handlers, the military or federal police intervened.
The election in 2000 of Vicente Fox, from Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN), spurred the collapse of the PRI’s corrupt system. Alliances fell apart as cartel bosses, now free of their government handlers, sought more power and more lucrative smuggling territories. Mexico was now a true democracy, but it had no functioning judicial system or rule of law. Police officers were poorly trained and made on average $300 a month, while soldiers made just $600. For decades under the PRI regime, they’d relied on graft to boost their salaries. At the same time, domestic drug production was booming. By 2005, Mexico’s production of heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine had tripled, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the cocaine from South America was being funneled through Mexico to U.S. buyers. By the time Calderon took office in December 2006, U.S. drug users had turned Mexico’s cartels into multi-billion-dollar conglomerates by sending them up to $39 billion every year.
Calderon won election by the thinnest margin in Mexican history, and his administration appeared feeble. He wanted to assert his authority. Six days after assuming the presidency, Calderon declared war on the country’s drug cartels. The military campaign to rein in the cartels would start in his home state of Michoacan, where he sent 4,000 soldiers to conduct raids, make arrests and set up checkpoints along the state’s major highways.
The president’s approval rating shot up from 48 percent to 65 percent. Polls showed that Mexicans trusted the military more than federal and local cops, who spent much of their days collecting bribes and colluding with the cartels. The U.S. government pledged support for Calderon’s militarization strategy and promised $1.5 billion under the Merida Initiative for military equipment and training.
As Calderon dispatched troops to Michoacan, Tijuana, and other parts of the country, the tenuous alliance between Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel and the Juarez cartel run by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes had come to an end, reportedly over an unpaid debt.
In January 2008, war broke loose between the cartels in the city of Juarez. A local cop was found riddled with bullets. A hit list appeared on a monument honoring fallen police officers. On one side it read: “for those who didn’t believe,” with a list of five recently murdered officers. On the other side: “for those who continue not to believe,” with 17 more officers listed. Political leaders conceded that the Sinaloa cartel was targeting the cops because they worked for the Juarez cartel. Jose Reyes Baeza, then governor of Chihuahua, told El Diario de Juarez, “All our police forces are infiltrated. All of them, it’s as simple as that,”.
In a panic, the governor and Jose Reyes Ferriz, Juarez’s mayor, begged President Calderon to intervene. In mid-March 2008, the federal government responded with a show of force, sending helicopters, tanks, and 2,500 soldiers and federal police to Juarez. The following year Calderon sent 5,000 more troops.
In the Juarez Valley, the Escajeda brothers, working together, had maintained a fragile alliance between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. Their territory was vast, nearly 70 miles of border from the eastern outskirts of Juarez to the rugged mountains west of Ojinaga. La Gata used some areas to smuggle cocaine and marijuana for the Sinaloa cartel while El Rikin used other crossings for the Juarez syndicate.
The alliance began to unravel on March 28, 2008, when a column of 80 soldiers with helicopters overhead entered the Juarez Valley. A former resident of Porvenir said the soldiers arrived with sirens blaring. “We thought great, now we’ll be protected,” he said.
Within three months, the army captured La Gata in Juarez. El Paso sheriff’s deputy Manny Marquez, who grew up just across the Rio Grande from the Juarez Valley, said La Gata’s arrest destroyed the fragile peace. “After Alonso got arrested, that’s when the Sinaloa group came in. They wanted the whole territory, and they started killing people left and right. And El Rikin started killing people too and it got completely out of control.”
The townspeople hoped the soldiers would bring peace, but instead residents found themselves caught in a crossfire between the cartels and the military. A new kind of terror emerged in which no one was safe. “With El Rikin, if you weren’t in the business they mostly left you alone,” says a former resident of Guadalupe. “You would hear about the killings, or someone disappeared, but they did it at night and no one saw the bodies.”
Now murders were happening daily and in broad daylight. One resident of Porvenir witnessed a massacre on his way home from getting a tire fixed. As he drove east along Carretera Federal 2 through the small town of Loma Blanca, a semitrailer braked to a halt in front of him. Enraged, he slammed on his brakes then passed the semi, ready to give the driver a few harsh words, when the tat-tat-tat of assault weapons jolted him. Up ahead gunmen were firing on a van full of men in front of a children’s daycare center. The semi driver was trapped. “He was trying not to get shot,” the witness told me. “I looked and they were killing people 100 meters in front of me.” He threw his car into reverse and fled. “I saw later on the news they killed six people.”
In Guadalupe, soldiers began ransacking homes, looking for money, drugs and weapons. Word spread that the soldiers were working with the Sinaloa cartel. They began taking people from their homes. Some never came back. Others returned battered and bruised with signs of torture, says Saul Reyes, Guadalupe’s former city secretary and a member of the Reyes Salazar family. We met in El Paso, in early May 2011, after he’d fled his hometown. Reyes, with steel-rimmed glasses and a quiet intensity, was the last male sibling in his family who hadn’t been gunned down. Now, he and his wife and three young sons were seeking political asylum in the United States.
Saul’s eight brothers and sisters and their mother Sara had lived in the Juarez Valley since 1967, and carved out a solid working-class existence for themselves with a string of bakeries and a small video-rental store. They were known for their community activism. Reyes, 42, who ran his own bakery in Guadalupe, said after the soldiers arrived people started coming to his sister Josefina for help. “People began knocking on her door,” he says. “The army had picked up eight people and detained them without any charges. And people were being tortured.”
The family had a well-earned reputation for fearlessness, especially Josefina, the eldest daughter, a relentless crusader for justice who organized marches and protests when women started being murdered in unprecedented numbers in neighboring Juarez in the 1990s. The family had also been instrumental in defeating a toxic waste dump in Sierra Blanca, Texas, just a few miles north of Guadalupe. The town’s working-class residents made a habit of appealing to the family of bakers for help whenever they felt wronged by the wealthy ranchers and farmers who ran the town.
Josefina went to Mexico City to meet with Sen. Rosario Ibarra, a former human rights activist, and ask for her assistance in getting the detained townspeople released. Josefina and other activists in Juarez started to speak out publicly against the detentions and the torture. On August 23, 2008, she attended a “Forum Against Militarization and Repression” in Juarez, then afterward led a march against the soldiers’ presence in her hometown. Josefina and the Reyes Salazar family were some of the first residents in the Juarez Valley to speak out publicly against the military presence, which many still hoped would quell the drug violence.
A week after the march, soldiers took Josefina’s eldest son, Miguel Angel Reyes. Again Josefina summoned a group of activists, and they marched outside the army barracks for his release. Josefina went on a hunger strike. After 16 days, the military released her son. “He had two fractured ribs and a fractured nose,” Saul says. “The soles of his feet had been burnt from electric shocks.”
Josefina’s triumph was short. Three months later, gunmen killed her 19-year-old son Julio Cesar. The masked gunmen arrived during a wedding party in Guadalupe and told everyone to lay on the floor. “They searched the crowd,” Saul says. “When they found Julio Cesar, they shot him in the heart.” As the shots rang out, an army patrol was half a block away from the dance hall. “They came after the shooting but did nothing but cordon off the area with some yellow tape then leave,” says the family matriarch Sara Salazar. While the Reyes Salazar family fought publicly against the unchecked violence engulfing their town, other families suffered persecution silently.
I met one of the survivors in El Paso, a pretty young woman bouncing on her knee a little girl with burn scars. Like many valley residents, she is seeking asylum in the United States. She asked that I not identify her because she fears family members might be killed even on the U.S. side of the border. I’ll call her Estela. Her family farmed wheat, cotton and alfalfa on 100 acres in the Juarez Valley on the bank of the Rio Grande. One day four soldiers, uniformed and driving military trucks, arrived at her house wanting to know if her family owned the land. Mexican military vehicles have serial numbers on the side so units can be identified. This unit had covered its serial numbers, Estela says. Scared, her husband lied and told the soldiers that the owners lived in the United States and that he was just a caretaker. “We want $30,000,” one of the soldiers, or a man dressed as a soldier, told him. “Or the title to the land.”
