Eight police officers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, have been killed in recent weeks
Authorities say cartels are responsible for killings
Banners threaten that an officer will be killed each day unless the police chief resigns
The chief -- a former military officer -- says he's not stepping down
Julian Juarez Baena, a police officer in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, had just finished his shift. It was just after 9 p.m. last Saturday, and he was driving home.
But the 35-year-old would never reach his destination. At an intersection near his home, he was ambushed and shot to death.
Investigators found 34 bullet casings at the scene. Juarez was found facing down with multiple bullet wounds in his head, chest and left side of his body.
His death made headlines in the Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas. Not only was the victim a police officer, but he was also the eighth member of the force to be murdered in two weeks.
In the weeks prior to Juarez’s death, banners had appeared in Ciudad Juarez threatening to kill one officer per day unless Police Chief Julian Leyzaola resigned. Leyzaola, some of the banners claimed, was only targeting members of one cartel while its rivals roamed free.
Leyzaola, a former military officer who has been on the job for less than a year, says he’s not stepping down.
“We have to show them (criminals) that they can’t be above the law or above authority. They’re criminals and they should be isolated; isolated in jail or buried in the cemetery. They can’t keep on intimidating or kidnapping people,” Leyzaola said the day after Juarez’s death.
The murders of police officers have taken their toll on morale in the department of 2,500, and forced authorities to take unprecedented measures. Ciudad Juarez Mayor Hector Murguia Lardizabal made the decision to temporarily house most of the police force in hotels, with 24-hour police protection – the police department protecting its own officers..
“I had to respond to reality,” Murguia said. “I also decided that we were going to allow police officers to keep their duty weapons after their shift ended. We decided to send them to the barracks after the eighth death. We needed to do something about it.”
The attacks against officers haven’t stopped. A shootout between officers and their attackers earlier this week left three dead gunmen and produced three arrests. According to police, attackers tried to ambush the officers Monday as they were fueling up their cars. Three police officers suffered minor wounds in the shootout.
In the blue Ford Explorer the suspects used in the attack, investigators found two high-caliber rifles, two handguns and a fragmentation grenade.
Mayor Murguia has stopped short of calling the situation a crisis. Responding to a reporter’s question about the recent deaths of police officers, Murguia became visibly impatient. “It would be stupidly naive not to expect deadly attacks in an open war against organized crime,” Murguia said.
“What would you have us do? Do you want us to send messages to the criminals asking them to please put their AK-47s (assault rifles) down and stop committing crimes?”
Three years ago criminal groups successfully used the same tactic of killing police officers to force the Juarez chief of police then to resign. Roberto Orduna Cruz stepped down after his assistant chief of police, Sacramento Perez, and two of his bodyguards were gunned down in an ambush. Investigators found more than 150 bullet casings at the crime scene.
Just before that incident in February of 2009, anonymous banners had appeared throughout the city of 1.2 million warning that if Orduna didn’t resign a police officer would be murdered every 48 hours.
By at least one measure Leyzaola, the current police chief, has been successful. The number of violent deaths in Juarez dropped by almost 40% last year compared with the year before. There were 1,933 murders in 2011, compared with 3,117 in 2010, the all-time record.
But Leyzaola says he is not done yet. Leyzaola, who also served as chief of police in Tijuana, is credited with bringing a significant decline in crime in that border city.
His goal, he says, is to do the same in Ciudad Juarez.
Journalist Edgar Roman in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.