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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.


“The government would never be able to admit it,” Meiners says.


One small ray of hope is seen in a report of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, that last year noted a slight drop in cocaine use in the United States, although a corresponding increase in Europe and Africa.


If that geographic shift were to continue, México would be less important to the world drug trade, Meiners said.


But in Juárez, the immediate hope is in law enforcement.


When deputy mayor Dowell is asked if he thinks the military presence has failed, he says, “I don’t think it has failed. I think the work of the Army will have to prevail.”


Will have to or will?


“Will prevail,” he said.



Grande birthday for biker

By Timothy Roberts


Original article published 7/5/2009

From El Paso Inc.



The day before his 50th birthday, Eddie Wearden, a sign installer, may have become the first motorcyclist to leap across the Rio Grande from the United States into México.


Or, for that matter, to leap across the U.S. border anywhere while riding on a motorcyle. At least if anyone else has, he or she is keeping it quiet.


On June 27, Wearden roared down a little hill on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, riding an Austrian KTM 450 dirt bike bearing flag decals of the United States and México.


He shot up a plywood ramp painted with an arrow pointing toward México, flew about 70 feet and made a nice two-point landing on the other side. He was mobbed by hundreds of people gathered on the river’s southern bank.


Wearden, an El Paso native, had wanted to make a jump like this for a long, long time. He has ridden motorcycles for 41 years.


He began riding when his father promised him one if he worked hard at school right up through the third grade. At age 9, he got a Honda Z-50, a 50 cubic-inch machine.


What the young Wearden didn’t realize was that his father would take away his right to ride it whenever it became clear he was not doing his level best at school.


He still has the 1970 Honda and says he’ll never give it up.


Jump prep

Wearden was thinking that it might take a few months to make the arrangements for an international jump. He realized there would be more hurdles than just the river when he walked up to a Border Patrol agent and told him what he had in mind.


“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Wearden recalls the agent responding.


But Wearden’s planning was delayed by illness. Pressure from fluid in the brain was making him feel exhausted. After surgery that corrected the problem, he came down with an Epstein-Barr infection that left him with more fatigue. It was not until late May that he was able to move ahead with his planning.


“I should have started about three months earlier the way things work,” Wearden said.


There was some skepticism about Wearden’s plans at more than one level of government. Back in 2002, a gentleman by the name of American Daredevil Tommy Pearson announced that he would jump the river into México from El Paso, driving an older model Chevrolet Camaro.


He missed. He was able to escape without injury from his Camaro as it sat in the river, and the car was later rescued, but his Mexican vacation plans lay in ruins.


The memory of the Pearson Plunge remained alive at the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational organization with responsibility for the use of the Rio Grande and its banks along the international border.


Ultimately, however, the good-natured Wearden convinced commission officials from both nations that he could pull off the jump without creating an international incident.


No guns or alcohol

Sally Spener, public information officer for the IBWC, says the commission gave the motorcyclist a temporary use permit, while requiring him to have insurance, conduct himself in a safe manner, clean up any debris, and seal various parts of the bike’s engine so that it would not leak oil into the river. Alcohol was prohibited on both banks and so was the discharge of firearms.




Next stop: Customs and Border Patrol. There was a problem here, Wearden says. Not only would he be arriving on the shores of México in an unconventional manner, he would, ostensibly be returning to the United in like fashion.


No, said the Border Patrol.


“It would have been an illegal entry, like someone wading through the river,” explained Roger Maier, the public information officer for the CBP in El Paso.


The departure from the U.S. wasn’t a problem, it was the arrival back into the U.S.


Eddie pressed on. He called city hall in Juárez. He found someone who spoke inglés better than he speaks español. He explained that he planned a little trip to México.


The response, he says, was less bureaucratic than he had ever imagined. The city government said he could jump into México without any legal repercussions, although the mayor asked him to make the jump on Saturday, the day before his birthday, rather than on Sunday, the day of his birthday, because Amor por Juárez, a civic organization that promotes peace in that troubled city, happened to be holding a big rally that day.




Now, how to get back into the United States.


No hay problema. Juarez Mayor José Reyés Ferriz decreed that Wearden would get a motorcycle escort to the Paso del Norte bridge, right up to the top.


Make it happen

“Mayor Reyés Ferríz was very helpful,” Wearden says. “He told his people, ‘Make it happen.’”




Now this is a dirt bike with no license, and Wearden was not getting an escort on the U.S. side of the border. What now?


Solution: Get off the bike, walk it down to Customs and then out to a waiting pickup truck.


Before he launched himself over the river, Wearden put his passport, driver’s license and title for the bike in a plastic bag and into his boot. He might be traveling unconventionally, but he would have all the paperwork in hand.


On the big day, Wearden made three runs down the hill and up to the edge of the ramp. He wanted to make sure he was going to have at least enough momentum to make it across.


“It’s always better to over jump than under jump,” he says.


On his fourth run, it seemed that the cheering crowd had grown deathly quiet, and he experienced tunnel vision, seeing only the long arc he had to follow. When he landed a few seconds later in Mexico, “Everyone went crazy,” he says.