The family didn’t have $30,000. All they could do was wait and hope the soldiers wouldn’t return. In the meantime, Estela’s husband went to the military barracks in Guadalupe and spoke to the officer in charge about the threat. Since the serial numbers were covered up, the officer said there was nothing he could do for them.
A few days later Estela heard a loud whooshing noise outside. The shed where they kept fertilizer had burst into flames. Their 2-year-old daughter, who had been playing next to the shed, caught fire. Estela and her husband rushed her to the hospital. The next day a neighbor told them she’d seen soldiers in a Humvee throw a Molotov cocktail.
They considered fleeing, but the crops needed to be cultivated and sold for money. They decided to stay for one more harvest. They prayed that nothing else would happen. One day a black truck pulled into the driveway. Fearing the worst, Estela’s husband demanded that she and their two children go to the store while he talked to the men. “It was the same soldiers. I recognized them, but this time they were in civilian clothes,” Estela told me. “So I left, but I came right back as soon as possible.”
When Estela returned from the store, one of the men had a gun pointed at her husband’s head. Estela, seven months pregnant at the time, screamed and bolted toward the man. She pushed him as the gun went off. Her husband was shot in the arm. The men began beating and kicking her. Then they went for her husband. “Leave no matter what happens to me,” he begged.
But then, miraculously, she says, the gunman who shot her husband changed his mind. “He said, ‘I’ll give you one more opportunity to give me the title to your land,’” Estela says. Her husband jumped in the car, but as he did, another man started cursing the first for letting them go. The men bickered. Taking advantage of the confusion, the family rushed to the international bridge 10 miles away. “My husband was bleeding everywhere, and I was very sick,” Estela says. At the border, U.S. customs officials called for an ambulance, which took the family to a hospital in El Paso. Doctors told Estela her husband would recover, but her baby had not survived the attack. “I lost my baby,” she says, tears welling in her eyes.
They never went back. Estela says they still have the title to the land, but there’s nothing they can do with it. “The truth is we can’t go back,” she says. “They’d kill us.”
In Chihuahua, the army had long been under the sway of the hometown cartel. Since the 1980s, Amado and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who ran the Juarez cartel, had been paying millions to the army and state and local law enforcement for protection. In 1990, journalist Terrence Poppa, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his coverage of crime in Mexico, meticulously outlined how the graft worked in his book Drug Lord, which detailed the flow of money from drug kingpin Pablo Acosta up the chain from local police to the army generals who ran the state of Chihuahua. By 2008, El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel had become one of the world’s largest transnational crime organizations, eclipsing the formerly dominant Juarez cartel.
The Sinaloa syndicate moved to monopolize the lucrative corridor, but it would need the army to help eradicate the Juarez cartel. In a 2010 federal court case in El Paso, sworn testimony from Manuel Fierro Mendez, a key U.S. government witness, explains how El Chapo’s people infiltrated the armed forces. Fierro, a corrupt former Juarez cop and cocaine smuggler for the Sinaloa cartel, says he was contacted in late 2007 by Fernando Ontiveros Arambula, a top lieutenant for El Chapo, who wanted help “to develop some drug trafficking strategies” for the Juarez corridor, according to court records.
Fierro’s role was to take control of the Mexican army for El Chapo. Through a friend in the army, Fierro made contact with an honest army captain “who wanted to make a difference but couldn’t find any support.” Fierro started providing the eager captain with high-level information about Juarez cartel (often referred to as La Linea) operations. “The objective,” he said, “was to eliminate La Linea in any possible way.”
Fierro testified that El Chapo’s ultimate goal was to capture the Juarez plaza for himself, which meant “Maintain[ing] order over the law over federal agencies and state and the city, and to have free reign [sic] so as to be able to continue trafficking drugs without any problem.”
A former resident of the Juarez Valley I met in El Paso said it was clear in 2008 that the military and Sinaloa cartel were working toward the same goal. The man, who had family members working for the Juarez cartel at the time, said that military and Sinaloa cartel gunmen started killing small-time smugglers working for El Rikin Escajeda. One day soldiers came to kill him, he says, but he escaped through a back window and hid in some bushes. “The people who worked for Escajeda got the message ‘work [for Sinaloa] or die,’” he says. The man, in his 30s, fled to Texas. Family members who remain in the valley now work for El Chapo’s people, he says. Top Escajeda lieutenants who knew the intricacies of the smuggling operation were spared death—as long as they switched sides. “Now they run everything for the Sinaloa cartel.”
