Innocents

A relative of Alexia Moreno touches her coffin during the burial ceremony in Ciudad Juarez. Alexia was shot in the head while cowering in the back seat of the vehicle into which she and her companions had been scooped up by gang members. (Luis Torres / Diario de Juarez / July 16, 2008)

Scooped up by gunmen as she walked near her home, 12-year-old Alexia Moreno hardly had a chance. The gangsters were driving straight into a shootout. Within minutes, she was dead, shot in the head as she cowered in the back seat.

It was two weeks before her sixth-grade graduation.

Alexia's death in a city so accustomed to death struck a nerve because she was, in this city tortured by killings, broad-daylight gun battles and rampant kidnappings, an innocent victim.

That description isn't redundant in a country in the grip of a raging drug war: The vast majority of the thousands of dead are thought to have some connection to the cartels. They have been hired hit men, drug runners, corrupt police officers.

Suddenly, however, this rough-and-tumble town and other Mexican cities have become citadels of fear even for many who thought they were safe from the mayhem: a pregnant woman washing her car, a 4-year-old, a father and son in their home. And Alexia, who was killed last month.

"Over the years you get used to the violence, but then, in 10 minutes, everything changes," said Alexia's aunt, Cecilia Rodriguez, 37.

In the last few days, the neighboring state of Sinaloa has been shocked by a wave of violence that has taken the lives of many innocents, including another 12-year-old girl. Authorities said Tuesday that more than 1,200 additional federal police were deployed to Sinaloa as part of a nationwide government offensive involving about 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police officers.

Ciudad Juarez has become a singular symbol of Mexico's drug war, a concentration of everything that can go wrong. About 3,000 troops of the Mexican army arrived here after President Felipe Calderon launched an all-out offensive against drug traffickers, yet the killings have soared.

Gun battles interrupt traffic in the middle of the day along Triumph of the Republic Boulevard and the city's other main drags; corpses, sometimes mutilated or headless, turn up at shopping centers and fast-food joints; hospitals come under machine-gun fire. Ominous voices break into emergency-frequency radio traffic, warning paramedics not to pick up bodies, journalists not to approach the scene.

Nearly a third of Mexico's drug-related killings in this record year have been registered in Juarez and its surroundings.

Take last month, for example: In one not particularly unusual weekend, 17 people, including a journalist, were killed; the sister-in-law of a U.S. congressman was kidnapped; and a dozen businesses were set ablaze after receiving threats.

The month before that, Juarez's top police commander resigned and fled after his second- and third-in-command were assassinated along with a dozen or so other officers, some named on a hit list. In a setback to basic democracy, civilian authorities have essentially been supplanted by the army. Retired artillery officer Roberto Orduña Cruz took over public security, pledging tough measures to crack down on violent organized crime.

In Juarez, as in much of Mexico, the drug war boils down to a turf battle between rival drug gangs, often referred to as cartels. Here, one faction led by the notorious Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from the neighboring state of Sinaloa is trying to wrest control from the consortium of gangs that has traditionally dominated the drug trade, the so-called Juarez cartel.

Both groups have well-armed private armies that mercilessly eliminate enemies and potential impediments such as police detectives. Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz says he believes people can still live a normal life in Juarez, and that most residents support the government's actions. But he also evinces the kind of resigned fatalism that breeds despair. The drug war, he suggests, will end only when both sides have ended up killing each other.

"It is more probable that a decision by the two groups ends this than does intervention by the government," Reyes said in an interview. Like many residents of Juarez, he also maintains a home across the border in El Paso.

Reyes acknowledged that the performance of the police has not inspired confidence. Last year's police commander was arrested in February on charges of attempting to smuggle a ton of marijuana into the U.S. through El Paso. He pleaded guilty in a U.S. court. Reyes said the police are being overhauled and screened in an effort to remove the corrupt and the drug users among them.

Up to 20% of the police force is corrupt and will be fired, said a senior official who requested anonymity because the purge is ongoing.

It is true, as the mayor insists, that the number of "innocent victims" is minuscule in the grand scale of things, which is why there isn't much public outrage at a sustained or national level.

But as the violence becomes more widespread, and the number of innocents caught up in it grows, support for Calderon's campaign could erode.