Mexico drug gangs in new battle for local addicts
by Julian Cardona (Reuters)
October 9, 2009
Mexico’s violent drug gangs are fighting over home-grown addicts in the dingy back streets of northern border cities, creating new turf wars that will further stretch the country’s security forces.
Hooded gunmen have stormed at least seven rehabilitation clinics in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border since early last year in deadly attacks that target rival drug dealers. Two strikes last month killed 28 people.
Hitmen have burst into bars and house parties in Tijuana to murder dealers, dragged others to car junk yards to torture and kill them and dumped bodies of scrawny teenage addicts in piles outside slums notorious for drug dealing.
The army, border officials and social workers say top drug lord Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman has diversified from his battle for smuggling routes into the United States to seek control of a growing pool of Mexican addicts along the border.
“This is a new dynamic in the cartel war,” said a senior Mexican police chief on the border who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“Guzman is trying to dominate the local market but other cells also want control, so the conflict is intensifying.”
As social norms have loosened, a growing middle class has become more prosperous and tighter border controls make moving drugs into the United States more difficult, leading gangs have sought to increase consumption in Mexico.
Cartels prey on the huge transitory work force in factories on the Mexican side of the border, eager to create addicts of the 56,500 people who lost their factory jobs in Ciudad Juarez over the past two years as recession hit the economy.
From Tijuana to Reynosa on the Texan border, Guzman’s hitmen are trying to eliminate rival small-time smugglers and dealers — mostly jobless addicts and high school drop-outs — in a new test for President Felipe Calderon’s efforts to crush the cartels.
Just yards from the U.S. border in Ciudad Juarez, a group of gunmen burst into a rehab clinic last month, lined up 17 patients and murdered them. Blood flowed out onto the sidewalk.
“We never received any threats, they just came in and started shooting,” said a survivor of the clinic attack who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. “We never hid anyone from any gang, we didn’t have anything to hide.”
Until now Mexican and U.S. anti-drug officials have focused on the cartels’ fight over transit routes for South American cocaine into the United States. Guzman’s smugglers, from the Pacific state of Sinaloa, battle the northeastern Gulf cartel for the $40 billion-a-year business.
More than 14,000 people, mostly smugglers and police, have died in drug violence since Calderon launched his crackdown in late 2006.
Deploying some 10,000 troops and federal police in Ciudad Juarez has failed to stop the killings. Nationwide the military is stretched between Caribbean smuggling routes, remote marijuana-producing mountains and the border area.
Some investors and officials in Washington worry spiraling drug violence could overwhelm security forces in Mexico, a major exporter of oil, minerals and manufactured goods.
The fight over the local market complicates the drug war because the violence is so anarchic. It can be unclear who works for who and which groups are doing the killing, especially in the infamously violent city of Ciudad Juarez.
“Dealers used to tell me they were working for (Guzman) and others would say La Linea,” former gang member and long-time social worker Antonio Briones said, referring to the city’s main cartel, known both as the Juarez cartel and The Line.
“Now we are seeing a new phenomenon because some don’t have any idea who they’re working for,” he added.
The number of Mexicans addicted to illegal drugs jumped 50 percent to around 500,000 people between 2002 and 2008, according to a government study last year.
Drug trade experts say the real figure is much higher, with an estimated 200,000 addicts in Ciudad Juarez alone.
“Now you make a phone call and they bring you drugs as if it was pizza,” said Jose Antonio Rivera, the director of a youth support center in Ciudad Juarez.