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Drug Turf War Takes Toll on City

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To residents of this violent city, the scene on the evening news was distressingly familiar: A three-car convoy of men clutching semiautomatic pistols had just chased down a Chevrolet Suburban, blasted out its windows and killed a lawyer inside.

But to Maria Concepcion Valdez, a 38-year-old homemaker, the attack was terrifyingly different. It took place right down the street from her two-bedroom townhouse in a middle-class neighborhood--not far from where her 5-year-old son regularly rides his bike.

“I just wanted to cry. I was so shaken up by the [Suburban] and the blood,” she said, recalling the TV images. “Now I don’t leave the house, I’m so afraid.”

This city across the border from El Paso, and home to one of Mexico’s biggest narcotics cartels, is in the midst of a drug war.

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As groups battle to succeed drug kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who died last July, the shootouts have increasingly spilled into the city’s family restaurants, busy downtown streets and quiet housing developments.

The result is a near-paranoia among Juarez residents, such as Valdez, who had long shrugged off the thriving drug trade as something that did not affect them. And the fear does not stop at the Rio Grande: So many Americans have stopped visiting this city that the restaurant and hotel industries are in a slump.

“This is the biggest problem here--there is an internal fight among the criminal groups to position themselves. And those who pay are the average citizens,” said Martin Alonso Cisneros, head of the local chamber of tourism and services.

Mexico received a passing grade Thursday in the United States’ annual review of its partners in the war on drugs. But the bloodshed in Juarez shows the mounting toll that the narcotics trade is taking in Mexico, where drug traffickers have corrupted government institutions, fueled crime and fed a small but growing national appetite for cocaine.

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Already, the rate of drug killings in Juarez is higher than it was during the Miami cocaine wars of the late 1970s--which eventually resulted in the U.S. war on drugs.

Since the death of Carrillo, who had kept a lid on assassinations, at least 60 people have been slain in drug-related attacks in Ciudad Juarez, justice officials say.

The overwhelmed mayor of Ciudad Juarez, Enrique Flores, is pleading for federal help.

“Ciudad Juarez has become a battleground for drug-trafficking groups that are fighting to control this area,” the mayor said in a letter to President Ernesto Zedillo published in newspapers this month.

The cartel war began after the bizarre death of Carrillo. He died after extensive plastic surgery, leaving the Juarez cartel in the hands of his brother, Vicente, apparently a less imposing figure, authorities say.

With the Juarez cartel weakened, Mexico’s other top drug group--led by the Arellano Felix brothers of Tijuana--made its move, according to U.S. and Mexican investigators.

“They are encroaching on Amado’s old territory--they smell blood. They sense there’s weakness in the organization,” said Craig Chretien, who recently retired as a top intelligence official for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Authorities say they believe that the Tijuana group has allied itself with a Juarez businessman, Rafael Munoz Talavera, who was released from a Mexican prison in 1996 after serving two years on a narcotics conviction.

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“Munoz Talavera is the man to watch. He wants to be king of the border,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the man who apparently would be king has his enemies: A lawyer who had worked for him was killed in October. Munoz Talavera says he fears that he and his family may be next.

Munoz Talavera wrote to Zedillo in December portraying himself as an innocent victim pursued by criminals “who think that I’m competing with them in their dirty business.”

“I want to make very clear that I am not involved in drug trafficking or any illicit activity,” he said in the letter, which was published as a paid advertisement in a local newspaper.

Even in a city rife with kidnappings, muggings and murder, the recent spate of drug slayings has stood out.

There was, for example, the couple who were kidnapped in front of their 3-year-old son and then strangled, reportedly over a drug feud. Their bodies were dumped in a well-to-do neighborhood.

There was the man who emerged from the bathroom of a sushi restaurant downtown firing a pistol at a nearby table, killing a customer.

There were the bodies of four doctors dumped near the Rio Grande last August who are believed to have treated a suspected trafficker. They had been strangled.

In the most recent attack, on Feb. 19, gunmen pumped 10 bullets into the lawyer’s Suburban after a high-speed chase. Authorities have not yet confirmed whether traffickers were behind the killing, although the style is consistent with drug attacks.

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Mayor Flores said the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez last year was actually down slightly from the year before. But “those of ’97 were more spectacular,” he said.

That has caused the panic.

Astrid Gonzalez has fought crime for years as head of a Juarez civic group, Citizens’ Committee Against Violence. But even she is shaken by the drug killings, she said.

“This situation of violence in the streets is a new phenomenon for us,” she said.

In the past, she said, drug traffickers “settled their scores among themselves. It was like ‘The Godfather.’ We didn’t see this problem.”

The public violence is changing the way people live in this city of 1.3 million. Residents discourage their children from going out at night. Bodyguards have become more common. At the sushi restaurant, the owner is planning to install a metal detector.

“Before, you’d go out to dance with your friends at a disco, but now you don’t,” said Jose Fabricio Fuentes, 23, manager of the restaurant, Kinsui.

The drug war has scared away many visitors from Arizona, Texas and other border areas who once thought nothing of spending an evening or weekend in this city.

Ft. Bliss, a U.S. Army base in El Paso, is restricting its 12,000 soldiers’ visits across the river to Ciudad Juarez. Some residents of El Paso are afraid to visit their families in the adjoining city.

The decline in visitors has hurt hundreds of restaurants, hotels and shops.

“In restaurants alone, I could talk about a 60% drop in sales,” said Cisneros of the tourism chamber.

Because of lower prices in Mexico, he said, “people used to come from El Paso to get their hair done, to wash their car. But no more. They feel it’s dangerous.”

In fact, the drug violence in Ciudad Juarez has claimed the lives of two El Paso residents.

And in an illustration of how the bloodshed may be spilling over the border, a U.S. man was slain in a mafia-style shooting on an El Paso freeway in September. Police are investigating whether traffickers were involved.

“The war isn’t over,” said a justice official in Ciudad Juarez. “It’s like the era of Al Capone. That’s what we’re living here.”


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