Criminal anarchy on America’s doorstep

By Bernd Debusmann
September 24, 2009

Bernd Debusmann-Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

When Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, ordered 2,500 troops and federal agents into border city Ciudad Juarez 17 months ago to tamp down drug violence, the monthly murder rate ran at an average of 66. In retrospect, those were the days of peace and calm.

Ciudad Juarez has become the most active front in simultaneous and increasingly bloody wars. One is between drug cartels fighting each other for access to the U.S. market. Another is between drug traffickers and Mexican authorities charged with imposing law and order. They have been singularly unsuccessful.

Despite a vastly increased military presence (now about 7,000, plus 2,500 federal agents), the monthly body count this year has averaged more than 180 a month. In August, the body count exceeded 300, a record. According to a study published in August by a Mexican non-profit group, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice, Ciudad Juarez (population 1.6 million) has become the world’s most violent city.

Nation-wide, almost 14,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderon took office and declared war on the drug business. Casualties on the government side: 725 police and soldiers between the beginning of 2008 and mid-2009 alone.

But body counts tell only part of the story. To hear residents of Ciudad Juarez tell it, there is a third war going on, waged by common criminals against citizens who are fast losing what little faith they had that the state can provide security.

Common crime, from robbery and rape to extortion, auto theft and kidnapping for ransom, is up and Ciudad Juarez, divided from its Texan sister city El Paso by the Rio Grande river, has slid into what one long-time resident calls “a permanent state of criminal anarchy.”

Most killings fall into the category of “bad guys eliminating bad guys” and don’t inspire much, if any, investigative energy. And there is near-absolute impunity for murdering “malandros,” a colloquial term for an underclass of young addicts, small-time drug dealers, homeless people and others at the bottom of the social pile, according to Gustavo de la Rosa, a senior investigator of the Human Rights Commission of the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juarez is the biggest city.

“We estimate that between 300 and 500 malandros have been killed since July of 2008,” de la Rosa said in an interview. “Not a single one of these murders has been solved, which leads one to believe that what is going on is ‘social cleansing’ with the tacit permission of the state.” Oscar Maynez Grijalva,  a former state forensics chief, has talked about death squads whose activities should be, but are not, investigated.

In the most brutal act so far of what some suspect is “social cleansing,” gunmen wielding AK-47 assault rifles stormed into a drug rehabilitation center early in September, herded 18 youths outside, lined them up against a wall and shot them. For good measure, they also put a bullet through the head of the center’s dog. It was the fifth mass killing at a rehabilitation center in a year and it took place within sight of the U.S. border fence.


“Social cleansing,” the targeted elimination of groups considered undesirable, worthless or dangerous, has been practiced in a number of countries across Latin America, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Honduras, Argentina, and Colombia, where the victims are labelled “the disposable ones.” It has not been a Mexican tradition.

But now, looking too closely into the question “who is killing whom and why” is becoming an increasingly risky business, as is following up on citizens’ complaints about army abuses. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has documented rapes, executions, torture and arbitrary detentions in states where the army is fighting the drug cartels.

Since Calderon began using the military to bypass notoriously corrupt police agencies, around 50,000 soldiers and 30,000 federal police officials have been deployed in drug-producing states and border cities. If Ciudad Juarez is a model, they can be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Take the case of de la Rosa, who became an outspoken critic of the military in the course of his job – pressing the army to investigate complaints from victims or their families. That earned him ever more explicit warnings to cool his criticism, from telephoned death threats to the detention and beating of one of his bodyguards.

“I’m convinced my life is at risk and on August 25, I asked the head of the state human rights commission to arrange for protection for myself and my office,” he said.  His request was greeted with silence, until September 20, when he was suspended from his job because the commission saw no way to guarantee his safety.

He then sent a detailed, 3,100-word letter to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission urging it to take measures to protect his life and that of his wife and 21-year-old son. What effect that plea will have remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, “I’ve begun adjusting my life,” said de la Rosa. “I won’t be sleeping in the same place every night. I won’t follow a daily routine.”In other words, he is going into hiding in the city where he has lived for most of his 63 years. Criminal anarchy in action.

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That sounded like a line right out of a Sean Hannity rant.

So it’s your stance that Bush warned us of more violence coming to the cities closest to the US border? That’s weird to me, since he pulled every single national guard from the border.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive


I never put any limits on who the drug war affects, it affects everyone. Everything that’s sold on the market is taxed through sales taxes, etc.

The black market for tobacco isn’t a big deal or a large market, and it’s something that could be easily fixed with a tax cut. The moonshine market isn’t that big of a deal either, there will always be a small black market for anything no matter what you do.

I’m not saying tax the world out of marijuana, tax it a small amount more than sales tax and the free market will drown out 95-99% of the black market whether it be people buying marijuana/marijuana products, plants or seeds.

I don’t like how it affects all classes of people, but it hurts poor people and blacks/hispanics the most. Just look at our prison population. As far as rich people go I don’t like how all the righteous people freaked out when they saw Michael Phelps with a bong, I’m sure that cost him some money too. It takes a very senile person to think it’s a big deal to see a young person with marijuana and react by flipping out, since every kid has done it pretty much.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

We all know what the solution is: legalize the drugs. With the drugs legal, the profit drops out of the gangs and they can no longer afford to maintain their actions. The corrupt cops, as in Chicago at the end of prohibition, will kill the gangs off to protect themselves from blackmail, etc. Legalizing drugs would solve most of the world’s crime problems, wipe out the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Colombian, Mexican, etc. drug gangs, and so on. The same number of drug addicts will remain. It never really changes anyway, as ending prohibition proved. It’s a win for everyone. the people supporting keeping drugs illegal are all profiting from that area. Politicians, prisons, cops, etc. all make money off the drug problem. Stop the problem and solve the problems. Let’s get smart on crime.

