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CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO—The music is loud and the bar is well stocked. I sit timidly with a can of beer, eyes on the entrance. This was a happening nightclub before Juarez was transformed into a war zone. My companion, Julian Cardona, who used to shoot photos for the society pages of a local newspaper, describes what it used to be like here: Hummers triple-parked on the sidewalk, hundred-dollar tips, well-dressed Texans waiting behind velvet ropes to get in. Not anymore. The night I visited, the place was near empty, waitresses busy with their iPhones, a wandering cigarette vendor calling out to make a sale.
It was Cardona's idea to go to the nightclub; he said it would help me understand the city better. His career has taken an unexpected turn because of the violence: these days, instead of shooting for the society pages, he shoots crime scenes in one of the world’s most violent cities.
Ciudad Juarez, a city that boomed with the introduction of maquiladoras, has long been a city with high levels of violence. The murders of women through the 1990s gained international attention. For each dead woman, there were nine murdered men.
But when Juarez transformed into the focal point of Mexico’s war against drug traffickers, things in the city began to change beyond recognition. President Felipe Calderon launched a militarized war on drug traffickers at the beginning of his term in December 2006. At the end of March 2008, thousands of soldiers and federal police officers arrived in Ciudad Juarez as part of a surge against drug traffickers. After the police and troops arrived, the murder rate skyrocketed, violence increased, and kidnappings spiked. Ciudad Juarez became synonymous with everything that is wrong in Mexico.
But what’s happening in Mexico and in Juarez isn’t happening in isolation. On the one hand, drug consumption in Canada and the US fuels much of the demand that keeps the cartels in business. On the other, Canada and the US have increased their support for the Mexican police and army, even as their role in cities like Juarez is coming under intense criticism. This relationship was highlighted in March when defence ministers from all three countries held trilateral meetings for the first time.
"What we've seen here in [Ciudad Juarez] is that the city was militarized on the last day of March of 2008, when federal forces arrived here, thousands of troops from the army and the federal police," said Carlos Yeffim Fong, an activist and student who lives in Ciudad Juarez. At the peak of the militarization of Juarez, between 2009 and 2010, 5,000 federal police and 5,000 soldiers were in the city.
"Generally, before the soldiers came, there was an average of two murders a day, and when the soldiers arrived, that number began to rise, to five, and later to 10," recounted Fong on a cool November afternoon at the campus of the state-funded Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ). "We've seen various cases where the army and federal police killed minors, as well as police and soldiers directly involved in robbery."
Locals also link federal police, known in Mexico as Federales, to kidnapping.
"When the wave of kidnappings grew, it was because of the arrival of the federal police," said Leobardo Alvarado, who runs the alternative news outlet JuarezDialoga. "Of course, it hasn't been proven that it has to do with that, but yes there are many documented cases where there were people linked to the federal police who committed these crimes."
The involvement of police in illegal activities is nothing new. "Mexican police, indeed, are widely reported to be involved in the trade of drugs, actively through assistance or passively through corruption," wrote Mathieu Deflem, a professor at the University of South Carolina, in 2001. But over the past ten years, the level of police involvement in the drug trade has deepened.
"There's always been a really close line, or, well, they're the same," said Cardona, who has lived in Juarez for over 30 years. "The police and the entire state apparatus, all of the institutions of the state, have always been the guarantors of the drug trade."
I interviewed Cardona on the patio of a Starbucks, the only establishment in Juarez that still dares to open its outdoor seating area. Our table faced a Wal-Mart, built over top of what was once a bullfighting arena. Every so often, we'd see a police car make a slow loop through the parking lot, lights flashing.
Police involvement in the drug trade intensified with the growth of Mexico's internal drug market, whose expansion has to do in part with increased border controls introduced after September 11, 2001. "Just 10 years ago, there was a lot of narcotrafico in Mexico but Mexicans themselves weren’t consuming the drugs," said Dr William I Robinson, professor and author of A Theory of Global Capitalism. "Now there’s millions of Mexicans that are addicted to drugs, and that are consumers of drugs also, and that’s because of those changes at the border and the changes in the velocity of drugs moving through Mexico."
As local drug markets grew, according to Cardona, police began to move drugs themselves, to execute people and even to move bodies in patrol cars, all of which meant they earned more money. Instead of wiping out these behaviors, the militarization of the city seems to have exacerbated them. "What happens is that when the Federales arrive in Juarez, and the army, is that they basically displace local state or municipal police from their markets," said Cardona.
Not everyone agrees on what exactly pushed Ciudad Juarez onto the map as a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world. The mainstream media claimed the violence stemmed from a turf war between the Sinaloa Cartel and La Linea, the armed wing of the Juarez Cartel, which they claim police and soldiers helped to quell. Upon careful examination, this narrative is constructed in the media using official sources such as unnamed officials and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The residents of Juarez I spoke to, however, place the blame squarely at the hands of the police and the army.
According to Molly Molloy, a librarian at New Mexico State University who tracks the violence in Mexico, close to 95,000 people have been murdered in the country since the beginning of Calderon's term. In Juarez alone, more than 10,000 people have been murdered since 2008. Officials often state the dead were involved in the drug trade, but murders are rarely investigated.
"Most of the killings are between people, well, the people who died were unarmed," said Dr. Hector Padilla, a professor at the UACJ, with a dry chuckle. "The majority are people who were in transit, or who were working, or in their homes and someone arrives and pluck," he said, making a gun with his fingers and pulling the trigger.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre puts the number of internally displaced people at 160,000, though other studies show the number could be much higher. In addition, more than 5,000 people have been disappeared since 2006, and the number of federal prisoners has quintupled to more than 18,000, 40 per cent of whom are in pre-trial detention.
