On the morning of Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, Victor Marquez rides in a police convoy through the quiet of Juárez when his car is pinned at a light by a car in front. Another car pulls alongside and machine-guns his vehicle. He is now done with living.

By the end of April, ninety Juárez cops have left the force, and those who remain have announced they will no longer be leaving their station houses. In late May, another list goes up. Beneath the names of marked men and women, it reads: thank you for waiting.

in december 2006, Felipe Calderón, the incoming president of Mexico, unleashed the nation’s army to attack the multibillion-dollar drug industry, which had flourished during the later years of Vicente Fox’s administration and was beginning to rival the government in scale and influence. Organized crime was close to gaining complete control of certain Mexican states, Calderón said; it had to be stopped. And besides, after having barely won his seat as president, it seemed like a smart idea to do something popular—such as hunt the cartels—so Calderón gave the army a pay raise and sent 30,000 soldiers out among the people.

At first, Calderón’s gambit was sold as a resounding success. In just four months of the operation, the government claimed to have apprehended the leader of a major drug gang and to have captured more than 1,102 drug dealers and 630 cars, fifteen boats, and two airplanes used to transport drugs. “We have managed…to calm people’s fears and let them know that government is here for them,” the president said.

For most of 2007, things remained quiet, or at least relatively so—a few murders, some disappearances, nothing unusual.

But when I arrive in Juárez in January, something is stirring. That month, the violence explodes—one, two, sometimes more people die per day, and many more go missing. Forty are killed in Juárez and hundreds across Mexico, and the numbers only go up from there. (By the time I sit down to write, in June, roughly 2,500 have died in Mexico this year.) In early May, the director of Calderón’s national drug-enforcement agency is gunned down in his own home—he dies asking, “Who sent you?”—and later the government determines the hit was done by the Sinaloa cartel, with the killers reportedly led by a former agent of the director’s own force.

Suddenly, it seems Calderón’s war may be hurting the Mexican people more than it hampers the drug trade.

When it comes to explaining the causes of all this carnage, the DEA, the U.S. Border Patrol, and America’s media and government leaders claim that it stems from a battle between various drug cartels, made increasingly desperate as Calderón’s army puts on the squeeze. This is a perfectly plausible explanation, except for the fact that the violence is failing to kill cartel members. After several months, there is hardly a body in Juárez that can be connected to the cartels. Nor can the Mexican Army seem to locate any of the leaders of the cartels—men who have lived in the city for years. A rumor is everywhere in Juárez about what happened at Aroma, a café on a plush avenue next to an area of mansions and a country club. The rumor is that on May 17, fifty heavily armed men arrived here, took the cell phones of the customers, and told people they could not leave. Then Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, swept in, dined, and left around 2 a.m. while out in the street Calderón’s army guarded the serenity of the establishment. Guzmán paid everyone’s tab. He is a man with a $5 million bounty on his head who is said to be at war with the Juárez cartel, yet everyone in the city seems to know of his visit to Aroma and to believe it.

That weekend at least ten people are murdered as El Chapo dines in peace.

The other problem with the cartel theory is that Calderón’s army has seized tons of marijuana in Juárez but only a few kilos of cocaine—the main stream of cartel revenue. The Mexican government itself has estimated that 60 percent of the killings are gang violence over street drug sales, and less than 10 percent are assigned to organized crime, meaning the cartels.

And yet it is the cartel-war story that appears on the pages of newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times and tumbles from the tight smile of Lou Dobbs. It is apparently easiest on the nerves when the main victims of the slaughter in Mexico are drug lords—bad men who get what they deserve.


juan carlos rocha, 38

d. march 10, 2008

He stands on a freeway island peddling P.M., a tabloid that features murders and sells to working-class people. Two men approach and shoot him in the head. The killers walk away from the killing. No one sees anything except that they are armed, wear masks, and move like commandos.
A crowd gathers to watch the police clean up. Rocha, the people say, sold more than P.M. He also offered cocaine at $4 to $6 a packet and allegedly earned about $300 a week as his cut—about four times what the neighboring factory workers, his customers, make. He’d been warned twice by mysterious strangers to cease this activity.
He did not listen.