The story has been told many times — how the infamous murder rate in Ciudad Juárez plummeted and its twin police forces were cleaned up. Officials declared victory. But it’s a fragile peace. The elements of a resurgence of violence are still lurking — including the lure of Juárez’s multi-million-dollar drug trade.
Special Report Ciudad Juarez was coordinated and edited by Ana Arana of Fundación MEPI in Mexico City. The reporters included Carlos Huerta, Herika Martínez and Beatriz Corral from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and Javier Huerta. The English-language editor was FIU journalism professor Neil Risnerand the Spanish-language editor was Maria Dolores Albiac. The story and charts were originally published in El Daily Post and Animal Politico. The photos are by Borderzine Executive Editor David Smith Soto and Getty Images.
CIUDAD JUÁREZ — The fire-engine red Jeep careened through heavy, morning rush hour traffic down Avenida Tecnológico, Ciudad Juárez’s most important avenue in the high-end area of Zona Dorada, home to the U.S. Consulate, shopping malls and the city’s most upscale homes. Chasing the jeep was a beige Chevrolet Cavalier sedan, with two shooters brandishing high-power handguns. After a quarter of a mile, the jeep crashed against a metal billboard, near a federal courthouse. Two mid-level drug traffickers, Gilberto López Mendoza, 39, and Omar Antonio Ochoa Jiménez, 37, slumped dead on the front seats. A 23-year-old Venezuelan stripper, Gabriela Figueroa, lay dead on the floor of the car where she had apparently tried to hide. The assassins were good shots. It took only 11 bullets fired from a speeding car to kill all three.
It was the morning of Oct. 23, 2014, and Juárez was aghast.
Just two weeks later, not far from the murder scene, Chihuahua Governor César Duarte gave thumbs up to a gathering of Ciudad Juárez officials and civic leaders from 15 cities across the country. These officials, like many others, had flown into this northern Mexican city to learn how a place that had been the murder capital of the world, where drug related violence killed 11,000 people in just four years, found peace.
Governor Duarte said he was honored other cities wanted to replicate the Juárez experiment which focused on cleaning up corrupt police, and insisted that nearly all city forces were clean. “We faced the challenge head on,” he told the gathering. “There may be a few who think they can get away with what they want, but with intelligence work, we will get rid of them.”
The story of the Juárez miracle has been told many times. Between 2008 and 2012, a battle between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels and the co-option of police forces as fighters for their criminal causes, turned this city’s streets red with blood. In 2010, when the death rate reached 300 a month, a coalition of city and civic leaders, an effective but controversial police chief imported from Tijuana, 5 billion pesos ($300 million dollars) in Mexican federal government funds and Drug Enforcement Administration informants, quashed the violence and cleaned up the two police forces in Juárez — the municipal police and the state ministerial police.
Mexico declared victory
But the lure of Juárez’s multi-million-dollar drug trade may be a reality that might overtake the governor’s optimism and that of others who have heralded the return of peace. The Juárez Cartel routed the Sinaloa group and appears to be restructuring under new leaders who hope to rebuild the comfortable relationship they had with local and state police, an intelligence officer in Juárez said. At the heart of the problem are the multi-million dollar trafficking routes located along an agricultural strip that runs parallel to the Rio Grande and is called the Juárez Valley.
After 9/11, trafficking drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border became difficult. So the Juárez Cartel created a number of makeshift trafficking routes outside the city. During the fight for Juárez, parallel battles took place in this strip of land. Eventually in 2010, Sinaloa took control of these multi-million-dollar routes, allegedly with the assistance of military forces. This is the territory that the Juárez Cartel has regained, according to intelligence reports.
The October assassinations in Zona Dorada were the beginning of a wave of violence related to those valuable drug routes. Since then, Juárez has seen a series of murders and shootouts that show La Linea, the Juárez Cartel’s enforcement unit, may be returning to city streets. Ochoa, one of the red Jeep’s occupants, managed a string of nightclubs and strip clubs, including the Museum Bar, where the Venezuelan stripper worked, and had strong protection from the police, according to intelligence reports.
