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Juarez churches threatened

Ministers fight cartel extortion

By Timothy Roberts

 

August 29, 2010

From El Paso Inc.

 

 

JUAREZ – Abraham Garcia was gunned down in the streets of Juárez last October, and his killers have left his death a mystery.

 

He was 24 years old and worked in his father’s produce shop in Zona Dorado, a neighborhood marked by maquiladoras, a shopping mall and a Denny’s restaurant.

 

Garcia’s father Eduardo says he does not know why his son was killed.

 

But Eduardo Garcia doubles as the pastor of an evangelical church, and he says the church had received calls from someone who called himself “comandante” and demanded that he pay protection money.

 

“This is a house of God,” Garcia told “comandante,” and hung up.

 

So widespread is the lawlessness in Juárez that criminals are now calling churches and demanding money.

 

The threats to Garcia’s Vida Nueva (New Life) Church came nearly a year ago, but reports of the threats have been increasing to the point that 120 evangelical pastors have banded together to bring attention to the problem — and to pray for the safety of their parishioners and for the souls of the criminals.

 

Garcia’s advice to the other pastors is to avoid a conversation with someone calling with an extortion threat.

 

“Just hang up,” he advises. “Don’t give them anything. If you give one time, they are going to keep asking for money.”

 

Some of the extortion calls are from what Garcia calls “non-professionals.” Many of these calls come from the prisons, where widespread cell-phone availability has turned the lockups into virtual call centers for criminal enterprises.

 

Garcia’s church is on a side street on the edge of a commercial area. There are 180 members who gather in a multi-purpose room with amplifiers, a stage and flags that worshippers wave as they praise God.

 

And it’s not just Protestant evangelical churches. Father Edwin Gros, the pastor of Sacred Heart Church, a Catholic parish in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, says he has been hearing from his colleagues in Juárez of extortion attempts.

 

“We haven’t had the problem here, thank God,” he said.

 

An official in the Catholic Church in México, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that its churches have been subject to extortion attempts. And an analyst for Stratfor, the global intelligence company based in Austin, who spoke anonymously for security reasons, said the drug cartels know no limits.

 

“If there is any indication that no one is immune from the cartels, this is it,” he said. But he also suggested that targeting churches was a sign of weakness.

 

“If business was going well for them, they would not have to resort to such extortion practices — especially on a business that makes the majority of its money from the donations of the people,” he said.

 

On Sept. 10, Garcia and more than 100 other pastors plan to gather at one of their churches for an all-night prayer vigil.

 

El Paso TV station KSCE Channel 38, which broadcasts Christian programming, will carry the prayer vigil from 10 p.m. that night until 6 a.m. the next day, said Grace Randall, the station’s vice president and general manager. Garcia also will be on KSCE at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22 for its “Decision Point” program.

 

The Juárez pastors gather every two weeks and go into the streets to hand out pamphlets and magazines about the gospel, “the word of God,” as Garcia calls it. “We go to the streets, the malls, the neighborhoods,” he said.

 

They also go to the international bridges and pray for the families waiting in line. And they ask God to stop the flow of drugs into the United States and passage of guns from the United States into México.

 

“We are men of faith, and all the acts we do are in faith,” Garcia said. “By faith we will bring a change in Juárez.”

 

Garcia felt called by God to found the church 12 years ago.

 

Why this church? he was asked.

 

“I asked the same thing of God,” he said. “God told me to work for this city. I didn’t know the price I would pay. If I had known the price then, I would not have done it.”

 

Despite the presence of Army troops, federal and state police and a reportedly cleaned-up local police force, the murders continue in Juárez. More than 1,850 people have been killed this year alone. More than 5,000 have died since the drug war began in 2008. About 28,000 have been killed across the country.

 

México City reporter Laura Villagran contributed to this report.

 


 

Juarez wants soldiers to stay

Already more than 1,000 murders this year

By Timothy Roberts

 

Original article published 7/26/2009

From El Paso Inc.

 

 

JUAREZ – When gunmen burst into a home on Calle España in Juárez Thursday afternoon and opened fire, three men fell dead.

 

Later the same day, there were five more killings, and the total number of homicides for the month of July grew to 180.

 

Despite the presence of more than 8,000 soldiers and federal police officers, murders in Juárez this year have risen to more than 1,000 — a gruesome new record. People in the troubled border city are dying from bullets at twice the rate of last year.

 

City officials dismiss the spikes in violence as cyclical and part of a high-stakes cat and mouse game, as drug thugs learn the soldiers’ modus operandi and find new ways around them.

