Page last updated at 17:22 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Inside Mexico's most dangerous city

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico


Matthew Price on patrol with the Mexican army

Gang violence is surging in Mexico, where 40,000 soldiers have been deployed across the country to root out drug cartels.

Beheadings, attacks on police, and shootings in clubs and restaurants are a daily occurrence in some regions.

One of the worst areas for the violence has been the border city of Juarez, where thousands of Mexican troops are now trying to re-establish control.

Driving into Mexico's most dangerous city is slightly nerve-wracking, to say the least.

There has been murder, kidnapping and extortion on a grand scale. Ciudad Juarez has not exactly been the safest place.

Mexican army in Juarez
The Mexican army on patrol in Juarez

So the first time you cross that bridge over the Rio Grande, which divides Mexico and the United States, there is a slight flutter in your stomach.

Then you see the soldiers. Juarez has been flooded with troops. Thousands have arrived in the past few weeks, under direct orders from the president.

The car park of the central police station is full - with army vehicles. Several lorries drive in with two-dozen camouflaged troops in the back. Pickups head out, with soldiers standing on the tailgate, guns at the ready.

Army officers give the troops their orders. The police must feel a little squeezed out.

"The army is in control of the police station," police spokesman Mauricio Mauricio says. "They have the order of the president of Mexico to take control."

Battleground city

For more than a year Juarez has been a major battleground.

About 2,000 people were killed here in the past 14 months in drug-related violence. Across the country some 6,000 have been killed - the majority either members of the drug cartels, or of the security forces.

Map of Mexico Map of Mexico

It has been so violent the US has warned that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state.

The troop surge does seem to have helped. Violence in the days since the army took over has fallen substantially. What many are now asking though, is for how long?

To find out how bad it has been here, you simply need to take a rather grim tour of the city.

A local journalist showed me around - he asked not to be identified. Around almost every corner there was another deadly story.

"Three guys were killed here," he said, as we pulled up outside a bar. Whitewashed walls in a suburban street.

Two young men had walked into the bar, right up to their targets who were playing pool. "Three of them died."

We come across a building where several bodies were found last year. One of a number of mass graves in and around the city.

Then to a city hospital. "Several men who survived an execution were taken here," my guide tells me. "The killers came in. The men came here to kill the guys who were inside the hospital."


A visit to the scenes of killings blamed on the drugs gangs

So does this make Mexico a failed state?

"Your country must provide you with the things a democracy provides," he says.

"One of those is security, the freedom to raise a family, to grow up, to make a business, to buy a house and in this place you can lose those things in an hour. Your family can be destroyed in a single act.

"Of course when your state cannot provide such security it's not working, it is a dysfunctional state."

A short distance away, in the centre of the city, a band strikes up a tune.

Like anywhere with crime, or killing, there are bad parts, and better parts. The city centre is pretty lively. The tourists may have been scared away, but the streets feel safe - as long as the army is around.

A parking attendant, standing on the pavement, says everybody feels more confident. "This street was completely deserted a few weeks ago. We were starting to call it the ghost street."

A shop owner agrees that the violence has been reduced. "Much more has to be done though. The solution has to come from the top. Corruption has to be cleaned up for this to go away."

End in sight?

Mexico's problems are complex. There is poverty, and widespread corruption. Politicians, police and judges have been bought off by the drug cartels.

So now they are trying to re-train the police. Corrupt officials have been removed. At city hall, the local mayor, Jose Reyes Ferriz, told me the end may be in sight.

"We have examples throughout the world [of cities that have dealt with crime] that we can follow and we are doing that. We can do away with corruption and do away with crime at the levels we had before and maintain a clean city."

Many, though, wonder if that can happen. The army cannot stay forever. There are other violent areas across this country where they are also needed.

Police wages are low. The state cannot match the attractive sums with which the drugs cartels pay off officials.

There are external factors too. Mexico's gun laws are tight, but in the US it is far easier to get weapons. The Mexican government says lax US gun laws help arm the cartels and fuel the violence.

And while American drug users are still prepared to pay for narcotics, the Mexican drug cartels will be prepared to kill to control the lucrative drugs market. The solution here is far from simple.

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