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A Report from Juarez, Mexico, the Bleeding Front Line in the War on Drugs

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Even as violence spreads and mounts across neighboring border states, including the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico's industrial and economic hub, Juárez is ground zero for Calderón's "Joint Operation Chihuahua," which allowed for deployment of the military and federal police.

Calderón's lack of success, highlighted by the March 13 murders a few feet from an international bridge to El Paso of three people linked to the U.S. consulate, has prompted a revision of the United States' so-called "Merida Initiative." Under this plan, the Bush administration had earmarked $1.3 billion for Mexico to fight organized crime, including money for intelligence and aircraft equipment for the country's military and police forces.

The consulate killings brought a high-powered U.S. delegation to Mexico City on March 24. It was led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who told the media that Mexico's military efforts were failing and there was fear of violence spilling across the U.S. border. The meeting with Calderón and top Mexican security and government leaders brought about a revision of the Merida Plan that signaled a move away from the military emphasis to one geared toward social efforts to fight the crime.

Among the new measures revealed last month, Clinton and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa announced a $331 million plan, part of the second phase of the initiative, to redirect the military spending toward social and educational youth programs and improved police training. There's also talk of creating a 10-mile cross-border commuter trail to link El Paso and Juárez, a secure mass transit system for business much like one in Baghdad's Green Zone, in many European nations and in Seattle-Vancouver. But it's too early to tell if it will work, and there's skepticism.

"In the short term, I don't see an option unless you legalize narcotics, but that won't happen quickly," said Jorge Chabat, a narcotics and national security expert and professor in Mexico City's Center for Research and Economic Teaching. "The likeliest scenario is that the violence continues and increasingly affects the U.S., like the violence during Prohibition in the 1930s, which led to the legalization of alcohol. It's an option to solve corruption and violence, not to end drug consumption."

Ciudad Juárez, named after Mexico's only indigenous president, Benito Juárez, was founded in 1659 by Spanish explorers as El Paso del Norte, or the pass to the north. Until recently, it was choked with traffic from trucks and people going about the business that is just part of daily life in neighboring Texas and Mexican cities. People normally go back and forth across international bridges, seeing relatives, shopping or working. Juárez and El Paso make up for one of the largest binational metropolitan areas in the world, together comprising 2.3 million people.

But the lifeline of this symbiotic relationship has now turned into a multibillion dollar key passage of drugs to the United States, and it's bearing the brunt of the impunity, brutality and inhumanity as the cartels battle for control of the illegal drug market to the States as well as the smuggling of high-powered weapons from Texas to Mexico.

"I was born in El Paso, but I live in Juárez because I was married to a Mexican. It was a good life, to be honest. My kids had nannies. I had household help, and we traveled to the interior of Mexico and had lots of fun," said one woman, who like most people interviewed didn't want her name used. "A year ago, I moved to El Paso and stopped going to Juárez. The violence is incredible. We're afraid."

Indeed, the violence for control of the key U.S. smuggling routes likely surpasses the height of drug carnage in the late 1980s in Colombia, where drug baron Pablo Escobar was viewed by many who protected him as a sort of Robin Hood who built hospitals, schools, soccer stadiums and apartments for the poor in his hometown of Medellin. But Juárez has no good guys helping the locals.

The code of mafia honor in which women, children, friends of friends or relatives of enemies went untouched has been abandoned in recent years.

"We live in terror that one day it will be me, or my daughters. You could be walking next to someone the narcos want, and they shoot you for the hell of it. Now the military and the federal police occupy the city. We don't know who's who. We don't trust anyone," said one man who moonlights as a chauffer for the U.S. consulate. Like others, he has seen headless bodies hanging from bridges and lifeless bodies strewn on streets.

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Susana Hayward