NOVEMBER 13, 2010
Can Mexico Be Saved?
The mayor of Juárez—the border town at the center of the drug wars—says he’s not getting enough help from his capital, or Washington either.
Cuidad Juárez, Mexico
‘I can’t imagine how the U.S. can be so worried about Iraq and Pakistan while we don’t sense that it is worried about the border here. We are together whether we like it or not.”
So says Hector “Teto” Murguia, the mayor of this city that is plagued by drug-war disorder. In the 35 months since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched his war against his country’s drug cartels, more than 7,100 people have been killed in this border city. Over 2,700 have died since January—in other words, the rate of the killing has increased.
Carjacking, kidnapping and extortion are rampant. Going out to work, school, or a restaurant or even to visit friends has become a risky proposition. Recently, a 20-year-old mother who attends college in Juárez became chief of police in a nearby town of 9,000 because no one else would take the job. Many Americans who used to pop over the border for dining or entertainment have curtailed their visits. Hundreds of thousands of juarenes have fled, some just over the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas, others to the interior of Mexico.
But the 57-year-old Mr. Murguia is staying. Even before he took office on Oct. 10, a welcoming committee was already at work: In the week before he won the election, a headless body was dropped on the road near his home.
So what’s his plan to retake the city for law-abiding Mexicans? I have come here from El Paso, with an armed escort, to find out. As the SUV I’m riding in turns down his street, I note a new two-story shopping mall on the corner. It is completely vacant, a metaphor for a once-promising metropolis laid low by violence and fear.
A tall metal sculpture of Don Quixote decorates Mr. Murguia’s foyer. As I enter his home office, the first thing I ask is why he ran for this job. He says that his party asked him to run again (he was mayor from 2004 to 2007), and he felt an obligation to the community.

Zina Saunders
Cleaning up the mess here will require the proper diagnosis, and I ask the mayor to share his. “If you have the biggest consumer of drugs just beside your [border] and you have a lot of people here who have no opportunity, you have the culture for insecurity,” he tells me. But the mayor doesn’t dwell on what he cannot change. Instead he zeroes in on Mexico. “The real causes that are generating the insecurity in Juárez and all over Mexico are lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of [necessities], impunity, lack of justice. It is a mixture of a lot of problems where we Mexicans haven’t done our homework,” he says.
“People who think they are going to fix [the problem] with policemen and arms are completely crazy.” Instead, he wants to see Mexico “make the changes in the fiscal policies to encourage investments that create jobs.”
To capture the desperation of Mexico’s young, the mayor-elect shares an anecdote: “Last week, at a gas station here, I met an 18-year-old. He told me ‘Teto, you politicians don’t know anything. You don’t understand that without hope we have no future. We prefer to die in one year standing up than living all our lives on our knees.'” Summing it up, Mr. Murguia says, “When people lose hope they will do anything [to improve their circumstances].”
By Mr. Murguia’s measure, Juárez was a place of hope not so long ago. “Juárez for 40 years, from 1965-2005, was the city that generated the most jobs per capita in all of Mexico. And those jobs were not only for juarenses,” he says proudly. “People came from Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Veracruz because they couldn’t find jobs in their own city. Some of them tried to cross the river but a lot of them found a job in Juárez.”
What went wrong? The mayor-elect blames Mexico’s revenue sharing model. “The investment that the federal and state government makes in Juárez does not correspond to what the city sends in federal taxes.” He complains that though the city created jobs for the nation, investments in “public services, streets, schools, parks, community centers and health-care centers haven’t corresponded to the job growth. We were forgotten.” He wants the federal government and the state “to return to Juárez what they owe us.”
Of course economic development is unlikely when investors are having their throats slit. When I raise that issue and the issue of corruption, Mr. Murguia says that part of what Juárez is owed is resources for law enforcement. He says that when he first took office as mayor in 2004 there were only 1,000 police for the entire city. He raised that number to 1,600 and increased police salaries by more than 50%. But he says that is far from what is needed.
“Experts in crime prevention say Juárez needs 7,000 police. Yet even if I had used the entire budget I couldn’t even have hired 3,000. We couldn’t give them scholarships for their kids and they didn’t have housing. I visited some of them at their homes and saw the dirt floors. . . . We ask our police to give their lives for us and we don’t have enough money to pay them properly.”
A complicating factor is that Mr. Murguia’s political adversaries have accused him of having ties to drug traffickers, since a high-ranking member of his police department during his last term was busted. When I raise this, the mayor-elect is ready and rattles off his former subordinate’s resume as a pillar of society and business. “And let me tell you something else,” he adds. “During the six months he worked for me he received two recognitions from U.S. authorities.” In other words, this official did not have the socioeconomic profile of a cop on the beat, which suggests that higher salaries alone don’t prevent corruption.
Nevertheless, Mr. Murguia says that what Juárez needs is more resources—”money, intelligence and cooperation”—from Mexico City. He also complains that the U.S. aid program for fighting the cartels, known as Plan Merida, has so far provided “nothing” to his city.
Isn’t that a problem to take up with the Mexican government and Mr. Calderón? “But it’s 2,000 kilometers from here,” he exclaims. El Paso, on the other hand, is just across the river, so Washington should convince Mr. Calderón to help Juárez. “If the Mexican institutions—the federal police, the army, the federal government, and the municipal and state governments—fail Juárez,” he warns, “everybody is going to fail. What can a small powerless mayor of Juárez do if President Calderón doesn’t provide the support?”
Mr. Murguia says his city is demoralized. It no longer has just an organized crime problem, but widespread chaos. “Copy cats” and youngsters have learned to take advantage of the general breakdown of law and order. “For kids, 15 or 17 years old, when there is a lot of impunity, it is very easy for them to extort a business. But this is not organized crime.” Mr. Murguia draws a distinction between the two and says, “If we can solve the extortions and kidnappings, Juárez will begin to [improve] slowly.” Hence his emphasis on social services, investment and strengthening of the police.
Mexican politicians are notorious for anti-American rhetoric, but Mr. Murguia displays no such prejudice with me. Still, he doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant reality of American drug use and marijuana-growing. When I ask him about legalizing marijuana, he launches into a favorite Mexican jeremiad: “How do you explain to a guy here who is in jail because he was caught carrying two kilos of marijuana that California is producing 10,000 kilograms per day in just one [facility]? How do you explain that [the Mexican] loses his liberty while Californians produce? It’s hard to explain that to the people who are in jail here. Fair? It is not fair.”
Is he saying, I ask, that there is a perception in Mexico that marijuana is already legal in the United States? “Yes, oh yes,” he tells me. He makes clear that he thinks the stuff is bad for you, but he says that any move to legalize it must be done on both sides of the border—and all over the world. “Otherwise you will get Hell’s Kitchen here in Mexico.”
I press him on that point, asking whether legalization, on both sides of the border, would stop the bloodshed and disintegration of the state. If you want to end the violence and corruption it creates, he says, you only need to turn the business over to governments. He says that he could then deal with the extortion and kidnapping epidemics separately.
I ask Mr. Murguia whether he thinks winning in Juárez will mean no more drugs will go into the U.S. “I don’t think so,” he says. So you are fighting a problem and risking your life, and if you win you won’t solve the problem?
He repeats his doubts, but for him that’s beside the point. “I’m not going to get philosophical,” he says. “The only thing I want to do is get my city calm.”
Ms. O’Grady writes the Journal’s Americas column.


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2 Responses to “CAN MEXICO BE SAVED?”

  1. World Spinner Says:


    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  2. Honest Abe Says:

    Put 25k US military boots on the ground in Mexico and yes we can save her. We need to take over for security purposes.

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