Apparently, he was linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, and his assassination was ordered by Jesús Salas Aguayo, alias “El Chuyín,” the new La Linea leader, to send a message to police working with Sinaloa that they’d better return to their roots. El Chuyín was arrested by federal forces on April 18, in the town of Ahumada, Chihuahua. However, the Attorney General’s Office said several of his lieutenants were vying to take his place.
For Mexico, Juárez is a case study, but not a complete victory. La Linea’s apparent resurgence may mean that the Juárez miracle was merely a hiatus and the recent killings a return to business as usual, even as top cartel leader, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “The Viceroy,” was arrested by Mexican federal police last October. According to a number of sources, Carrillo, though still the nominal leader of the cartel, has found himself distanced from the criminal organization’s day-to-day operations.
Long-time observers of the Juárez case say part of the problem is that the city focused on targeting violence and not drug trafficking organizations.
“The intentions of the current government are that they will protect public safety and manage crime, but not end drug trafficking,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. Violence analyst Eduardo Guerrero said victories against organized crime are dynamic factors.
“We could dismantle the groups for some time, but if we don’t pay attention, things could change rapidly and we could be talking about a failure. They could again corrupt police units, for example.” In fact, seizures of drugs and weapons in Juárez have collapsed in the last two years after the departure of two top police chiefs who cleaned up their departments after 2010.
The Juárez Cartel has deep roots in the city and it was predictable that cartel leaders would try to return in a different guise. Meanwhile, the arrest of the notorious Sinaloa leader Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán last year, left the Sinaloa troops in the Juárez Valley without direction, according to intelligence sources in Juárez. Other top Sinaloa leaders like Ismael Zambada García, alias “ El Mayo Zambada” have sent in new troops called the “Ms”, after the name Mayo. But Juárez regained some territory because key lieutenants in Sinaloa’s local structure shifted allegiance and joined La Linea, according to intelligence sources.
Similarly, although an alliance between La Linea and the binational Barrio Azteca gang broke down, there are reports that La Linea has collaborated with some gang members from other U.S.-based gangs. The Aztecas remain in town and control street crime in several working class neighborhoods where they recruit at-risk youth. Two other gangs that worked with Sinaloa, the AA’s and the Mexicles, also remain in Juárez, but are no longer working for Sinaloa.
It has been three years since the violence abated and the murder rate dipped from 300 a month to 30. In March and April of 2015, the number of homicides in the city reached its lowest point since 2005. But crime experts say that could change because the judicial system hasn’t come down hard enough on some of the criminals. Between 2010 and 2012 the U.S. prepared strong cases against the leaders of La Linea and Barrio Azteca, condemning them to life in prison. In Mexico, the killers in the massacre of 11 youths and four adults in the neighborhood of Salvarcar also received long prison terms. But many others gang members received shorter sentences; some are already out of prison or will be soon.
In the United States, former Ciudad Juárez Municipal Police Chief Saulo Reyes Gamboa —who the DEA says was the Juárez Cartel’s bagman — recently got out of a minimum security prison, after serving seven years for attempting to bribe a U.S. Customs officer to help him smuggle trucks full of marijuana across El Paso’s international bridges.
Bribing the police takes a cartel only so far. Hiring a top police leader and corrupting the force that investigates its activities ups the ante exponentially. In the Ciudad Juárez of 2007-2011, the investigative arm of the State Attorney General’s Office, the investigative arm of the District Attorney’s office, operated at the whim of José Antonio Acosta Hernández, alias “El Diego,” a former police commander who became the head of operations for the Juárez Cartel.
The Cartel had spread money among police officers since its beginnings in the 1990s. They were to look the other way and allow the cartel to operate unhindered. But when El Diego rose to the top of the organized crime pyramid, he brought crucial know-how and the undivided allegiance of entire police units in the state police, which became an extension of the cartel. El Diego and his men protected the multi-million dollar local and international drug networks in Juárez, one of the most important drug transshipment points, at a time when Juárez’s supremacy was closely challenged by Sinaloa.
