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

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Traditionally, Mexico's military is a don't-touch zone. Attorney De la Rosa, 64, the legal scholar who ran the Chihuahua state prison system, is a veteran of human rights legal battles, including against the military death squads called the White Brigades in the 1960s.

Since 2008, De la Rosa had documented 170 cases of soldiers kidnapping, torturing and extorting innocent people. In October 2009, he fled the city after several threats against his life, including an unloaded gun pointed at his head.

"In every sense of the legal term, under the constitution, this was military coup. We are under an occupation," said De la Rosa, who reports to the state attorney general.

De la Rosa said General Felipe de Jesus Espidia, commander of the 5th Military Command overseeing operations in Juárez, told him to drop the cases against his troops. He refused and after that, he said, threats against him ensued.

"It was probably someone I named in my lawsuits, but I don't know. The military and the priesthood—it's impossible to win against them. One has the power of the nation, the other the power of God," said De la Rosa, who is a symbol of human rights in Juárez and is nicknamed Santa Claus for his long white hair and beard. "But I am like a boxer in the fifth round, I'm not done fighting."

De la Rosa, who has resolved dozens of cases of illegal military detentions since 2008, didn't take the threats, including telephone calls and being followed into gas station bathrooms and accused of being in cohorts with traffickers, all that seriously. But in August, one of his bodyguards was detained, held overnight and tortured by the army.

He wrote a letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking help. De la Rosa lived in the Valley of Juárez, in the neighborhood of San Isidro, now mostly deserted after many of his neighbors fled.

The last straw came in October, he said, when state Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez called "to tell me they could no longer protect me, that I was going to get killed and to leave Juárez immediately. I think, honestly, they were being nice and warning me.

"But I knew then I was completely alone, that I had no institutional support at all," he said.

On October 15, De la Rosa drove across the bridge to El Paso where there was an alert for his car's license plates at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. U.S. authorities urged him to seek political asylum to ensure his safety, but he refused. He now lives in a small house in the outskirts of El Paso on a six-month tourist visa that expires in May. Meanwhile, talks with the military and state officials have allowed for his return to work in Juárez, and his office was moved inside the attorney general's office.

"I continue working for the people of Juárez. I can't leave the city to the hands of delinquents," he said. "I have to fight for the rule of law, or otherwise we will have another revolution."

De la Rosa became a human rights activist in the 1960s at the height of the country's "dirty war" in which leftist dissidents were disappeared and tortured. He won cases against the White Brigades, the military secret operatives similar to other armed forces that left tens of thousands dead in Argentina, Chile and Brazil at the time.

Under Joint Operation Chihuahua, the military has had legal authority to detain suspects. It's a murky line easily crossed in a city where anyone is suspect. In Mexico, human rights violations reportedly committed by soldiers are usually investigated by the military itself, and most go untried.

By the same token, army and federal troops are also targets of attacks by organized crime and gangs. International human rights organizations say more than 80 soldiers have been killed since 2008. Observers say it's a war of unseen fighters.

"The cartels don't act like a regular army but like guerrillas, and the proportions aren't one-to-one because the army doesn't know where and when the narcos are going to attack," said drug investigator Chabat. "There's inefficiency and corruption at all levels. The government doesn't think it has another option besides military force. But the resources are limited. Clearly it's not working."

The bloodshed has prompted all sorts of comparisons to recent history—that Mexico hasn't seen this much disdain for a government since the 1910 Mexican Revolution against dictator Porfirio Diaz and that its violence is reminiscent to the 1930s mafia wars during Prohibition in the United States. But by body count, Juárez has likely surpassed Prohibition's bootlegging bloodshed.

"We're missing the boat here in the U.S. We're at the front line of a war and Americans think it's an abstraction," said El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke, 37, who leads the charge locally to legalize marijuana. "The war on drugs has been an abject, miserable failure. The narcos aren't making a political statement. This isn't the FARC in Colombia...It's pure economics and one way to stop this, at least some of it, is to legalize marijuana."

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Susana Hayward