For most of 2008, Gustavo de la Rosa, an investigator for the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, says the Sinaloa and Juarez factions focused on wiping each other out. The army’s official stance was to let the bad guys kill each other off.
Questioned by the Juarez media about the spike in violence during the army’s first days, General Jorge Juarez Loera, in charge of the 11th military region that includes Juarez and the valley, told assembled reporters: “I would like to see journalists change their stories, and when they write that there’s been ‘one more death,’ instead they say ‘there’s one less criminal.’”
As the death toll mounted to unprecedented numbers, President Calderon assured citizens that 90 percent of the people killed in the drug war were criminals. De la Rosa and other human rights activists point out that the figure is wholly unsupported, because 95 percent of the deaths were never investigated.
In September 2009, the Mexican military caught up with El Rikin in Nuevo Casas Grandes, at the southernmost reach of his territory. After the arrests of El Rikin and his brother La Gata, some of the organization’s members went underground. At the same time, de la Rosa began to notice a new trend to the citizen complaints he received from the Juarez Valley. “Sinaloa was having a harder time finding La Linea [Juarez cartel] operatives, so they started going after their families, friends, and people who had made business with La Linea. And La Linea responded with the same aggression.”
Former residents say they began to notice a pattern. Soldiers would arrive at homes searching for guns, drugs and weapons. Hours later, masked gunmen would arrive and kill everyone inside.
“I think the Sinaloa cartel arrives just after the army,” Saul Reyes says. “The army starts investigating, detaining people, and acquires the knowledge of how everything works, then groups from the Sinaloa cartel arrive and start killing people.”
The battle for territory became a scorched-earth campaign engulfing the innocent and the guilty alike. Leaflets and banners were hung in the small towns of the Juarez Valley with lists of people to be executed. “Leave in three days or be killed,” they warned, the names written in black spray paint on white bed sheets. Leaflets thrown in the streets threatened death to city leaders and police officers.
Guadalupe’s then-mayor, Jesus Manuel Lara, and the town’s seven city council members began receiving death threats at city hall. On February 16, 2009, Lara called a meeting at 9 a.m. with his council members. Martin Hueremo was a sitting council member at the time but now lives in exile in the United States. “The mayor said, ‘Don’t be alarmed, but there have been some death threats against us. I wanted you to be advised,’” Hueremo says. The council members were afraid but tried not to take the threats too seriously. They still believed the killing was confined to those directly involved in the drug business.
Three hours later, masked gunmen entered a convenience store owned by Cristina Aranda, a city council member, and killed her in front of her 11-year-old daughter. Three days later, council member Patricia Avila was shot dead. During this time, military soldiers and federal police patrolled the town but did nothing to help the victims or catch the killers.
Mayor Lara fled to Juarez. Hueremo left everything and fled with his family to the United States. “I didn’t have any confidence that any of the Mexican authorities were going to protect me,” he says. “Because they were all there in the valley—the federales, the army, and they did nothing.” In May 2010, gunmen killed Lara outside the home he’d fled to in Juarez.
De la Rosa began receiving complaints about soldiers committing atrocities, including torture, forced kidnapping and murder. By the end of 2009, he’d received roughly 1,250 complaints against the Mexican army.
Unlike other officials, de La Rosa investigated. He opened detailed investigations into 10 homicides and 14 kidnappings he believed the army had committed. The cases were sent up the chain to the state prosecutor, military authorities, and finally the internal army investigations unit, where the cases stalled.
De la Rosa declined to elaborate on the details of his investigations, but reports made by Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights show numerous complaints of forced disappearance and torture by the military in Juarez in 2008 and 2009, when de la Rosa conducted his investigations. In one case from November 2008, soldiers and police allegedly took brothers Carlos and Jose Luis Guzman Zuñiga from their home in handcuffs. The brothers never returned. In a case in June 2009, Adrián López Hernández, Saul López Hernández and Silvia Analuisa Sentíes reported that soldiers ransacked their home and stole personal items. The soldiers then took them to the barracks in Juarez where they were beaten and tortured with electric shocks.
