JUAREZ, Mexico—On Easter Sunday in Juarez, children awoke with the dream of finding Easter eggs. But adults had a different kind of worry.
Along with the challenges of a depressed economy, many are praying for peace and the return of some sense of normalcy. This town that used to be known for its nightlife and as a stopover on the way to “el otro lado” (the other side) is now the site of daily executions, security checkpoints, and constant patrolling by military and federal police.
“I think President [Felipe] Calderón had no idea who he was dealing with,” said Carlos Acosta, nervous about giving a short interview to a member of a foreign press. “He declared this war against the drug traffickers, and never thought about the fact that they are entrenched in his own government.” Local news reported that more than 100 federal police officers are currently under investigation under suspicion of collaborating with drug cartels or being involved in civil rights violations.
Even the military, lauded by Calderón as a show of force, is suspected of being involved in a practice defined here as “levantones”—picking up and dumping their victims in isolated areas.
The Mexican Army denies these allegations, but witnesses who are afraid to give their names for fear of retaliation say the military is responsible for the latest victim, a 21-year-old man arrested last Tuesday and found dead on Friday in a deserted area south of the city limits.
The case is being investigated by the local city attorney’s office, but will probably stay in limbo. In Juarez, where there are thousands of unsolved cases, most prosecutors quit or are replaced after a while, and investigations have to start over, if they continue at all.
Family members of the victim, identified as Javier Eduardo Rosales, told the press Friday that they plan to press charges against the military and file a claim with the local human rights commission. However, like thousands of families affected by drug violence, they said that they are afraid of retaliation by authorities. At least some relatives of the victim are moving to the neighboring city of El Paso, Texas, for security reasons.
According to the forensic report, the young man died of a blow to the neck. The report also revealed that the victim was tortured. Sergio Fernandez, a friend of the victim who was picked up in the same operation, revealed that after being tortured, the two men were allowed to escape, but his friend was badly injured and could not make the long walk back to the city. After covering him up with some pieces of cardboard, Fernandez managed to reach his house and get help from friends and family members to come back and recover the body.
Margarita Rosales, the victim’s mother, said that she doesn’t expect her son’s murder to be fully explained by the military or any other authority. Now, she adds, she fears for the safety of the rest of her family.
“Nothing is going to bring back my son. I need to take care of the rest of the family too,” said Rosales, who later admitted that she had already received threats, although she couldn’t identify the sources.
So far, the military has denied any involvement in the crime, but after hundreds of similar reports, some residents of Juarez are skeptical.
“They can’t be trusted. I don’t care how may tests they’ve passed,” said Mario Loya, a local lawyer who changed his business from defending taxpayers to presenting claims against authorities for human rights abuses.
Federal and local authorities are trying to defend their name by conducting undercover investigations of their own personnel, as they continue their daily patrolling of the city. On Monday, one day after they arrested a top commander for alleged involvement in drug trafficking, more than 100 officers were quietly dispatched back to Mexico City, under rumors that they were involved in illegal activities.
Pedro Gutierrez Lopez, a military general in charge of federal military operations, said Monday that his forces are constantly being screened as they check the background of all of the officers involved. Gutierrez Lopez was referring to the case of Masiel Aldana Portugal, one of four federal agents charged with attempting to keep more than 40 pounds of marijuana that had been confiscated from local drug dealers. The general declined to elaborate but conceded that Aldana Portugal had a criminal record related to drug possession and forged documents dating back to 2004.
“There are a lot of false claims against members of our force. However, we investigate any allegations against our troops,” he told the local press.