Death squads act with impunity in Mexico

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After the brutal massacre of 16 youngsters between the age of 15 and 20 last week in Ciudad Juarez, residents of the most heavily militarised city in Mexico are asking the authorities how this could happen. One distraught citizen said in a television interview “We don’t have anyone to defend us or look after us, we pay taxes for all the police and military to come to the city but they are only decoration.” As of march 2009 there were 7500 federal police and soldiers in Juarez, the city with the highest murder rate in the world.

Early on Sunday morning about 16 men carrying high powered rifles arrived in four vehicles at a house party in which many college students were socialising. According to reports the gunmen first opened fire outside the house, then moved inside killing indiscriminately and leaving the residence, which only ten minutes before was filled with happy youngsters, resembling a slaughterhouse (see video).

Citizens of Ciudad Juarez are familiar to such bloodshed however this incident has caused uproar as accusations and hostility have been directed at the government for allowing this to happen. A group appeared on Facebook called “I Condemn the Massacre in Juarez.” The President Felipe Calderon has sparked even more anger by attributing the massacre to a gang feud, which the parents of the victims firmly deny. "I can assure you my nephews were good kids, students. My nephews weren't into drugs, they didn't belong to any gang," an Aunt of two of the victims said in an interview. On Thursday more controversy was sparked when authorities detained a man who was paraded in front of television cameras and claimed to be a lookout for the killers and that he was acting on behalf of the Juarez Cartel who were targeting members of a gang called the Artistic Assassins linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. However many claim that the individual is being used as a scapegoat and a cover up. Subsequently the video of the interview has been removed by many news websites.

Human Rights Organizations have stated that paramilitary death squads are operating in Ciudad Juarez with impunity to intimidate the population and carry out “social cleansing”. Cipriana Jurado is one of the few activists that denounce police and military violence who has not been assassinated yet. She states that the killings in Ciudad Juarez are not so much a result of confrontations between drug gangs but are killings perpetrated against the population. Cipriana highlights last week’s massacre as proof that the militarization is not working.  “How could no one detect four vehicles with heavily armed men inside?”

For the last three years that the military has been used in a law enforcement role in Juarez there have been many accusations of torture, forced disappearances, sexual violence and assassinations of community leaders and human rights defenders by military officers. According to Mrs Jurado killings have increased since the arrival of the military, as well as kidnapping, robbery and extortion. In January 2010, Josefina Reyes a leading human rights activist and colleague of Mrs Jurado, was shot dead by hitmen near Ciudad Juarez. Despite the dangers involved in denouncing the military by the end of June 2009, almost 2,000 complaints of abuse by the military had been received by the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico since the start of 2008.  The few that are taken forward are dealt with in virtually closed military courts where victims and their relatives have no access to information or status on which they can challenge judicial or court proceedings.

The citizens of Ciudad are in an increasingly hopeless situation, stuck in the crossfire between violent drug gangs and corrupt authorities and security forces that act with impunity. A distraught family member of one of the victims stated in reference to the military “Supposedly they are here to defend us, but they are not doing anything, everyone wants them to do something, to defend us, this is why they came”. Police corruption and inefficiency is well known in Juarez and over the past ten years there have been 400 sex-related homicides of women, without any perpetrators being brought to justice.

The citizens of Ciudad Juarez know that their city is strongly infiltrated by drug cartels, however what seems remarkable to them is the lack of success of the police and military. Those higher up in the drug trade seem to be protected within the corrupt political system. The government frequently holds press conferences to parade people who have been arrested in the drug war in front of the camera; however these people are often just small scale soldiers in the drug war and can easily be replaced.

The city of Juarez is as much a human tragedy as it is a government failure. It is a city where the people who can move away do while those that can’t live their daily lives in fear of violence. The citizens of Juarez’s have now lost any previous faith in the authorities stopping the bloodshed.  Mexicans have a strong sense of national sovereignty however they are now calling on the UN to send in peacekeepers. One business executive stated, "We have seen the U.N. peacekeepers enter other countries that have a lot fewer problems than we have."

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