La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: border

How many have died in Mexico's drug war?

Sicilia march morelia

The last figure released by the Mexican government on the number of dead during its 4 1/2-year, military-led crackdown on organized crime came in January, at just over 34,000. It covered the period from the start of the drug war in December 2006 until the end of 2010.

Homicides attributed to the drug war continue across the country on a daily basis, and many more violent incidents probably go unreported. Self-censorship is widespread among news outlets in violent states such as Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.

With 2011 nearing its midway point, how many people have been killed in Mexico?

Until May many major international news outlets covering Mexico used the general figure of 34,000 or 35,000 drug war deaths -- while bodies have kept piling up in shootouts or discovered in mass graves by the hundreds. In the border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, for example, at least 976 people have been violently killed in the metropolitan region since the beginning of 2011, reports the tally at Frontera List.

But several news outlets in Mexico, as well as the peace movement of poet Javier Sicilia, have begun citing a figure of 40,000 dead since last month. A U.S.-based law-enforcement group favoring more liberal drug policies assembled this online data map from news and Internet sources to arrive an estimate topping 40,000, an increase of about 6,000 since the last official figure. (The Times lately has cited an estimate of at least 38,000, based on the official figures plus an approximation for the first months of 2011 derived from mainstream Mexican media tallies.)

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Retired general who led campaign against drug gangs killed in Mexico

Jorge juarez loera A recently retired Mexican army general who oversaw a controversial military operation against drug-trafficking was shot dead in a Mexico City suburb over the weekend, the military said in a statement (link in Spanish).

A tough-talking career soldier, retired Gen. Jorge Juarez Loera was in civilian clothes and in a compact civilian vehicle Saturday when he pulled over after being struck from behind in the Ciudad Satelite area of northwest Mexico City, witnesses told reporters. After exiting his vehicle and confronting the other driver, Juarez Loera was shot and killed, reports said.

Federal investigators have taken over the case from local authorities, reports said Tuesday. One possibility being investigated is "premeditated execution," said El Universal (link in Spanish). The general was considered an expert in drug-trafficking issues and had access to sensitive intelligence, raising the possibility he was targeted in the shooting, sources told the daily Reforma. 

Juarez Loera rose to third in command in the Mexican military, and left his most recent post upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 earlier this month.

Near the end of his 48 years of service in the Mexican armed forces, Juarez Loera oversaw Joint Operation Chihuahua (previously known as Joint Operation Juarez), the military-led campaign against drug gangs in the Mexican border state where violence-ravaged Ciudad Juarez is located. Homicide and human rights abuse claims against the Mexican military skyrocketed in Ciudad Juarez after President Felipe Calderon dispatched the army to combat the cartels in the region in late 2006.

Juarez Loera sometimes courted controversy in public remarks (link in Spanish). He once rebuffed critics of rising death tolls tied to the government's military-led campaign by saying that homicide victims should not be described as "one more citizen dead" but rather "one more delinquent dead."

Responding to complaints of heavy-handedness in the Chihuahua operation, Juarez Loera once boasted, "Mi orden de cateo es el marro," or "My warrant is the sledgehammer."


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-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexican Gen. Jorge Juarez Loera, in an undated photo. The controversial general was killed over the weekend. Credit:

A 'Surfing Madonna' appears in San Diego

Surfing madonna daniel hernandez los angeles times 5

Where did she come from? Who made her? Will the city decide to keep her around?

Residents of a laid-back beach community in San Diego County have been gathering day after day before a striking mosaic mural that appeared unannounced on a bridge wall, guerrilla-style, without proper approval. They are curious and concerned. The "Surfing Madonna," as locals have dubbed her, is in danger of being removed by the city of Encinitas.

The mural is a 12-foot-tall representation of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary image believed to have miraculously appeared before an Indian peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 in Mexico City. Guadalupe has been called the "Empress of the Americas," the patron saint of Mexico, and the "unofficial flag of Mexicans." Her image has been appropriated across popular culture and national and religious lines, and is considered a special icon for Southern California as well.

In the Encinitas mural, the Virgin Mary figure appears in her familiar flowing green robe, with her famous downward-cast eyes and slight smile. But this being Southern California, Guadalupe here is riding a white surfboard, with the image's traditional moon-bearing cherub depicted on the board's deck, as if navigating down Encinitas Boulevard and onto the breaks at Moonlight State Beach.

"Save the ocean," reads a message running down the mural's left side, in bright glass pepples.

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Mexico: Mass grave toll climbs; government defends itself



The number of bodies pulled from two sets of clandestine graves -- one in the border state of Tamaulipas and the other in Durango state to the southwest -- is climbing toward 300 as violence in Mexico takes an often mind-numbing toll.

In a meeting with the media -- in which questions were not allowed -- federal Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales on Tuesday upped the toll around the Tamaulipas city of San Fernando to 183. Separately, officials in Durango said the corpses there total 96 as of Wednesday.

The Times reported earlier this week that many of the Tamaulipas-area victims were passengers pulled from buses and slaughtered in the last couple of months. Many of the Durango bodies are older and none have been identified, officials say. While the San Fernando graves are in a fairly remote zone, the Durango burials are in the state's capital of the same name. 

The horrific discovery of the mass graves has renewed pressure on the government of President Felipe Calderon, who has been blasted by the public and in the media for failing to stem bloodshed in the ongoing war with drug cartels. Morales, who is new to the job, was joined by Alejandro Poire, the government's main spokesman on security issues, and the two sought to deflect criticisms. Poire asserted that Tamaulipas "is under the control of the Mexican state," a response to the widely held perception that authorities have lost out to vicious drug cartels in the area.  

(You can read the statements from Morales and Poire and see a video of the officials delivering them -- all in Spanish -- on this government website.)

Later Wednesday, Poire went before the media for the second time in two days and this time answered questions. He said the "great majority" of the suspected killers in the Tamaulipas case have been arrested, and that a purge of local authorities was necessary to restore the public trust, complaining that local officials had failed to inform federal officials of the kidnappings and killings. (See comments -- in Spanish -- here.)

Meanwhile, civic groups led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed last month, called for another round of large street demonstrations starting next week to protest the violence.

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: A worker takes a body from the morgue in the Tamaulipas city of Matamoros, Mexico, earlier in April. Credit: Associated Press


Former border agent says he was fired for drug-war comments

Bryan gonzalez aclu border patrol agent

A former U.S. Border Patrol agent says he was fired for expressing his opinions on the drug war in Mexico while on the job.

Bryan Gonzalez, the former agent, alleges in a lawsuit filed last week that he was fired for telling a fellow agent that the drug-related violence in Mexico would end if the United States legalized drugs. He made the comments in April 2009 during a patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico.

According to the complaint, available here, Gonzalez's remarks prompted an internal affairs investigation at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in El Paso, which found that he held "personal views that were contrary to the core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication, and esprit de corps."

The suit names his former supervisor and was filed in U.S. District Court in West Texas.

Gonzalez's case, in which he is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, has been publicized by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group that supports drug legalization. A press officer at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in El Paso declined to comment on the Gonzalez complaint, citing the pending litigation.

Gonzalez's case could prove "tricky" in court because he was fired one month before his two-year probationary period as an agent was to end, Micah McCoy, a spokesman for the ACLU in New Mexico, said in a telephone interview. Yet the ACLU is convinced Gonzalez's 1st Amendment rights were violated, he said.

"I think it was very clear that he was being fired simply because of the content of his political opinions. There was no misconduct or anything else cited in his termination. It was very explicitly chalked up to opinions that they considered contrary to the core beliefs of the Border Patrol," McCoy said. "Bryan Gonzalez, our plaintiff, would disagree with that strongly. His belief would be that having an opinion is very patriotic."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former U.S. Border Patrol agent Bryan Gonzalez, right, at his academy graduation.

Researcher projects 5,000 will die in Ciudad Juarez in 2011

Funeral procession ciudad juarez 2010 youth slain

An artificial-intelligence model generated by a university researcher in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, projects that 5,000 people will be killed in the violent border city this year. The same model projected at the start of 2010 that 3,000 would be killed in the greater Juarez area, a figure that eventually reached 3,111 -- about a 94% accuracy rate.

It may seem far-fetched to make such long-term projections on a fluid criminal conflict such as the drug war in Juarez. Researcher Alberto Ochoa, in an interview with La Plaza on Monday, said his model is based on methods that mimic biology-based, or "bioinspired," patterns. Barring a "radical change" in Ciudad Juarez -- where the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels are battling over the drug-trafficking route across the U.S. border into El Paso, Texas -- his projection foresees a figure of roughly 5,000 dead.

"This technique is nothing new," Ochoa said from the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, where he is a researcher at the Center for Social Investigations. "It's not the most accurate model but it is based heavily on reality."

"It's not Excel," the researcher added, referring to the commonly used software program. "The model has to be fed, values have to be adjusted. It's complicated."

By differing measures, Juarez ranks as the most violent city in Mexico, most violent in the Western Hemisphere, or even the most violent in the world, the local newspaper El Diario reported earlier this month (link in Spanish). Juarez, with a current population of 1.3 million, has lost more than 230,000 residents in an "exodus" from the daily barrage of drug-related killings, kidnappings and extortion operations.

"And no one does nothing," Ochoa said. "It's going to get worse."

The 3,111 figure of deaths in Juarez in 2010 is used among local news outlets, citing figures from the Juarez morgue, and includes homicides in the greater Juarez area. Within Juarez city limits, the federal government's recently released homicide database says 2,738 people died there in 2010.

On Sunday in Juarez, gunmen opened fire on a group of young people playing soccer at a new government-built field, killing seven, authorities said (links in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A funeral procession for some of the victims of a January 2010 attack that left 15 young people dead in Ciudad Juarez. Credit: Jesus Alcazar / European Pressphoto Agency

Death of Susana Chavez, female activist in Ciudad Juarez, not tied to organized crime, state says

Ni una mas

She coined the phrase "Ni una muerta mas," or "Not one more dead," a clamor of protest against the tide of violent and unsolved deaths of women in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, the "dying city."

Last week, Susana Chavez became a victim, too. The 36-year-old poet and activist was found dead on Jan. 6, strangled and with her left hand cut off.

Her death marks the latest addition to a grim figure. By Christmas Eve of last year, 978 women had died violently in the Juarez area since the state began recording the figure separately in 1993, reported El Diario de Juarez in late December (link in Spanish). Significantly, at least 300 of those deaths, or just under a third, occurred in 2010 amid skyrocketing bloodshed due to a war between drug cartels.

Others have been kidnapped, "disappeared," or raped in the violence, which often extends outside Juarez to the rest of Chihuahua state, news reports show. Some of the victims have been policewomen, lawyers, or prominent human rights activists. Many received threats.

But this week, after Chavez's remains were identified, a state prosecutor told reporters the woman was not killed in an organized crime hit, but rather died at the hands of three teenage boys after a night of partying. The teens, each 17 years old, have been arrested and questioned, officials said.

"They said they did not know her. They suddenly ran into her, she wanted to keep drinking, so did they, and well it was an unfortunate encounter," said state prosecutor Carlos Manuel Salas (link in Spanish).

When pressed on the question of whether Chavez might have been killed for her past work and poetry bringing attention to violence against women in Juarez, the prosecutor said: "Absolutely not."

In fresh statements on the case on Wednesday, authorities said that Chavez's mother confirmed that her daughter had been drinking the evening before her death. The teens killed her after Chavez told them she was a police officer, authorities said (link in Spanish).

Juarez became internationally known after a yet-unsolved wave of "femicides" or "feminicides" (as the deaths of women are known) peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Last month, a Juarez mother was shot and killed while keeping a lone vigil outside the Chihuahua statehouse over the death of her daughter at the hands of a man freed by judges. In the small town of Guadalupe, the only remaining police officer was kidnapped from her home and has not been heard from since.

Ciudad Juarez is by far the most violent city in Mexico, and by some estimates the most violent in the world, with 3,111 dead in 2010, local reports say, citing government figures. The rival Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are battling over control for the lucrative Juarez drug-trafficking route across the border into El Paso, Texas.

Susana Chavez kept a blog  on which she published poems. One of them, "Sangre," or "Blood," is written from the perspective of a victim.

At her funeral, friend Armine Arjona told El Diario: "She was a great, excellent poet, at a national level among women. She had stopped writing but she had lot of unpublished work, which we will find some way to publish."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Pink crosses with the phrase "Not one more," symbolizing women killed violently in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Credit:

At least three drug groups are fighting for control in Acapulco, Mexico


With a weekend death toll of more than 30 victims, including 15 who were found decapitated, the Mexican resort city of Acapulco is facing its most gruesome levels of drug-related violence since the start of the drug war in 2006. Authorities in Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located, said that in all 31 people died violently in or around the city on Saturday and Sunday (link in Spanish).

Reports said decapitated bodies were found with messages indicating that the killings were ordered by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel and Mexico's most-wanted man.

If Sinaloa hit men are indeed active in the Acapulco area, it would suggest a likely escalation in future violence for a city that has seen drug-related killings soar since the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the capo who had controlled the valuable trafficking port.

Beltrán Leyva was killed in an operation led by the Mexican navy in December 2009. Like previous deaths or captures of high-profile drug lords, the sudden absence of a criminal figurehead in the region resulted in a scramble for control among splintering or rival groups. (The same phenomenon, for example, occurred in the Tijuana border area after the deaths or captures of capos in the Arellano Felix cartel.)

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'Mexico supplies the drugs. We supply the users'

Puebla mexico checkpoint epa

"Over the border and through the cartels to Abuelita's casa we go," begins a recent commentary on the Mexican drug war, published Monday in the Kansas City Star (and also syndicated by Tribune Media Services).

The line by columnist Mary Sanchez refers to the brutal drug-trafficking organizations currently spreading fear and violence across the country, and -- of course -- to the stereotypical sweet grandmother figure that draws so many Mexican Americans back to the country of their ancestors during the Christmas season.

This season, Mexico warned, visitors from the United States should travel in convoys to help avoid the kidnappings and shoot-outs. Feliz Navidad?

Sanchez writes that looking at the drug war in Mexico as merely a south-of-the-border problem ignores half of the equation. The violence, she says, is rooted in competition over which groups get to supply the lucrative demand for narcotics in the United States, the largest drug market in the world, and which groups the Mexican government is attempting to dismantle. The writer argues:

It's easy to cluck our tongues about the gruesome violence "over there," but to do so is to absolve ourselves of the role our country plays in this bloody import/export business. Let's be honest: This is a trade relationship. Mexico supplies the drugs. We supply the users.

Read the entire column here.

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The troubled state of Tamaulipas: 'The narcos rule our lives'

Reynosa barletti la times

Tamaulipas, a state in Mexico's northeast across from Texas, is currently the site of some of the most severe clashes in Mexico's drug war. Fierce fighting between drug gangs and the military in the streets of several cities has been reported, and at least one town emptied out in response to the violence, its residents becoming "refugees" in their own country.

A few weeks ago, a battle in the city of Matamoros ended in the death of the Gulf cartel capo known as "Tony Tormenta." News reports across the border made it sound terrifying.

Tamaulipas' crisis stems mainly from a turf fight between the state's two chief criminal organizations. The Gulf cartel and its splinter group, the Zetas (originally composed of former Mexican special forces soldiers), are battling over routes used to send drugs into the United States.

For people in Tamaulipas attempting to go about their daily lives, the drug war is a source of confusion, fear and helplessness.

Here are two recent in-depth reports from the state by Los Angeles Times correspondents in Mexico, Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson.

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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson