Mexico's drug war bright spot hides dark underbelly

Wed Nov 28, 2012 1:49pm EST
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By Dave Graham and Julian Cardona

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Inside a notorious Mexican prison where armed convicts used to roam freely, selling drugs and deciding who was allowed in, the state is in control again. Prisoners are back in their cells and the once overcrowded complex sparkles with cleanliness.

But outside on the dusty streets of Ciudad Juarez, store owners lock themselves behind their doors, fearful of police and carefully vetting customers to avoid becoming the next victims of still rampant crime.

For four years, the city on the border with Texas was convulsed by daily slaughter, becoming the murder capital of the world and a shocking illustration of the Mexican government's failure to contain violence among warring drug cartels.

Once best known as a party town for Americans hopping across the border for cheap thrills, Ciudad Juarez fell into chaos with about one in every six of the 60,000 victims of Mexico's bloody drug war over the last six years dying here.

This year, though, the violence in Ciudad Juarez has fallen dramatically, prompting political leaders to hold up the city as a symbol of progress and offering hope to Mexico's incoming president, Enrique Pena Nieto, in the fight against crime.

"It's a completely different city now," said mayor Hector Murguia, who took office for a second time in October 2010, just as the violence in Ciudad Juarez reached its peak.

Homicides and kidnappings fell by more than 60 percent from last year in the first 10 months of 2012, and extortion was down 12 percent, city data shows. In October, Ciudad Juarez had just 28 murders, down from 253 in the same month in 2010.

The government of Ciudad Juarez's home state of Chihuahua has hailed the results as proof that tougher policing works, claiming a new record for catching criminals in Mexico. It has also transferred hundreds of gang members from local prisons to jails elsewhere in Mexico, dismantling power structures that continued to direct crime from behind bars.   Continued...

Police officers arrive at a crime scene in a neighborhood in Ciudad Juarez November 12, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez