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Deadliest year in Mexico's war on drugs

By Arthur Brice, CNN
A young girl is visible through bullet-pierced glass near the spot where two Ciudad Juarez policemen were killed in November.
A young girl is visible through bullet-pierced glass near the spot where two Ciudad Juarez policemen were killed in November.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • National media say 7,600 Mexicans died in the war on drugs in 2009
  • Gangs affiliated with two major cartels have heightened the violence
  • Despite dire situation, mayor of beleaguered Ciudad Juarez sees a brighter 2010
  • More personnel, tougher laws, Crime Stoppers all will be better weapons, mayor says

(CNN) -- Mexico ended 2009 with a record number of drug-related deaths, greatly surpassing the then-record tally reached in 2008, unofficial counts indicate.

The government has not released official figures, but national media say 7,600 Mexicans lost their lives in the war on drugs in 2009. Mexican President Felipe Calderon said earlier this year that 6,500 Mexicans died in drug violence in 2008.

Officials say more than 15,000 Mexicans have died since Calderon declared war on the drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006. Some observers, such as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have likened the situation to a civil war.

The vast majority of the deaths have been among criminals, not civilians, Calderon and other Mexican officials have said repeatedly.

Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, leads all other Mexican cities in the number of deaths, news report say. There were more than 2,575 slayings in the city in 2009, according to a tally by TV station XHIJ. Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz told CNN he could not confirm that number but that it sounded correct.

There were 1,600 homicides in the city in 2008.

"This has been a very difficult year. Very complicated," Reyes said Thursday in a telephone interview.

Chihuahua state, in which Ciudad Juarez is located, accounted for 30 percent of the nation's drug-related killings, according to news reports.

Juarez is the central battleground for two organized crime gangs -- the Juarez and Pacific cartels. Those cartels are fighting for the lucrative market across the border in the United States.

Gangs affiliated with the cartels have heightened the violence as they fight for turf in street-level sales in Ciudad Juarez, Reyes said.

The Aztecas gang, he said, is allied with the Juarez Cartel and has 7,000 members. More than 1,200 Azteca members are in jail, Reyes said.

Two gangs are affiliated with the Pacific Cartel -- the Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos (Assassin Artists). The Mexicles has about 1,200 members and the Artistas Asesinos, commonly know as the AA, has around 600 members, Reyes said.

"There is a very strong fight between those two groups," Reyes said.

Despite the dire situation, Reyes sees a brighter 2010.

The appointment of a new federal attorney general in September has led to more personnel being appointed to Ciudad Juarez, Reyes said. That, in turn, has led to more prosecutions, the mayor said.

Reyes also said a new state law in Chihuahua makes it harder for crime suspects to plea bargain or receive lenient sentences.

But he points to a nongovernmental program as a major step toward fighting the bad guys: Ciudad Juarez starts working Friday with Crime Stoppers International, a community-based private organization that receives anonymous tips from residents and passes them along to law enforcement authorities.

The organization has 1,200 programs worldwide, Crime Stoppers President Gary Murphy said.

This has been a very difficult year. Very complicated.
--Jose Reyes Ferriz, mayor of Ciudad Juarez
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Mexico is the first country in Latin America to work with Crime Stoppers, and Ciudad Juarez is the only city in the world to contract directly with the group, Murphy and Reyes said. Everywhere else, the anti-crime group works with community organizations.

The city contacted Canada-based Crime Stoppers this summer, Murphy said.

It was a necessary step, Reyes said, because Juarez residents "lost confidence in the police a long time ago." Tipsters will call an 800 number that does not have caller ID or any other way to identify the caller, Murphy and Reyes said. The calls will not be answered in Mexico or the United States, but in an undisclosed nation.

Reyes calls it "a sophisticated system that is digital, anonymous and coded."

The mayor said he believes Juarez residents will embrace the program because they are familiar with Crime Stoppers, which has been used in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for more than 30 years and also in El Paso, right across the border.

"Crime Stoppers is well-known in Juarez," he said. "It will be easy to convince them."

Crime Stoppers guarantees anonymity, Murphy said.

"This way they can pass along the information and not have to worry about the repercussions," he said. "It's the major reason people call Crime Stoppers no matter where they are in the world."

CNN's Mario Gonzalez and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

 
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