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A Report From Juarez, the Front Line of the War on Drugs 

Thursday, Apr 29 2010
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Mexicans lived in America before many territories became states. Indeed, much of our country was once their country. Today, Mexican immigrants are part of the fabric of this nation. Yet there is now fervor to drive immigrants out — almost at all costs. Keep them from coming here — almost at all costs.

What part of “illegal” don’t you understand?

Arizona, ground zero for the so-called immigration problem in America, has passed a law requiring the police to stop anyone they think might be here illegally and force those stopped to produce proof of citizenship. This puts the yoke of suspicion upon all with brown skin, including Americans. Other states are considering similar legislation.

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Driving on a cold desert night to a small farming community along the Rio Grande where hit men had gunned down a man who stopped to buy a beer, the convoy of local crime photographers snapped away at a soldier manning a checkpoint. He was wearing a skeleton mask, a “mask of death,’’ as he pulled over drivers whom he deemed suspicious and who could be carrying drugs or guns. The soldiers were guarding a main highway outside Ciudad Juárez leading to farming communities that mostly grow cotton and alfalfa along the river.

“He’s just being a jerk,” one photographer for the Diario de Juárez newspaper said of the masked soldier. “A lot of them do it.”

It was a busy night but not unlike others in this dirt-road agricultural region, now known as one of the deadliest places in the world. It’s an area where journalists barely venture and where politicians running for local office are threatened into abandoning their aspirations.

Earlier that evening, the reporters and photographers who cover the city zipped to the international airport, where several hundred passengers had been evacuated following the week’s third bomb scare. When it turned out to be a false alarm — nerves are jittery — the journalists flocked to their parked cars.

Police scanners told of an “executed” man in the Loma Blanca neighborhood in the Valley of Juárez, the porous stretch of land southeast of Juárez that extends somewhat sleepily for 50 miles along the Texas border and has historically been a haven for contraband and illegal immigration.

Normally, the journalists would have sped to the area and tried to scoop their colleagues for the story. But these aren’t normal times. Instead, they organized themselves in a caravan and drove to the scene, keeping track of each other via cell phone.

“We never go alone to a crime scene anymore. It’s too dangerous. This way, if something happens to you, at least there are witnesses,” said one veteran photographer about his beat recording the daily carnage of drug violence in Juárez and its environs. “Yes, we’re scared, but we try to be careful.”

When they arrived at the dusty neighborhood, dozens of people had come out of their homes, and police and soldiers had cordoned off a corner street. The only sound heard was the crying of women and babies. Underneath the yellow light of a Carta Blanca sign outside a small grocery store called La Consentida lay the body of Rogelio Ituarte de la Hoya, a 37-year-old father of five.

“Why? Why?” wailed his mother, Ana Lozano, a retired maid who lives in El Paso, as relatives hugged and consoled her. “These murders are happening every day and no one does anything. My son was innocent. He didn’t have anything to do with drugs!”

An eerie doom hangs over this ghostly border city, militarized by 4,500 soldiers and up to 5,000 federal police since 2008. The soldier wearing the black-and-white skeleton mask at one of dozens of checkpoints erected throughout Juárez probably had a warped sense of humor, but it’s symbolic of the escalating bloodshed witnessed every day, anywhere, at any time.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed the military and federal police in 2008 across northern Mexico to halt violence among warring cartels, the deaths have mounted, and locals see a correlation.

By far, Ciudad Juárez has experienced the most violence, skyrocketing to about 5,060 murders in a little more than two years, and more than 700 from January through April alone. This compares with about 600 murders attributed to drug violence from 2006 to 2008. The Mexican government estimates 22,700 people have died in drug-related crimes across Mexico since 2006, when Calderón took office.

It’s hard to keep up, but on any given day, between three and 12 people, including women and children, are gunned down or show up dead on streets or in ditches, sometimes hanging from a bridge, sometimes floating in the Rio Grande or nearby creeks. Many are involved in organized crime, but many are innocent. There seems to be no safe haven. People are killed at clinics, hospitals, funeral homes, shopping malls and baseball games.

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