Images of gun-fighting, seized drugs and arrests are regularly reported on the evening news, while blogs disseminate torture-kill videos and grisly images of massacres and corpses cut into pieces.
Since the war on drugs was declared, police and policing have been a key component of the Merida Initiative, a US-Mexico strategy that aims to disrupt drug traffickers. In 2010, there were an estimated 409,536 police in Mexico, according to Insyde, a non-profit organization involved in US-funded police training. Federal police, of which there are more than 30,000, all receive in-country military training.
Before the US announced the Merida Initiative in 2007, Canada had already begun to increase security co-operation with Mexico.
Under the rubric of the Security and Prosperity Partnership, then-Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day and his Mexican counterpart agreed to create a working group focused on bilateral security co-operation in early 2007. Two years later, RCMP officers were training Mexican Federal police.
"The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, along with trainers from the United States and other international partners, are providing basic training to Mexican Federal Police recruits," said Stephen Harper during a stop in Guadalajara in 2009. In addition to training 1,500 low-level Federales, the RCMP trained 300 mid-level Mexican officers, and 32 Mexican police commanders received training at the Canadian Police College.
There is no transparency from the RCMP regarding which Mexican officers have attended training in Canada, and thus far no way to verify whether or not Canadian-trained officers have been directly involved in criminal acts. "For security reasons we cannot give you the names of the Officials that attended training at our Canadian Police College," wrote RCMP media liaison Greg Cox in an email to The Dominion.
By late 2011, US funding had been used to "train over 55,000 law enforcement and justice sector officials, including 7,200 Federal police officers," according to the US State Department.
The New York Times reported that this training involved "conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects."
Regardless of the stated efforts of international police forces, corruption among Mexican police has not diminished. "We do not want to overstate this finding: We see no evidence that police corruption is actually falling," reads a 2011 report prepared by the right-wing Rand Corporation.
RCMP and US training of Mexican police is taking place alongside officers from Israel, Colombia, France, Spain, El Salvador, Holland, and the Czech Republic. Maribel Cervantes Guerrero, the highest ranking federal police officer in Mexico, was trained in the US, Israel and Spain.
International co-operation in matters of security creates spaces where "bureaucrats and military elites actively study and borrow each other’s techniques and advise one another on effective ruling practices," according to Laleh Khalili, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of London.
Renewed international interest on the part of Canada, the US and others in training Mexican police comes despite the fact that there is no proof that such training improves security or democracy.
"There is no evidence that almost a century of US assistance to foreign police has improved either the security of the people in recipient countries or the democratic practices of their police and security forces," points out Dr Martha Huggins, who has written extensively on US training of Latin American police. Instead, she says, "the outcome of such training may suggest that the training of Latin American police has deliberately been used to increase US control over recipient countries and those governments' undemocratic control over their populations."
But this isn't just about the US training Mexican cops. The RCMP’s training of Mexico’s police indicates that Ottawa is interested in developing a stronger influence over Mexico’s internal security matters.
In addition to police training, Canada and Mexico hold annual political, military and inter-army talks, and work together with the US and other nations through the Florida-based, anti-drugs Joint Interagency Task Force South. Mexico is also a member state of Canada's Directorate of Military Training and Co-operation, an organization the Department of National Defence says is designed to "enhance bilateral defence relationships with countries of strategic interest to Canada."
From March 26 to 27, 2012, defence ministers from Canada, the US and Mexico held their first trilateral meeting, promising to increase defence co-operation in the fight against drug cartels, as well as protecting trade. "By virtue of our geography, our peoples, and our trading relationship, our three nations share many defence interests,” reads a joint statement by defence ministers.
With bilateral merchandise trade at $21.3 billion and Canadian foreign direct investment at $4.9 billion in 2009, the government of Canada considers Mexico "one of Canada’s most important trading partners in the world."
By 2011 there were more than 2,500 Canadian companies operating in Mexico. Canada's presence is especially strong in the mining and aerospace sector; Goldcorp and Bombardier have made major investments over the past two years.
Canada's growing corporate presence in Mexico may in part explain the increasingly close military and police co-operation. "If it’s a problem for Mexico, it’s a problem for Canada," said Defence Minister Peter MacKay in a statement to the media after the March meeting.
The fact that policing is the central focus of Canada’s security engagement with Mexico is in line with current military strategy, which advocates local police taking a key role over the long term.
"In the simplest of terms, the aim of military intervention is to restore the situation to the point at which the host nation police and security forces are able to maintain law and order," reads Canada's Counterinsurgency Operations Manual.
Indeed, getting the army off the streets of Juarez and the rest of Mexico is also a stated goal of the US State Department. "The Ambassador emphasized that the Mexican military needed an exit strategy," reads a State Department cable released by Wikileaks. "Mexico must build up its civil police and prosecutorial forces to fill much of the space currently occupied by the military."
Though homicide rates have begun to drop in Ciudad Juarez, there continues to be far more murders in the city than there were prior to 2008. Federal police still patrol Juarez, usually masked, often in the back of a pick-up truck with semi-automatic AR-15 rifles across their chests. Residents indicate that simply being out on the street is enough to provoke search and detention by police, likening the situation to an unofficial curfew under which the poorest are regular targets for police abuse.
Far from improving security for residents of Mexican cities and towns, the replacement of soldiers with an expanded, internationally trained, militarized police force is tantamount to the extension of war, by another name.
Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.