The Salvarcar miscalculation: A deadly mistake
On Friday Jan. 30, 2010, El Diego answered his phone. Artists Assassins, or AA’s, a street gang with members in El Paso and Juárez, was among his enemies and an informant was telling him they would be partying that evening in the working-class Villas de Salvarcar neighborhood in southeast Ciudad Juárez.
El Diego’s job was to keep the AA’s and other groups aligned with Sinaloa on the run. The AA’s worked with Sinaloa on street drug sales. Barrio Azteca did the same for Juárez. In 2010, at least four street gangs worked for the two cartels, fielding “sicarios,” or assassins, to annihilate small-time drug dealers. “None of the shootouts occurred between big-time drug dealers,” said a police source in Juárez. “The sicarios focused on killing the dealers. They were keeping the local territory for themselves.”
As El Diego activated his killing machine, Luz María Dávila, a diminutive woman with a quick smile, fretted in her tiny living room in her house on Calle Villa del Portal, a narrow street in Salvarcar that was more like an alley. A few yards away, her sons Marcos and José Luis reveled at a friend’s birthday party packed with neighborhood kids, high school football players from the AA, an American football league.
Dávila’s husband, José Luis, was surfing the Internet on his son’s computer, waiting to start his late night shift at a maquila, a Juárez-based American factory where he worked as a watchman. A few minutes before 10 p.m., a convoy of cars carrying about a dozen hit men from La Linea and Barrio Azteca arrived. The men, many of them Juárez natives and all in their late 20s, moved quickly in a macabre dance. Two cars blocked the ends of Villa del Portal as the others zoomed in on the yellow cinder-block house, where techno music blasted and young couples danced and talked. Some of the shooters covered their faces with bandanas. Most went barefaced, not afraid to be recognized.
El Diego gave the command by phone: Kill everybody. The assassins walked together to the house, aiming high-power weapons. In less than 30 minutes, 15 people lay dead and several wounded. Like Luz María’s sons, most were the children of maquila workers and students at local high schools and universities. Some were the first in their families to finish high school and dreamt of going to university.
The shots rang loud.
Luz María told her husband to stay put, bolted out the door, made a sharp right and ran the few yards from her house to the party. On the way, she ran into one shooter who had lagged behind and she heard the cars screeching as they made their getaways. She entered the small house and found bodies slumped together, broken glass and blood everywhere. “I found Marcos first, but he was dead,” she recently recalled, sitting in her house, which she refused to leave after the murders. “I looked for José Luis. He was collapsed by the hallway. He told me he was okay.”
Composed, she tells the story as if repeating it to reporters and government investigators. The passage of four years has anesthetized her.
“We took José Luis to the clinic in our car. He kept telling me he was fine. But he died the next afternoon after surgery.” Marcos was in his first year in university, studying to be a foreign service officer. José Luis wanted to go into international trade. Since the murders, Luz Maria and her husband have rebuilt their tiny house, adding a second floor where they reserved a room for their sons’ possessions. Luz Maria receives visitors in a small sitting-room with a large television. Four portraits of Marcos and José Luis rule the room. The photos are selfies the youths took of themselves days before the murders.
Until the massacre, Salvarcar was a place where residents felt safe because everyone knew one another. The house where the massacre took place was lent by the owner to local youth, so they could have gatherings. The youth loved their “club house.” Salvarcar, like other working-class neighborhoods in Juárez, lacked parks and playgrounds for youth and children. “We finally got a park after they were killed,” said Luz María.
In the end, the teens killed at Villa del Portal were not the AA members El Diego sought. The initials stood for the American football team that had organized the party.
El Diego took the news hard. He killed the informant who provided the wrong information, according to investigators in Juárez, who asked to remain anonymous.
More important, the murders horrified Ciudad Juárez and brought national and international attention to the city.
A week and a half after the massacre, President Felipe Calderón flew into Ciudad Juárez with a large government contingent. He had angered Juárez after the murders when he said the massacre’s victims were gang members. Holding a public meeting with relatives of the victims, activists and representatives of citizens groups was intended to minimize the damage.