Posted by robert1234 | Report as abusive

It’s why we need a fence.

Posted by SirTennyson | Report as abusive

Hey Michael,
It is not about how to tax drugs.
It is not about how to drive drugs from black market to open market. It is about how to STOP drugs.
Blacks are devastated by drugs. 2/3 of blacks in jails are on drug charges. ‘Rust belt’ hooking on drugs essentially the same story in making. You dream about control by taxation would not work for:
1. There is huge gap between cost and price. Your taxation would not work. Your tax is essentially my black profit. Temptation is way too big.

2. Big % of drug uses quickly slip outside of society. They loose any intensive to pay extra for ‘legal drugs’.

3. Introduction of ‘legal drugs’ makes legal starting point for n.2.


You claimed:
“The black market for tobacco isn’t a big deal or a large market”
Last month NYPD single case netted $21,000,000. Is it small?
That exactly what comes with prohibiting taxation. It actually fuels black market instead of killing it.

Again you talk like urban folk who saw some of recreational drugs and police harassing kids over pot. Unfortunately your country is much more bigger and socially diversed. It is about no-go areas in LAX, NYC and New Ark etc where even ‘good’ kids forced do drugs or he/she well be REALLY harassed by gangs.
It is about ‘ghost towns’ in CA and ‘Rust belt’.
I don’t see how your taxation will change drug dealing in these areas.
I see nice urban kids will pay extra $$ for ‘legal drugs’ to avoid trouble. What about real problem areas.

I am immigrant and looks like I saw more places in US than you did :).

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive


If you’re looking to stop drugs than you might as well give up completely. Unless you’re willing to give the government round the clock power to go into every house in America whenever they want and the power to seize anything they want than it’s impossible. I saw a guy growing a marijuana plant in his closet where no sun ever hit it, you going to search every closet in America? You going to search every person’s pocket?

I said in my last post i wanted a small tax, a small tax would not put a huge cost between production and price, captial markets fix that. There will always be incentive to buy legal, price, convenience, legality etc.

No I don’t consider 21 million a lot, however like i said before that could be easily fixed with a cigarette tax reduction. The black market for moonshine would mostly be killed too if people weren’t so avid about shoving Christianity down everyone’s throat and making alcohol illegal to sell in many places on sundays.

You’re 100% wrong on my background, the best thing to do is ask rather than guess. I grew up in the Northern Lights section of Columbus Ohio, not exactly the Bronx but certainly an urban area. I saw every day how much the people hated the police and government, I did (and do) also.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Hello Michael,
I realize that drugs here to stay. Police, army and any other gov force can achieve only temporary results like arrest all dealers. Law enforcement is expensive and tend to become corrupted over time. On long run gangs will always a step ahead from law enforcement.

The long term results require social engineering. That means providing jobs, safe affordable housing, and education. It also implies a lot of gov intervention even in more inefficient way – social services. Look at New Ark NJ. Fed/State flooded city with money with no effect.

Now we come to utopia.
Strong Assumption: Most people in drug infected areas like to break free but trap in poverty cycle.

In some countries desperate communities do self policing against gangs. In US it may sound like private community where members can expel others for drugs while gov provide them with social net like: protect from gangs retaliation, jobs/schooling.

Yep. Sound naive.

Drugs and alcohol are social. They help individual to bridge the gap between where he/she sees itself in dreams and ugly reality. The only way to address the issue is make life easy for average person. Neither legal drugs and taxation nor brutal police force address the real issue behind drugs.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

Why not invade Mexico and make it a state?

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

First I would like to point out drugs are not political so it’s not a certain party. Secondly there is no such thing as a little tax that lasts long.
Back off the little guys that are draining the system and concentrate on the big ones both out in the mountains and here in the capitals (everywhere).
Don’t empty your Thompson on that 29 Ford racing away then proudly pose for the pictures. Let it make it’s delivery, and follow it back to the still.

Posted by Phubaiguy | Report as abusive

…very funny Mufaso, please include sub-equatorial Africa too, I mean it ! Then we can fight Nigeria together !



Posted by ANON | Report as abusive

legalizing drugs removes one of many serious problems and opens markets in counseling, rehabilitation,and even education in responsible use of those drugs that have had a sacred place in various human cultures across the world.

Will there still be crime? Of course! But it is human nature to desire an altered state of consciousness. That’s why people smoke and drink, etc.. And lets not forget that it is actually prescription drug abuse, and not street drugs which represent the greatest harm because they are abused the most.

People who fall into addiction do so because of a lack of understanding and also because of feelings of hopelessness and desperation. These things are not crimes. They are the result of how we live and deal with each other.

Bringing the drug trade into the open and educating people to “use responsibly”, just like we educate people to “drink responsibly”, will go a long way towards solving many of the problems that drug abuse brings.

People don’t like it when government tells them what they can and cannot take into their own bodies.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive