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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Good article but nothing new to report really. Another failed war on something by the American goverment.
Another reason to legalise drugs.

Posted by Dutch | Report as abusive

In the case of Hitler “social cleansing” was wrong, morally repulsive, and undeniably cruel and inhumane. This is only because the ones cleansed were innocent of any wrongdoing, and the methods used to cleanse them were barbaric.

In this case “social cleansing” is exactly the model Western society needs to adopt. Anything that actual criminals receive in the way of defense, time, housing, etc. is a waste.

It doesn’t matter what you believe. Everyone will agree that when you are driving in the left lane and someone deliberately drives in front of you slowly, that person has made a conscious decision to delay progress. All such humans are worthless to society, as their invidualism hinders everyone around them.

Freedom is good, sure. But when one person’s freedom is in the way of everyone else’s that person needs to go.

Posted by teh_admiral | Report as abusive

Simple: Seal the border. We have the military power, and simply check, check and check again those who cross. I lived in berlin (West) for 7 years, and I saw how even the dysfunctional East Germans kept the border sealed to all but legitimate traffic.

If the US military can’t do this, then disperse the military, because the world isn’t shaped like Dr. Strangelove anymore.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

Wow Dutch, that was an intelligent insight. Why don’t you go to Ciudad Juarez for a nice visit. Drugs are practically legal there anyhow.

Posted by England | Report as abusive

To Dutch: legalize marijuana, but not the hard drugs. This is another great idea not yet tried and should be.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

JUST BUILD A WALL ALREADY! Build a wall and the drug dealers have to actually WORK to get the product across.

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

Legalizing drugs is not the answer. Class warfare with the result of removing and destroying certain classes is the secular answer. Then comes Jesus.

Posted by Dwaine | Report as abusive

Where in that article is there anything about the American Government? I do agree that legalizing heroin, marijuana, and cocaine would take the power away from the cartels though. We’ll see how that works out now that they have done so.

Posted by chomp | Report as abusive

I tried but failed to read the story in it’s entirety as I could hardly get past the second paragraph. Why is it you choose to bloviate and overuse adjectives to a point of redundancy? It would go without saying that the Mexican authorities are responsible for upholding the law and therefore not required to educate the reader as such. Sorry but I cant read this effort at reporting the news. Maybe Reuters should do better to vet their stories and or authors of same.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

I have to disagree on the whole ‘social cleansing’ pitch. The “malandros” are being killed by other malandros who are trying to get rich just like the former. It is nothing more than a turf war (a very serious one).

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

Agreed with the first post. When something fails, you try again. If it fails for 50 years or longer, STOP! TRY another approach. We all know the real reason behind the archaic drug laws are taxes, racism, and propaganda. Imprisioning people has not worked. Prohibition creates crime where none exists.

Posted by jack | Report as abusive

These are the conditions that lead to revolution. If I remember my history correctly, Cuba in the 40s and 50s was a notoriously corrupt place and as we now know it took little to overthrow the government and replace it with a totalitarian system. If the elected government in Mexico cannot guarantee its citizens a measure of security, then it, too, will go the way of most ineffectual governments. The big question is, how will the USA respond to a failed state on its doorstep? Do we gave enough soldiers and marines on hand to occupy and pacify that country? I rather doubt it. This could get very interesting very, very quickly.

Posted by Bob Foster | Report as abusive

how many of these killers/gansters/criminals are living in US and freely travel across border? close the border now and violence in mexico will stop.

Posted by az guy | Report as abusive

If the federal government would allow states the ability to legalize pot on a state-by-state basis it would take a huge amount of money and power away from these criminals and murderers while making money for state and local governments in a time when our economy is suffering. Too bad most Americans don’t seem to care enough to actually research the topic, and because of it we prop up these cartels like the Mafia was propped up during prohibition. If only those people understood how much money the state could make from this.

“Mankind is more disposed to suffer when evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” – Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence

“Make the most of the Indian Hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!” – George Washington, 1794, in a letter to his gardener

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive


don’t know where you’re from but I coulda sworn that the article was about Mexicans killing Mexicans. How do you figure this has anything to do with America’s failed ‘war on drugs’.

Posted by don | Report as abusive

I don’t think the US legalizing drugs will help Mexico at all. The gangs aren’t going to quit fighting and disband because one of their markets dried up. They’ll just find a new cause, like selling more locally and doing something different with their territory.

I just like to point out that in another blogs Bernd advocates drugs:
Driven to drink by marijuana laws?
Fresh thinking on the war on drugs?

Now he complains that monthly murder rate up from 66 to 300.
I just wondering what is your outlook over next 5 yrs without these war? I guess 5 yrs ago murder rate was in 40.

For decades Mexico gov was ignored drugs problem. Felipe Calderon was elected on promise to fight drugs. It looks like it is may be too late.

Bern, you never lived in area infested with gangs. There is a difference when 10 cops chase one bad guy and when 100′s corrupted agents chase 1000′s gang members. Second case always will have big collateral damage. But that the only way clean up city.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

I think the debate is whether or not Mexico should legalize drugs, not the US. Mexico’s drug laws, as well as those of most other struggling nations – are a direct result of US failed drug policies. Mexico’s violence is an unfortunate byproduct of US economic hegemony combined with the fact that the US is able to use its economic power to shove uneducated-christian moral precepts veiled in policy, down the throats of less fortunate nations. Mexicans are killing each other over who gets to sell drugs to Americans. If Mexico legalizes drugs it can save money by not enforcing draconian foreign drug policy and use those resources to tax the production and local distribution of narcotics. US imports of drugs will naturally increase, but that’s a US problem – and we do love our drugs :)

Posted by mbb | Report as abusive

Drugs are not the problem. The problem is that drugs are illegal. This drives up the demand and the price and makes it profitable for the drug cartels. The billions spent on the war on drugs instead should go toward building schools and providing healthcare. Legalizing drugs now is the answer. Kids will lose interest in drugs once they realize they are no longer illegal and they are bad for you.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

This is the other side of not securing the borders. If we were serious about border security, a fence would have been constructed with enough security to prevent border crossings, this would force the drug dealers to look at other options and vacate the border towns. This can only be fixed by stronger security on or side of the border, these people are killing to gain access to our country and will only be stopped when the border is sealed.

Posted by Roger P | Report as abusive