Luz María got an invitation to attend but filed it under a bunch of papers in her kitchen, where only a few days earlier her children’s coffins had stood. She decided at the last minute to attend the meeting. She sat with the other “special guests” like her, Salvarcar residents, the survivors of the victims, people who are not usually invited to meetings with the president. She grew more agitated with every presentation by local government officials and by the reverence with which they spoke to Calderón. As the mike was passed among the grieving relatives, she stood up and, in a country where a mere maquila worker does not confront the president, delivered a monologue that became part of history.
“I can’t welcome you to the city, because to me you are not welcome,” she said, grabbing the attention of the entire amphitheater. “It’s been more than two years of killings and nobody has done anything… Juárez is mourning. Put yourself in my place. You can’t say they were gang members if they studied and worked… I bet that if one of your sons had been killed, you would turn stones to find the killer. Because I have no resources, I can’t do that.” Then, turning her back to the president, she faced the audience. “And you, why don’t you say anything? Why do you applaud the president just because he visited us here?”
Dávila is still in awe of her actions five years ago. But her diatribe shamed the federal government, which created a $300 million-dollar social project called “We are All Juárez,” and helped form the Justice and Security Roundtable, with representatives from the business, civic and government sectors in Juárez who began to meet each week and work with police to clean up the city.
More technology for more killing
But the violence continued to increase and El Diego seemed unstoppable. Murders climbed to 300 a month. National and international attention to the city’s plight was mounting. But La Linea and its partner in crime, Barrio Azteca, proceeded undaunted.
The cartel went high-tech.
Two Mexican engineers were hired to develop a cutting-edge, encrypted walkie-talkie network with antennas erected on Juárez highest peak, La Bola. The network was up and running by March and La Linea and Barrio Azteca used it for their next big mission, the shootings of U.S. Consulate officer Leslie Ann Enriquez, her husband Arthur Redelfs, and the husband of another consular officer as they left a children’s birthday party on March 13, 2010.
El Diego and Barrio Azteca boss Arturo Gallegos Castrellón, alias “El Benny,” were escalating their operations. They were going after the United States.
There are various theories about the reasons for the hit. One is that Redelfs, an officer at El Paso County Detention Center, mistreated Juárez Cartel members serving jail terms in El Paso. Another is that Barrio Azteca believed Leslie Ann Enriquez worked for the Sinaloa Cartel. After his arrest in 2011, El Diego said Barrio Azteca made a mistake.
The U.S. government responded swiftly, ordering the family members of Consulate workers out of El Paso. It also turned its sights on La Linea.
By mid-2010, El Diego had grown more maniacal when his people packed a car with more than 10 kilos of Tovex, an explosive used in mines and construction. They parked the car on 16 de Septiembre Street in downtown Juárez on July 15, luring police and medical workers by leaving the body of a man wearing a police uniform in the passenger compartment.
Dr. José Guillermo Ortiz, a family physician who treated low-income patients and had his office nearby, was walking with his son when he saw the victim. He sent his son for his medical bag but proceeded toward the car. The explosion was sudden. Dr. Ortiz was hit by the blast head on and later died at a hospital. A Federal Police agent also died and six federal agents and a local TV station’s cameraman were wounded. The bomb had been triggered with a cellphone.
The car bomb did more than frighten an already fed-up city. It sent a message to U.S. officials via graffiti on the wall of an elementary school warning that more car bombs would follow in the next two weeks unless U.S. agents investigated alleged ties between Mexico’s “corrupt federal authorities” and the Sinaloa Cartel.
The bomb freaked out one of the engineers who ran the encrypted walkie-talkie network when he heard Barrio Azteca’s Gallegos congratulate the troops: “Good job, guys, well done. You did really well. And gave a lesson to the pigs…” These people are nuts, the engineer thought, and decided he needed to warn the authorities. The engineer, who has never been identified, became a key player in the dissolution of La Linea.
In the next few weeks, the engineer knocked on the attorney general’s door and then the Mexican Army’s. He stayed away from Juárez police, because he knew from the radio conversations that most of them were on the take. He had no luck. So he went to the U.S. Consulate and lied, saying he had information on another attack against the United States. The doors opened and he became a protected witness for the DEA. Between July and December 2010, he recorded thousands of hours of radio communications for the United States.
