As the taxi driver brought me back to the Mexican Federal Police Headquarters, the words of Gustavo Perez – a young Tijuana police officer I had interviewed a few months earlier – came back into my thoughts. He had described to me the situation in Ciudad Juarez, an industrial border city straddled by western Texas – the city I was about to tour in a police convoy.
“Its bad there, in Juarez,” he had said, while holding his arms out as if in possession of an AK-47 assault rifle. “There are shootings everywhere … Juarez and Chihuahua are the most dangerous places in Mexico.” These words should have been enough to make the prospect of a police ride-along through the global drug war’s flashpoint seem like a journey through hell, but the professionalism of the federal policemen brought order to any unease I was feeling. Officer Ulises Rodriguez, who had sat down with me for an interview a day earlier, was waiting for me at 9 a.m. He smiled and enthusiastically waved me into the command center.
A white-haired commander who held seniority over Rodriguez scrutinized my passport and media credentials for the second time in as many days. Rodriguez wished me luck as I stepped out of the office and into the garages, where an assortment of police vehicles were organized into rows. Police officers strapped on bulletproof vests and helmets as they readied their assault rifles and walked out to their convoys. I was led into a reconfigured Ford F-150 with several commandos in the back, their faces concealed by balaclava.
As unrelenting violence continues, Mexico’s Federal Police have taken the lead in attempting to bring security and the bustle of daily life back to Juarez. The Army, which had arrived in full force in the city almost three years ago, is steadily being phased out of the metropolitan area. Residents, politicians and international observers are hopeful that a force with proper law enforcement training will be able to do what the army could not – halt a growing body count that outstrips both Baghdad and Kandahar combined.
“There are still Army patrols in Juarez,” Rodriguez said to me during our interview. “Federal Police have taken the lead in the main city – the metropolitan area. The Army and the Federal Police are conducting joint operations throughout the state of Chihuahua. There has not been any trouble with cooperation.”
The convoy pulls out of the station and rumbles through the streets of downtown Juarez. I sit in the back, removing my digital camera from my bag in order to capture as much of the experience as possible. Twenty yards in front of me, I can see a commando, gun in hand, standing and leaning against a bar built into the pickup truck.
Despite being well armed, police patrols in Juarez and other border cities are often forced into battle with an enemy that is able to get its hands on some of the most sophisticated and dangerous weapons on the market.
While it’s obvious that the worst of these weapons – rocket-launchers, hand grenades, roadside explosives and most machine guns – are making their way up from the cocaine belt in Colombia and Central America, Americans often fail to realize that the gun market, like the American drug consumers who give the drug lords billions of dollars each year, is linked to Mexico’s struggles and has allowed the cartels to bring something back with them after smuggling drugs and people across the border.
Having crossed the border a number of times, I have little doubt that I – or anyone – could stuff a dozen semi-automatic pistols into a small backpack while in the United States and walk across the bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juarez, without any difficulty.
The police convoy came to a stop at a station on the other side of town. I stepped out of the vehicle, holding onto the conclusion that for all its struggles, Mexico and its Federal Police forces are doing something noble – even if they are engaged in a fight not only against militant drug traffickers, but also a growing and seemingly endless American lust for drugs.
This police patrol shift had been safe, but every day brings something different. Just over a week after I left Ciudad Juarez, a routine Federal Police patrol came under fire, resulting in a shootout that left a number of people dead and sprayed a hail of gunfire across the border into El Paso’s city hall, a disturbing reminder to Americans that the brutality of the drug cartels will not always be contained in the border towns and slums of our southern neighbor.