Though it’s not expected to reach the record highs witnessed in 2010, this year’s death toll in Ciudad Juárez is still expected to be in the thousands as multiple massacres continue as a weekly occurrence. At least 1,230 have been murdered there this year, and about 8,670 since 2008, according to local media reports.
The assessment is part of global intelligence firm STRATFOR’s latest quarterly report on Mexico. In April it forecast that the Juárez cartel — the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization that has operated under the family’s direction for decades across from El Paso — might meet its end at the hands of its rival, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel. The prediction was a result of intelligence stating the Sinaloa outfit was successfully choking off the hometown gang in the city and surrounding areas, squeezing off its eastern and western supply routes.
STRATFOR estimated then that the violence in the border city might escalate as the Juárez cartel sought ways to replenish its lost revenue, mainly through kidnappings, thefts and extortions. The Juárez cartel has proven more resilient, and Juárez has seen a surge in murders after some observers thought the death toll there would subside.
“Though STRATFOR previously reported that the VCF was hemmed in on all sides by the Sinaloa Federation and essentially confined to downtown Ciudad Juárez, STRATFOR sources have recently indicated that this is no longer quite the case,” the report states.
A quick glance at headlines from the gritty border city tells the story: six killed July 2; 14 killed July 9; 19 killed July 12; nine killed, July 20; eight killed July 21.
“The severity of the violence will depend on the VCF’s ability to resist Sinaloa’s advances,” the report states.
The STRATFOR report also predicts the deployment of Mexican military to parts of Mexico opposite the Texas cities of Laredo, Brownsville and McAllen will lead to a surge in killings in areas already thought to be under cartel control.
Last month Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent about 2,800 troops to the border state of Tamaulipas. The Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, former allies, split last year and began battling each other for control over the plazas that extend from Mexico toward Texas and beyond.
Troops now patrol the streets in the Mexican border cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. The military has replaced most of the local law enforcement, which the intelligence firm says may further complicate matters. The former lawmen include officers who “were on cartel payrolls in more passive roles and now may become cartel gunmen to maintain their income.”
In a follow-up interview with The Texas Tribune, Fred Burton, STRATFOR’s vice president of intelligence and a former special agent in counterterrorism for the U.S. Department of State, said he didn’t believe the increase in violence would stem from the military’s support for one cartel over the other, as some have speculated may be the case.
“I tend to want to give Calderón a little more credit than that,” Burton said. “If I was sitting around his advisory table, I would say that we have to move on those that are creating the most violence and chaos and I think that’s what we are starting to see.”
Burton acknowledges, however, that the surge in violence witnessed in Ciudad Juárez the previous two years only decreased when the military pulled out.
The Zetas, he concludes, have also branched out to reinforce the Juárez Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea, as they wage their battle against the Sinaloa cartel. The rumors of the alliance between La Linea and Los Zetas have been rampant for years, though STRATFOR says the groups only made the pact public June 2, “probably with the aim of creating a psychological edge.”
Though it’s considered a long shot, the added manpower may be enough to legitimately threaten Guzman’s hold on Chihuahua, Burton says.
“The focus can and must remain on progress.”
The STRATFOR report comes shortly after Mexico’s public safety director released a study chronicling the improvements the country’s law enforcement has made under Calderón.
In “The New Model of Security for Mexico,” Public Safety Director Genaro Garcia Luna boasts that Mexico has tripled its federal police forces since 2005, when it had about 10,700 officers to a current-day total of more than 35,000. (The death toll during that same time frame is reported to have exceeded 40,000.) Luna also says the country's federal prison capacity has doubled, it has added 15 new police stations and command centers in Mexico City and Ciudad Juárez and acquired seven Blackhawk helicopters.
The Mexican government’s narrative is being touted by former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and South Texas native Antonio “Tony” Garza, a partner in U.S. based-public affairs outfit Vianovo and counsel in the Mexico City office of White and Case.
“The Federal Police, under Secretary Luna, has shifted from the historically low levels of pride and professionalism and high levels of corruption to a reformed career service model with educational requirements, career training, promotion and disciplinary procedures on par with police forces in some of the world’s richest countries,” Garza said in a statement.
In his assessment, Garza doesn’t attempt to ignore the uphill battle still faced in Mexico, but instead says that while the bloodshed continues to make headlines, the focus should also be on what Mexico has done in its efforts to quell cartel activity.
“Politicians on both sides of the border frequently speak of cooperation and partnership, yet far too often they engage in less than productive finger pointing and second-guessing,” he noted in an email to the Tribune. "There’s also an unfortunate tendency to gloss over a more thoughtful examination of Mexico’s challenges and progress, opting instead to focus almost exclusively on the violence. And, sadly, there remains some truth to the old expression about media reporting: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’”
He argues that the cartels and their corrupt cohorts within the government gained a “head start.”
Asked to respond to reports that the military’s involvement only spurs violence, something not mentioned in his review of Luna’s assessment, Garza said the explanation is an obvious one.
“That's like saying the sun comes up because the rooster crows. The rooster crows in response to an environment,” he said. “The military goes into a region in response to a need, based both an on assessment of the situation on main street and intelligence gathered. That violence follows should come as no surprise.”
At least in Ciudad Juárez, the federal police are also suspected by many of being part of the problem. Rumors of their involvement in crimes, including homicides, are rampant. Interagency cooperation seems to be nonexistent. The most egregious example occurred in January, when a municipal policeman and bodyguard for Juárez Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguía was shot and killed by federal police officers.
When asked to comment on the lack of inter-agency cooperation, Garza said it could most likely be attributed to “turf” battles seen in Mexico and beyond.
“As long as there's turf there will be battles. I've seen it in our own law enforcement agencies and Mexico will have to confront and resolve for itself,” he said. “Should they be working more closely? You bet. But there has been a capacity built at the federal level that cannot yet be matched by the local and state police forces. The challenge is getting the locals there. And the sooner the better.”
Garcia Luna’s assessment is likely to viewed by several as nothing more than propaganda crafted by an outgoing administration increasingly labeled as a problem instead of a solution. Mass demonstrations condemning the violence and Calderón’s injection of the military and federal police in major cities are commonplace. Calderón’s party, the Partido Acción Nacional, also faces a formidable foe in next year’s elections, where several predict Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of the state of Mexico, will lead the rival Partido Institucional Revolucionario to victory and reclaim the presidency.