The Rise and Fall of a Monster
José Antonio Acosta started out as a serious and formal officer in the state police. He soon became “El Diego,” the most ruthless murderer in a murderous city. It took an equally ruthless top cop to bring him down.
José Antonio Acosta Hernández, alias “El Diego,” joined the Policía Ministerial, or state police, in 1999, at age 26 and was initially assigned to the homicide group. In less than a year he was hand-picked to join the elite unit Grupo Zeus, tasked with investigating cases related to organized crime. At the time “he was a healthy young man, very serious and formal,” said a former state police agent who worked with him. “He lifted weights and wanted a career in the police. And he had huevitos, guts.” But within two years, El Diego had switched sides and joined the criminal elements that operated within the police, which the source says received thousands of dollars each month to aid the Juárez Cartel.
His criminal links led El Diego, then known as “El Blablazo” to resign from the police in 2003 and set up a bus transport business. Only his closest colleagues knew Acosta worked for the other side and his real boss was Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, “El Viceroy.” Documents in Acosta’s trial in El Paso show that by 2004 he had been assigned the task of recruiting active and former police officers for La Línea.
In late 2005, police sources say, El Viceroy sent Acosta back into the Policía Ministerial where he got a job in the vehicle impound lot. Within months he was transferred to the Anti-Kidnapping Unit, where he rescued two victims single-handedly. But this second tour in the Policía Ministerial was also short-lived. He resigned in 2007, crossing over to a life of crime and taking at least half a dozen of his police colleagues with him. For Acosta and his colleagues, it was a step up in life. Acosta traded his lower-middle-class government housing home for a large house in Las Acequias, an upper-class residential development. He and his wife drove new cars: a Dodge Aspen SUV and a Ford Mustang. “Small gifts,” he told his former police colleagues when they asked.
Acosta began working under Juan Pablo Ledesma and Luis Guillermo Castillo, top lieutenants of Carrillo Fuentes. Within months, he was promoted and became a top lieutenant himself, in charge of the cartel’s killers. He changed his nickname to “El Diego,” a play on the word “Diez,” 10, his code name within the Juárez Cartel. El Diego began reaching out to his old comrades in the State Police, recruiting active agents through bribes or coercion. The state police became handmaidens to the cartel, casting a protective net over its operations.
In Juárez, no police department was free of suspicion, as the cartels’ battle exploded in the city’s face and cartel operatives recruited soldiers among the officers who traditionally provided most of their men. The drug business was changing as the United States increased security at the border after the 9/11 attacks and shipments that had always moved across the international bridges now crossed the border via the unpoliced small roads dotting the border between Chihuahua and Texas. The battle in Juárez was for the local drug business.
Already in 2007, intelligence reports said the Sinaloa Cartel was pressuring both the State Police and Municipal Police in Ciudad Juárez. The same report revealed that the Juárez Cartel controlled the Municipal Police through its director Saulo Reyes Gamboa, a suspected cartel money launderer. Reyes Gamboa was a successful businessman with multiple companies, including El Escorpión Negro, a private security firm that provided bullet-proof vests to the Juárez police force.
Reyes Gamboa was arrested by U.S. authorities in a January 2008 sting operation after he tried to bribe an agent to transport drugs across one of El Paso’s international ports of entry. His arrest left the Municipal Police without clear direction and made it easier for Sinaloa to penetrate the force. His story is interesting, because it is among the only examples of a top government official and influential civic leader in Juárez, with proven links to organized crime.
Reyes Gamboa recently finished serving a seven-year prison term in a minimum security jail in Lexington, Kentucky. He has not returned to Juárez, where he still owns businesses that allegedly work with illicit funds. There is an open investigation against him.
What’s the solution? A supercop, of course
In 2010, as Juárez bled, its citizens re-elected Héctor Murguía Lardizábal, alias “El Teto,” for a second stint as mayor. El Teto remains one of the most popular politicians in Juárez. An Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) stalwart, he is a short, pugnacious and spirited man who served his first term as mayor between 2004 and 2007, shortly before the city sunk into despair.
“He is very dirty, but people love him,” says a reporter who has followed his political career. El Teto denies corruption allegations as he welcomes visitors into a gargantuan two-floor office flanked by a 10-meter long indoor swimming pool.
El Teto takes credit for bringing in the cop who pacified Juárez. In late 2010, he approached Ret. Lt. Colonel Julián Leyzaola Pérez, who was ending his term as chief of police of Tijuana, another troubled border city. “You earned a star for your work in Tijuana,” El Teto told Leyzaola. “Come to Ciudad Juárez and get another star.”
Leyzaola came to Juárez in early March 2011. He was close to 50 years old, with an athletic build and a dark cloud following him from Tijuana, where he was accused of several human rights abuses against police officers and civilians.
Leyzaola, who refused an interview for this article, had moved his family out of Mexico when he was still in Tijuana and arrived in Juárez with a combat mentality. He was used to death threats. In Tijuana he had survived several assassination attempts.
The Sinaloa Cartel welcomed Leyzaola with a narcomessage, warning that his police officers would be targeted if he took the job, and then proving the point by killing dozens of them. The clean-up was swift. Leyzaola rid the force of any agent who smelled rotten, with or without evidence, just as he did while he was police chief in Tijuana, countenancing no ifs, ands or buts.
He beefed up a fighting force: a paramilitary unit of 70 men known as the Delta Group, which got into trouble almost immediately. On March 16, two weeks after Leyzaola took office, the unit detained four young men: Juan Carlos Chavira, 28; Dante Castillo, 25; Raúl Navarro, 29; and Félix Vizcarra, 22.
Their bodies were found in the Juárez hills a month later. The case went to court and the officers charged with the attack were sentenced to 15-year prison terms. The case was included in a special report on disappearances by Human Rights Watch. Another 100 municipal agents are serving jail terms for human rights violations under Leyzaola’ leadership.
But government and civil society groups brought Leyzaola to Juárez knowing his operating style. “We all went along because the city was buckling under the violence,” said one former member of the Justice and Security Roundtable. “He was an evil that was needed in the city,” said a top federal prosecutor.
In December 2011, Chihuahua’s government hired Federal Police Commander Raúl Ávila Ibarra, to head the State Police or Policía Ministerial, the force that had worked for El Diego.
Ávila had international experience and had served as a United Nations police trainer in El Salvador when peace talks ended the civil war there in 1992. Having two different top police directors kept the Juárez and Sinaloa Cartels on the run. “It was hard to corrupt either force at that moment, because each director kept the other one clean,” said César Augusto Peniche Espejel, head of the Juárez Attorney General’s Office.
The tables were turned on crime. Sicarios, drug dealers, weapons and security houses started to tumble. “What cleaned Juárez was that we had two police chiefs who kept each other in line and clean,” said one member of the Roundtable, who asked to remain anonymous.
But unbeknownst to them, they received invaluable aid from a shadowy Drug Enforcement Agency confidential informant who provided key intelligence on La Linea and Barrio Azteca.
Enter “EQ” — the telecommunications maven
The informant, “EQ,” was the engineer who created the encrypted radio network La Linea and Barrio Azteca used to coordinate their bloody assaults. He became a DEA informant in 2010. His existence only became public in February 2014, at the El Paso trial of Benny Gallegos, head of Barrio Azteca.
EQ has never been identified and lives under protective custody in the United States. The intelligence he provided was key to ending the violence in Juárez. The account he gave before the El Paso court was a riveting tale of espionage.
He described how he and another engineer, Jaime Bon Arreola, used encrypted radio technology to set-up a complicated communications system for Barrio Azteca and El Diego’s group La Linea. The network produced thousands of hours of eavesdropped conversations that helped send El Diego and Benny Gallegos to prison for life.
Arreola, alias “El Inge,” directed the telecommunications operation and met with Cartel leaders. EQ just went along and initially believed he worked for a private security firm. In March 2010, El Inge spilled the news after a few drinks and told him “the carnales,” brothers or narcotraffickers, were the real clients.
As a covert informant, EQ taped murder orders, drug trafficking messages and more. American authorities never told their Mexican counterparts about his existence, but relayed intelligence that was useful to Mexican authorities. On Nov. 26, 2010, EQ provided the information that let the DEA track down Benny Gallegos and tip off Mexican authorities so they could arrest the head of Barrio Azteca.
El Diego never suspected that he had a mole in his communications network.
On July 29, 2011, eight months after Benny Gallegos arrest, Mexican police nabbed El Diego in Chihuahua City, the state capital.
EQ worked with the radios until mid-2012. The information he provided left Barrio Azteca and La Linea in tatters, led by less capable killers than El Diego.
The Sinaloa Cartel moved in on Juárez drug routes and businesses. EQ relocated with his family to an undisclosed city in the United States in February 2011. His buddy, the other engineer, did not fare as well. He was kidnapped by Barrio Azteca in September 2011 and shot dead outside of Juárez. A burial ceremony announcement in Sonora, where his family lived, did not specify the cause of death.
Doctors at risk
Every July 15, Dr. Leticia Chavarría, a general medicine specialist, organizes a ceremony to remember her colleague José Guillermo Ortiz Collazo, the Good Samaritan who died on that date in 2010, when El Diego ordered the car bomb explosion. In a town where doctors can earn a six-figure income treating health tourists — patients who come from El Paso to Juárez for lower-cost medical treatment — Collazo only treated low-income patients who lived near his modest downtown office. “He was a real people’s doctor,” Chavarria says. Collazo was the doctor killed when he approached an apparently wounded man in a car that was really a trap to lure Federal Police officials closer to a bomb. He died at a hospital as doctors tried to amputate both of his legs.
The violence hit the Juárez medical community hard beginning in 2007. The same year Collazo died, two other physicians were kidnapped and killed. Many doctors were robbed at their offices forcing many to give up fancy cars and to relocate to fortified clinics.
Some had been extorted and hundreds of others left their homes as the city became a cauldron of violence, only to return because they couldn’t practice in the States.
“We were living war-like situations, with killers coming into the hospitals to kill off their enemies who were there getting medical care,” remembers Dr. Chavarría. “Doctors at three hospitals, including Juárez’s General Hospital, worked in fear,”
Chavarría became an activist during the violence. A member of the Security and Justice Roundtable, she and a group of doctors toiled with businessmen, politicians and security officials starting in 2010 to put their city together. A small woman in her 50s, she explains why the medical community joined the social cause. “Doctors don’t join groups. But we were hit. We learned a lesson,” she says. “We liked being activists but we also believed in engaging and helping improve the system.”
It took government officials, brave civic leaders, police chiefs who wouldn’t let human rights get in the way of what they had to do, and activist doctors to quell the violence in Juárez. Whether they did enough will be revealed only with time. But nothing would have happened at all were it not for one brave woman from the barrio who on the spur of the moment took on the president of Mexico.
The memory of her sons keeps Luz María and her husband in Juárez. They refuse to leave town. They have renovated their small house, added a second floor and painted the outside walls. The living room is a shrine to her sons, Marcos and José Luis, whose smiling faces dominate the space in poster-sized photos. She says if she ever leaves Juárez, she will exhume her sons’ bodies and take them with her.
Luz María says she still feels the boys’ presence in the house, and even mentions strange happenings, like when the boys’ names suddenly appear in a fogged mirror in the bathroom. The first time she saw the names, she thought her husband had written them, but he thought it had been her. “I tried to wipe them and when I let hot water run, the steam formed the names again,” she says. “And I felt good.”
Luz María and her husband still work in the maquiladora plants. Her therapy is reading and making plastic flowers which she distributes to journalists, friends, anyone who will accept them. She dresses her children’s tombstones with those flowers. The passage of time does not cure the hurt: “It’s hard, the solitude, the memories.”
The Salvarcar massacre summarizes the clash of two worlds created by the maquiladora industry. Luz María Dávila and her family were an example of upward mobility, an example of what could be achieved in a maquila family within a generation. Her “maquila children” were going to finish college and join the middle class.
Their killers on the other hand, were also maquila children, high school dropouts who joined the criminal world.