 

But the killings have gotten so out of hand that the Juárez mayor’s office wants the Army to delay the departure of the 2,000 soldiers who have been embedded with the police department since March.

 

The agreement among the city, the State of Chihuahua, and Mexican President Felipe Calderón, to put the troops in the police department expires in little more than a month, on Sept. 1.

 

“We have talked with them about having the soldiers for more time,” says José Guillermo Dowell, who serves a deputy mayor. “We have not signed a new agreement, but we have talked with them to have them for more time, so the 2,000 officers that we have can have more experience with the soldiers.”

 

The soldiers are part of a team that is helping Juárez rebuild its police force, which was by all accounts corrupt. Many officers were working with one or the other of the drug cartels battling for control of the Juarez plaza.

 

Dowell is part of the administration Mayor Jose Ferriz Reyes, who took over in 2007 at a time when the police department numbered 1,600. In the first year, the mayor fired 300 officers for suspicion of corruption. Three hundred more were fired for the same reason and nearly 50 others have been killed on the job.

 

Dowell says there are now 2,000 police officers who have passed the psychological, physical and economic tests established by a new law whose name translates roughly as Operation Clean House.

 

This law, considered by Calderón supporters as his greatest achievement in office, requires each state to create test control centers to evaluate police officers on a continuing basis. The test includes home visits to see if an officer is living above his means, a possible indication that he or she is on the take.

 

Juárez expects to have 3,000 fully qualified police offers on the streets by the end of the year, Dowell says, and would like to have at least 4,000 and better, 6,000 before it has to stand on its own.

 

“We want to have a brand new corps of police officers in Juárez,” he says, adding that he realizes what a big task lies ahead.

 

“Nobody before had made this big an effort to clean up a police officer and to increase the number of officers,” Dowell says. “Nowhere in México has this happened.”

 

Planned phase out

The pressure is on city hall. Not only are the 2,000 soldiers embedded with the police scheduled to leave in September, but a phase out of another 8,000 soldiers and federal police officers is scheduled to begin then and be complete by next March.

 

No one expects the Army to leave all the battles with the drug cartels to the local police, however, and some Army presence is expected to last as long as the drug wars.

 

But an extension of the agreement that allows the Army to remain with the Juárez Police Department would require approval by both the state and federal governments.

 

A spokesman for President Felipe Calderón said by telephone from México City Friday that no formal request has been received from Juárez officials, but the president remains committed to routing out corruption and making the streets of the country’s eighth largest city safe.

 

The Calderón administration is also committed to programs to battle drug use in México, which is on the rise, particularly in Chihuahua State, the spokesman said.

 

But none of this explains why the killings have been on the rise.

 

The homicides increase as two drug cartels continue to battle over control of the Juárez plaza or shipping routes to the United States. The FBI estimates that from 40 percent to 60 percent of all drugs entering the U.S. comes through El Paso from Juárez,

 

But the spike in killings, which resulted in a new travel warning from the U.S. State Department last week, raises questions about the effectiveness of the large armed presence in the city.

 

In the middle

Dowell says there have been other spikes, although not as large as the current one, as the cartel operators have found ways around police and Army tactics.

 

“They look at the way the authorities are operating, and they look for the doors that are open,” he says. “Juarez is still on the border with the U.S. The weapons are coming form the north to the south. The drugs are going from south to north. Money is coming maybe both ways. And we are still here in the middle.”

 

The long-term answer to reducing criminal violence isn’t a massive military or police presence, says Josiah Heyman, the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

 

For one thing, he says, it isn’t clear that the military presence can be sustained. The Mexican Army is stretched thin with deployments not just in Juarez but also around the country.

 

But beyond the practicalities of deployment, there is a greater need to win the hearts and minds of the Mexican people, he says.

 

“To weaken a criminal organization and stop violent crime takes a mass movement,” Heyman says. “That’s what it took to fight the mafia in Sicily. It was the rejection of the mafia by ordinary people over a period of two decades.”

 

“If and when that is going to happen in México is a good question. It’s going to take something coming out of the larger society,” he adds.

 

Some of those tracking the drug wars fear that a bad situation could get even worse. The gravest fear is that the drug cartels will broaden their attacks to include more innocent civilians.

 

Shift in trade

Stephen Meiners, a senior tactical analyst with Stratfor, a global intelligence company, says this happened in Morelia, Mexico last year when one of the cartels threw grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexican Independence Day.

 

Another fear is that the government might declare a truce with the cartels to avoid the killings.

 
 
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