Consular slayings spotlight Mexico’s failures in fighting drug gangs


The slayings of three people attached to the U.S. Consulate here underscore the failings of Mexico’s military offensive against drug gangs despite a steady flow of troop reinforcements and personal attention from President Felipe Calderon.

Calderon came to Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday for the third time in 33 days. The trip had been previously scheduled, but its agenda was overtaken by the consulate slayings -- the American couple and Mexican man are just three of the 500 people killed in the city this year alone.

The president encountered angry demonstrations, as on his previous visits, and a citizenry that is tense, frustrated and increasingly hopeless.

“We Are Fed Up, Mr. President,” read the banner headline in Ciudad Juarez’s leading newspaper, El Diario.

“More than fed up!” said Irene Bota, a shopkeeper and lifetime resident of this city across the border from El Paso. “You should have seen what Juarez used to be like. Artists, celebrities, soldiers from Ft. Bliss [in El Paso] all came to pass time and enjoy themselves. Now no one dares even go outside.”

Ciudad Juarez today is the epicenter of unrestrained drug-war violence, with the highest homicide and kidnapping rates in the country and one of the broadest penetrations of drug-trafficking corruption.

Coroners are overwhelmed by the number of dead. Houses sit vacant, a quarter of the city’s population, by official estimate, having fled in the last two years. Thousands of businesses have shuttered rather than pay steep extortion fees to gangs.

Calderon has poured nearly 10,000 army and police troops into the city. But far from restoring security, the killings have only soared. Killers act with impunity and, if it turns out the Americans were targeted because of who they were, with newfound brazenness.

In his trip to Ciudad Juarez on Feb. 11, Calderon was forced to publicly recognize that the offensive launched when he took office in December 2006 was “not working.” Military campaigns had to be supplemented with social programs to attack poverty and promote education, he said in a remarkable moment of self-criticism. But residents complain that the words have not translated into concrete actions.

He was pushed to act by the Jan. 31 massacre in Ciudad Juarez of at least 15 mostly young people at a party and by an unusually forceful surge in demands from the public for change.

The attacks Saturday on U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families -- and the swift, harsh voice of outrage from the Obama administration -- ratcheted up the pressure on Calderon and embarrassed his government.

Canada on Tuesday seconded Washington’s warning to citizens against unnecessary travel to parts of Mexico.

Calderon will be pressed to capture suspects to show that his government still has the upper hand. There also will be questions north of the border about the United States’ cooperation with Mexico’s fight against traffickers.

Washington has pledged $1.3 billion to Mexico to beef up police and the judiciary, but only a fraction of the money has been released.

Mexican politicians were quick to lament the consulate deaths but added that the U.S. must share responsibility because its gun dealers supply the weapons and its addicts keep the traffickers in business.

The bodies of Lesley Enriquez, a consular official, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, were returned Tuesday to family in El Paso. Mexican authorities have blamed the killings on the Aztecs drug gang.

Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said Redelfs’ work as an officer in the El Paso prison system, where numerous Aztecs gang members are held, might have had a role in the killings.

Reyes echoed U.S. officials in pledging to capture the culprits quickly, despite the fact that few crimes are ever solved in Mexico.

As Calderon met behind closed doors with security officials here, a small demonstration was taking place outside a funeral home. Relatives of some of the 28 other people killed over the weekend were protesting what they described as the government’s negligence and indifference.

“The curious thing about this [consulate] case is that with one huge slap from [President] Obama, the entire Mexican state seems to have awakened and become determined to make the criminals pay,” commentator Ricardo Aleman noted. “Never mind that those same criminals have killed thousands of young Mexicans, to whose families no authority ever promised justice.”