The Most Violent City on Earth

Ciudad Juárez wages war on the drug cartels

September 24, 2009, 5:25 AM

September 24, 2009 — -- The sun is beating down as Elizabeth Padilla is laid to rest in the Garden of Eternity cemetery. She lies under a pane of glass. Her pretty face has been made up one last time.

"Open your eyes, my darling," her mother cries. "There is something I wanted to tell you." "Princess," her sister wails. "I'll never forget the way you danced and sang." "Why you?" her mother screams. "You were so good."

Elizabeth Padilla was 29 and had been a policewoman for eight months when she died. She was killed one Wednesday just before 1:30pm while on her way to work in her dark Plymouth. Her murderers fired six 9mm bullets, hitting her in the right arm and in the head.

She was one of 14 people murdered that day in Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Just another ordinary day.

Before the white wooden casket is placed into the concrete vault, her unit reports for duty one last time, shouting out in unison, "Elizabeth Padilla, present!" Her brother, who is also a policeman, says there is no justice in this country. But he will carry out justice, he says. The squad car sirens wail a goodbye.

Ciudad Juárez, a border town in the north of Mexico, is at war: a war the government is fighting against the drug cartels and a war the drug cartels are fighting against each other. More than 1,500 people have been murdered there this year alone. A total of 1.5 million people live in the city, which is considered the most violent in the world.

Ciudad Juárez has become a symbol for the battle Mexican President Felipe Calderón is waging against the drug cartels. And perhaps also for the fact that he is losing.

A little under three years ago, shortly after he took office, he promised he would defeat the Mexican cartels. Ever since their Colombian counterparts lost their influence in the 1990s, the Mexican gangs are now the world's most powerful. They provide cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine to the world's largest drug market, the US. It's a multi-billion-dollar business. In its annual list of the world's richest people, Forbes magazine this year placed the boss of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Guzmán, nicknamed "El Chapo," at no. 701, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion.

A Complex Network of Crime

The "narcos" or drug barons have always been closely bound up with politics. Governors, mayors and police chiefs are their business partners; policemen, civil servants and journalists are on their pay-roll. The president can trust no one -- which is why he's waging this war using the army. He has dispatched 45,000 soldiers and federal police officers around the country.

The army is rounding up drug bosses and mayors and destroying laboratories and warehouses. Now the cartels have started to fight amongst themselves. Mexico has been a country in the grip of violence ever since. More than 13,000 people have died. Every day newspapers bear reports of kidnappings, massacres and dismembered corpses.

This is the world Luz Sosa lives in and reports from. Sosa, a police reporter for Ciudad Juárez's El Diario newspaper, is a small, slim woman of 39. Any sign of youth has long since left her angular face and been replaced by something hard.

When she starts her shift at 8am, news of the first murder of the day -- the boss of a security firm specializing in guarding restaurants -- has already come in. He was found in a Hummer, his body riddled with AK-47 bullet-holes.

Luz Sosa explains that she has been a reporter for 14 years and that there has always been violence in Ciudad Juárez. There was a time when the city was notorious for a mysterious series of brutal murders of women. But she has never seen anything like the current level of violence, she says.

She points out the Seven & Seven bar, where eight people were recently murdered. On that corner over there, the prison director was killed. A soldier was murdered in this parking lot. A man was killed in that S-Mart supermarket over there. And over there on the right, at the Onix Nightclub, three people were shot.

She drives through the city like a tour guide who has done the tour too often; she casually lists the death toll as she drives past. "Sometimes I cry in the evening," she explains. "Sometimes I have a beer. But if I let every death get to me, I'd have been finished a long time ago."

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