De la Rosa had lived in the Juarez Valley for 25 years, in the small, quiet community of San Agustin. His demands that the government do something about the army’s abuses made him a target of corrupt government officials, the drug cartels, and the military. He started receiving death threats. One of his bodyguards was killed. One day in 2009, a man walked up to his car at a traffic light. The man was dressed in civilian clothes but had “the bearing and look of a soldier,” de la Rosa said afterward. The man pointed an index finger at de la Rosa, mimicking a gun, and pulled the trigger. “Quiet down or we’re going to kill you,” he said. De la Rosa drove to El Paso. At the border crossing, an immigration agent recognized de la Rosa and asked whether he felt safe returning to Juarez. “I told him with the work I do in Juarez, who could feel safe?” he says. Based on that answer and his “credible fear,” U.S. immigration officials automatically classified de la Rosa’s case as an asylum request and swept him into detention in El Paso.
After a week of fighting to get out, de la Rosa was released. He refused to return to Mexico unless the government provided him with better security. Now de la Rosa travels in Juarez with several armed bodyguards and spends his weekends in Texas, where he says he can sleep with less fear. He still hasn’t returned to his home in the Juarez Valley.
In 2009, local newspapers began to describe a new breed of killer. The Juarez Valley had experienced bouts of violence before—committed by El Rikin and La Gata Escajeda—but these men in black, masked, well trained and heavily armed, who roamed the valley killing people with impunity, were a terror beyond comprehension.
Who were these masked killers? The only other groups who masked themselves were the military and the federal police—to avoid identification by cartels that could then seek revenge.
A 2009 U.S. State Department cable, later released by Wikileaks, hinted at darker forces at work: paramilitary death squads.
“City and state government officials have argued that there exists no evidence of a vigilante movement in Ciudad Juarez and that the messages by the CCJ (Juarez Citizen Command) are a hoax. A consulate contact in the press, however, suggests that the CCJ is a real self-defense group comprised of eight former ‘Zetas’ hired by four Juarez business owners (including 1998 PRI mayoral candidate Eleno Villaba).”
The cable went on to describe how the Zetas—a cartel that operates largely along the Gulf of Mexico—obtained their weapons. “According to the contact, the former Zetas paid a visit on local military commanders when they arrived in Juarez in September 2008, and purchased previously seized weapons from the army garrison. According to the contact, the former Zetas pledged not to target the army, and made themselves available to the army for extrajudicial operations.”
In 2010, Cardona, the Juarez journalist who accompanied me to Guadalupe, interviewed a former hit man whose testimony echoed the U.S. diplomatic cable about mercenary gunmen working side by side with the military. The hit man, who said he worked with a band of 20 other gunmen, had been hired in Durango, and said he took part in the first wave of killings in Juarez in 2008. “He told me in a very succinct way how an ex-military officer was coordinating his group with the army to kill the ‘big ones’ and work alongside the military,” Cardona says. The ‘big ones’ were the state and local police officials who were assassinated in the first months of 2008, presumably because they were armed enforcers for the Juarez cartel.
The hit man, a former state police officer, claimed that he didn’t know who paid him to kill. “The war is among wealthy people,” he told Cardona. “I may have killed for El Chapo in Juarez but I don’t really know.”
The hit man told Cardona he’d seen a convoy of gunmen from the Sinaloa cartel pass through an army checkpoint with no problem. “They just let them through to do their work,” he said.
The hit man’s words echoed something a man from Porvenir had told me. His brother and five employees had been kidnapped for ransom by gunmen. The convoy with the six captives passed right through the army checkpoint, which controls the entrance and exit to the Juarez Valley. He said, “I’d like to know how the army lets six blindfolded men in cars with heavily armed people pass through their checkpoint with no problem?”
Since the murder of Josefina’s son Julio Cesar in 2008, the large and extended Reyes Salazar family had been living in constant fear, Saul Reyes told me. But the attacks hadn’t silenced them. Unlike others in the valley, they continued to speak publicly about military abuses. On September 4, 2009, Josefina’s son Miguel Angel was picked up again by soldiers in Juarez. This time the federal attorney general’s office issued a warrant accusing Miguel Angel of working for El Rikin and the Juarez cartel. He was sent to prison in the state of Tamaulipas. Two and a half years later, he hasn’t seen a judge or been formally charged.
After Miguel Angel’s arrest, soldiers abducted Elias Reyes—Josefina’s older brother, partially paralyzed by a stroke—from the family’s bakery and forced him to drive around Guadalupe with them, pointing out every home that belonged to a family member. Josefina escaped to Juarez after receiving multiple death threats. After she left, men broke into her home in Guadalupe. Witnesses told her the intruders were soldiers.
Saul Reyes decided it was time to leave, too. He took his wife and three young sons to Ascensión, 115 miles south of the Juarez Valley, to try to start a new bakery. The rest of the family remained in Guadalupe. In December 2009, they gathered at Saul’s new home in Ascensión to celebrate Christmas. Then the entire family, including Saul, his wife and sons, returned to Guadalupe to ring in the New Year. It would be their last happy memory together.
“I remember we were all together and we spoke about staying in Guadalupe. Should we stay and fight or go,” Saul says. “My older brother Elias said, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m a baker and we’ve worked hard to build this town so I’m not going anywhere. Josefina said the same. ‘Why should I run? I’ve done nothing wrong.’ My other brothers and sisters agreed.”
On January 3, 2010, Saul and his family returned to Ascensión. By the time, they arrived home two hours later, Josefina was dead.
She had stopped at a favorite restaurant on the outskirts of Juarez to pick up lunch. Four masked gunmen waited outside to kidnap her. Josefina fought back, gouging one attacker in the cheek with her car key, Saul was later told by a witness. One of the gunmen said, “You think you’re so fucking cool because you’re with the organizations,” referring to her activism. The gunmen shot her in the face and chest nine times, in the middle of the street.
Even after Josefina’s murder, family members refused to remain silent. They continued to do interviews with reporters and demand that the government solve the murders of Josefina and Julio Cesar, which went uninvestigated. Saul’s brother Ruben spoke out publicly against the military and the killing of his sister in the local media. On the morning of August 18, 2010, Ruben was shot down by a gunman with an AK-47 in the street, on his way to the store to buy milk.
Soldiers arrived daily to search their homes, says Sara Salazar, the 77-year-old family matriarch. “Always the trucks of soldiers were coming to my house saying they were there to search for drugs and weapons. I told them, ‘come and look but you’ll find nothing and I’m going to denounce you.’ They’d tell me, ‘you can’t do anything to us. We’re the authority here.’”
The Reyes Salazar family was being systematically exterminated, part of a campaign to empty the valley of anyone who might interfere with Sinaloa’s smuggling. During Holy Week in 2010, leaflets were thrown in the streets of Porvenir and Esperanza with the message: “You have just a few hours to get out.” On Good Friday, gunmen tried to break down the front door of the church in Porvenir, then lit it on fire.
The escalating violence led to a mass exodus. Dozens of families fled by foot to Texas, or drove to Juarez with anything they could pack in a hurry. During this time, townspeople say, the Sinaloa cartel began to move in new people from other parts of Mexico, who they could trust to run the plaza. Soldiers and federal police circulated in the streets as they fled, residents say, but did nothing to detain the assassins who were killing people and burning homes.
In Juarez, Gustavo de la Rosa hurriedly called a press conference to demand that the government do something to stop the terror campaign. At the press conference, de la Rosa said he’d called the military commander in Porvenir and asked him to intervene. “The commander informed me that it was a police matter,” de la Rosa told reporters. “But there are no police in the valley.”
The only option for people in Porvenir was to hide in their homes and suffer yet another night of terror, de la Rosa told the assembled media. “I ask that [the military] intervene and detain the killers. Because the valley has been abandoned. There is no authority there.”
As smoke from burning homes billowed into the small Texas towns just across the river, the international press arrived. Most everyone refused to speak openly about what was happening. Those who did grant interviews hid their faces in shadow and refused to give their names. Only Elias Reyes, in his baker’s cap, in Guadalupe, would show his face on television and speak out against the terror afflicting his hometown.
A few months later, the gunmen came for him too. On February 7, 2011, six armed men in a truck cut off the car carrying Elias, Maria Magdalena Reyes, and Elias’ wife Luisa Ornelas, as they drove home on Carretera Federal 2. Sara Salazar and her 12-year-old granddaughter were also in the car. The gunmen forced Sara and her granddaughter out of the car and left them on the side of the road, driving off with the three Reyes family members. They had just passed one of the military’s checkpoints.
Sara Salazar and her family set up a protest encampment in front of the state attorney general’s office in Juarez, demanding that officials find the kidnappers. They then moved to Mexico City and began a hunger strike in front of the Mexican Senate. During the protest, Sara Salazar’s home and the family bakery across the street from the army barracks in Guadalupe were burned to the ground. On February 26, 2011, a family member found the bodies of Elias, Maria Magdalena and Luisa lying in the middle of the road near the barracks. They were covered in dirt and lime as if they had been buried and then dug up again. Sara Salazar thinks they would never have seen them again if it weren’t for their public outcry. “They gave us their bodies just to shut us up,” she says.
After the deaths, Saul began receiving texts from Elias’ cell phone. “They said they would cut our heads off,” Saul says. The family went into hiding. To escape, Saul and his wife and sons hid under blankets in the back of a friend’s car. The friend drove them to an international bridge. A proud Mexican, Reyes wiped away tears when they walked across the bridge over the Rio Grande. They arrived in the United States on April 24, 2011, to ask for political asylum with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the three blankets they’d used to hide themselves.
A few weeks after Saul Reyes and his family fled Mexico, I drove to an immigrant shelter in downtown El Paso to see him. As the former city secretary of Guadalupe, Saul had once been in charge of recording the births and deaths of everyone in his hometown. He’d taken it upon himself now to collect every single name of those who had died or disappeared in Guadalupe since the killing began in 2008. Through media reports and meetings with the many valley exiles now living in Texas, Saul had compiled a list of the town’s dead and disappeared. Showing me the book, he turned page after page of names. So far he had counted 180 dead, 26 disappeared, and eight unknown bodies dumped in his small town of 3,000 people. “There are a lot more, but these are the ones I’ve been able to collect,” he said. In his careful, spidery script, he had written on one page the names of his six family members.
Reyes said he knew every one of the dead because Guadalupe was a small town. Some were petty thieves, some drug dealers, some housewives, school teachers or politicians. Some were children and some were retirees. Whole families had been decimated, including the town’s oldest founding families: the Escajedas and the Gandaras. The drug war had exacted a heavy toll. But the one thing that survived was the drug business. Other than a brief dip in 2008, the flow of drugs across the border had continued unabated, and had even increased due to rising methamphetamine smuggling in 2010, according to statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Meanwhile, Gabino “El Ingeniero” Salas Valenciano runs the Juarez Valley plaza for Sinaloa, and a new boss has taken up the fight for the Juarez cartel. The people simply call him “La Muerta.”
Now the Juarez Valley is populated by the cartels and soldiers. Some say that families from Sinaloa and other parts of the country have moved into some of the abandoned homes in the desolate towns. Murders still occur regularly, and the soldiers still patrol and man their checkpoints on the empty streets. As de la Rosa told me, “10,000 deaths later and all we did was change cartels.”
Saul Reyes is an exile in the United States, trying to start life over at age 42. His home, his bakery and his two cars were abandoned in Mexico. He buried six family members in a span of two years. His worst fear, he told me, was that the deaths would be forgotten and lost to history once Calderon left office. He said he would make sure that no one forgot what happened to his family and his hometown.
“I believe that for all these dead there will never be justice. No one will be detained, no one jailed, no one condemned. Calderon will leave office and another president will come,” Saul said, wiping tears away. “But someday I’ll go back to my hometown and erect a great monument that says that in waging war, President Calderon supported the death of all these people. And all the names will be there so that in the future we don’t live the same story twice. So the memory of those who died stays with us forever, whomever they were, because these were human lives.”
Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.