Mexican border city Juarez, formerly the most dangerous place in the world, made significant security advances in 2011. But this may have come at a steep cost in terms of human rights, as Mexico’s Proceso argues.

Though Juarez remains the most violent city in the country, murders have dropped precipitously over the past year or so. In May of 2011, the city saw the lowest number of monthly murders in two years, with the total number of killings dropping·by somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent from the same period in 2010.

As a consequence of this improvement, the city has turned into an unlikely success for the Calderon administration. Last week, on a visit to the city, Calderon pointed to a 57 percent decline in murders in Juarez in the two years that the federal program Todos Somos Juarez has been in place. He also said that the public reaction has been entirely positive.

However, Calderon's triumphant claims need to be set against against a couple of facts. The first, and most obvious, is that Juarez remains the most violent city in Mexico, and by a relatively wide margin. According to analyst Eduardo Guerrero, after Juarez’s 1,550 murders linked to organized crime, the next highest city was Acapulco, with 914. That’s not to discount the scale of the improvement, but Juarez has a long way to go before it approaches normalcy.

Another narrative that runs counter to Calderon’s satisfaction is that Todos Somos Juarez, which allocated several hundred million dollars to the city for a wide range of public works projects, may well have had an impact, but its implementation also coincides with the nadir of violence: in October 2010, eight months after the program was announced, Juarez registered 350 murders, the city’s modern monthly record and more than twice the average today.

Furthermore, as the piece from Proceso demonstrates, Julian Leyzaola, the controversial municipal police chief who has emerged as the foremost protagonist of the government’s anti-crime efforts, has been charged with introducing a number of unsavory ingredients to the mixture in Juarez. Principal among the complaints are a lack of respect for human rights, with municipal officers accused of carrying out extrajudicial executions and the chief himself fingered as a participant in jailhouse beatings.

The article also details accusations that the municipal police have begun to arrest to vast numbers of locals -- up to 10,000 per month -- on minor  charges such as failing to carry their proper identification. The goal, according to critics, is for the officers to mete out fines and thereby increase the department’s income.

What follows is InSight Crime’s partial translation of the Proceso article “La violenta ‘pacificacion’ de Juarez”:

With Leyzaola in charge, the agency has added -- among its other functions -- the combat of drug trafficking and the abuses committed by his officers have been amply documented by the local press.

Many Juarenses believe them. Others say they are invented by criminals angered by the strategy, boastful and hauled onward, of the new police chief.

But the allegations are many.

The month after Leyzaola began his tenure as municipal director of public security, the bodies of four tortured young men, four of them with their throats slit, and whose families had been looking them, were found in an abandoned patch of land. They disappeared when they were detained, following an altercation, by the Grupo Delta, the elite group of the municipal police.

Another famous case is of the parking lot attendant Ismael Flores Chavarria, who during a shoot-out threw himself in front of a woman with a child in her arms to save her life. The next day the police presented him to reporters as guilty of murder, along with Cesar Adrian García, both of them disfigured by torture. Flores had to have an emergency surgery on his head and survived, but his “accomplice” died. They were both innocent.

There is the case of the hotelier Maria Acosta, who was the victim of a robbery, but who arriving at the police station was beaten -- according to her statement -- by Leyzaola himself. She was almost presented as a kidnapper.

Another case is that of Susano Esparza, burned with the scorching muffler of a patrol car.

[...]

According to a report from El Diario de Juarez, in this city of 1.3 million residents, since Leyzaola arrived, 359 people have been detained each day for breaking police regulations; in just 2011, 98,958 people were made to appear in front of a magistrate. Last January 23 complaints of abuse were brought before the Chihuahua State of Commission of Human Rights (CEDHCH), which surpassed the record of the Federal Police.

“The Security Board [that has coordinated actions from a variety of actors in Juarez in recent years] asked Leyzaola since he arrived that he not break from the work plan, that his role was not to chase drug traffickers, kidnappers, or extortionists, but rather work with citizens and go about gaining ground in preventing crime so that people could return to the streets, but he said that, as in Tijuana, his work would be to clean the city of criminals. And because he had not trust in the Federal Police, he never coordinated with them”, said Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, special rapporteur of the CEDHCH.

De la Rosa believes that the January declaration of war from Leyzaola against organized crime provoked the daily murder of police (eight were killed) and that “what started as a war between cartels and later between gangs devolved into a cartel’s war against the police”.

De la Rosa criticizes the indiscriminate and systematic detention of people who are poor, who “look wrong”, or who lack their electoral identification card, wo must pay fines from 300 to 2,000 pesos so as to obtain their freedom.

[...]

Lieutenant Colonel Leyzaola arrives like Robocop to his office for our interview. A machine gun is across his body and he carries a pistol tied to his leg. He wears the navy blue commando pants that he chose so that his agency could stop using the ratty gray color and its self-esteem would rise.

He is not well viewed by the human rights activists in the country. In its recommendation 10/2011, the National Human Rights Commission blames him for acts of torture when he was the leader of the Tijuana police.

But he does have the support of his subordinates. One of them, a sergeant who requested to remain anonymous, said that before his arrival they felt unmotivated:

“We were like the dog that everyone walks by and punches, and if someone complained about us Internal Affairs got after us. Before if we grabbed a “big fish” they ran us off and let him go; now the secretary protects us and gives us rewards. We’ve never had that support”, he said.

Investigations

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