Wearden has no plans for more and bigger jumps, he says. He’s not Evel Knievil.


“Evel Knievil is the man,” he says. “I was just having fun on my birthday.”


Rebuilding Juarez's police force

Will they be ready when the troops leave?

By Timothy Roberts


Original article published 5/24/2009

From El Paso Inc.




Juarez - Alfredo Yañez Piñon was an artillery captain in the Mexican army for 25 years before he retired two months ago and signed on as the assistant director of the Juárez Police Academy.


He was invited to do so by Mexico's Secretary of Defense. Now he presides over a class of 379 recruits with a voice that could be heard over canon fire and a command that is instantly obeyed.


“The recruits are better selected than in the past,” Yañez Piñon told El Paso Inc. through a translator. “The process is more rigorous.”


Among other things, he noted, none of the recruits was overweight, a common problem for Mexican officers.


Yañez Piñon is clearly proud of his charges, but asked if the police will be ready to take over when nearly 10,000 army soldiers and federal police begin to leave at the end of the year, his answer is curt: “I have no opinion on that.”


He added that the recruits will be “honest and committed to Juárez and to México.”


What will happen when the military withdraws from Juárez is the million-dollar question on the minds of many Juarenses, El Pasoans and American business owners and managers alike.


“What is going to happen when the troops pull out is the biggest concern that the maquiladora industry has right now,” says Stephanie Caviness, the president of the El Paso-based Foreign Trade Association. “Will there be law and order or chaos as before?”


Many companies that operate maquilas are waiting to see what happens before making any long-range investment in the border manufacturing industry.


“Until they see stability, expansions are on hold,” Caviness said. “They want to see how the situation turns out before they make any more investment in the country.”


Battle dress

Juárez is working furiously to hire and train more police officers to replace the hundreds that have been fired for involvement with drug cartels or killed by those cartels. That violence has claimed more than 2,000 lives.


In March, with the morgue filling daily with each night's kill and the local economy on the skids, Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent in the Federales and soldiers. There are varying estimates of how many are now in Juárez, but the number could be as high as 10,000.


The army and the police department have been tightly integrated. Soldiers in battle dress guard the entrance to the Babicora police station in the sprawling southern part of the city. Visitors are watched by a combination of soldiers, Federales and municipal police officers. A soldier with a rifle in his hands stands by a copy machine, his head turning back and forth as though at a tennis match, keeping a watch on both ends of the hall.


Of the 27 directors of the police department - the supervisors of everything from special forces to downtown patrols - all have been replaced by active military officers, said says José Guillermo Dowell, Secretario del Ayuntamiento, the equivalent of a deputy mayor in the United States.


All police patrols are done jointly with federal police and army soldiers. Permission for a journalist to visit the police academy requires the separate approval of both civilian and military authorities.


In the past year, Juárez has hired 1,000 new officers, including 50 former soldiers. The current class of 379 recruits at the police academy lost four members when a check of U.S. police and court records - a new and now routine part of vetting Juárez officers - found run-ins with police north of the border on drug-related charges.


Better pay

To attract more and better qualified applicants, the city is offering higher salaries. Starting pay is now about 13,000 Mexican pesos a month (about $1,200 U.S. dollars), up from about 9,000 pesos a month a year ago.


The city is also offering scholarships for the children of police officers, and it has engineered a change in banking regulations that allows police officers to obtain long-term loans, making it possible for them to buy a house.


In the past, the job of police officers was seen as too life-threatening to extend loans to them, Guillermo Dowell said.


The cost of the police department now accounts for one third of the city's $220 million annual budget, Guillermo Dowell said.


To overhaul the police department, the city started at the beginning: the police academy. It's top posts are now held by army veterans.


Mario Carrasco, a 35-year-old police recruit originally from Baja California, said the changes in the police department made the job attractive.


“It is a great opportunity to serve my community and to achieve my professional goals,” he said in English. “I always wanted to be a police officer, but nowadays for the first time the Mexican government is giving the police departments the importance that they have never before given to them.”


Restore civility

Another recruit, Velia Avile Carrera, a 35-year-old Juarense, applied to the academy because she thinks it now offers a good career.


“I can contribute to the city and my country and help restore the civility that has been lost in recent months,” she said through a translator.


The academy is tucked away in an industrial part of the city's southside adjoining a small police station. A dozen police officers gathered informally under a pair of shade trees near the entrance in the desert heat last week. But inside the main entrance, all was prim and proper. Two officers stood stiffly on either side of the door. Another officer sat at a table to identify anyone who made it past the men at the door.


When Yañez Piñon, the former artillery captain, appeared and was introduced he offered a chance to meet some of his recruits, about 50 of them, as it turned out. They marched into the hall in military precision and stood silently as Yañez Piñon explained what he was doing with the academy.


“We are all Mexicans and brothers and we share values that come from the military,” he said.


City officials hope the new program at the academy, the higher pay and new benefits, which are being touted in TV commercials, will draw the best recruits, but Guillermo Dowell says the ultimate determinant will be the people of Juárez.


Will they call the 066 emergency number to report a crime? In the past many of the operators were in the employ of drug cartels, and disregarded any calls that might interfere with drug operations.


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