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The murder rate in Juárez rivals the most dangerous cities in the world and is more typical of regions where government has collapsed, an expert on homicides said.
The violence continued during the weekend, including a shootout involving the Mexican army that resulted in the arrest of three women and five men suspected in killings, extortion and arsons in the Valley of Juárez.
More than 5,300 people have been slain in the Juárez area since the start of a war between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels in 2008.
There have been at least 15 homicides since Friday and more than 1,100 homicides this year alone in Juárez. By comparison, there has been one homicide in El Paso this year.
Historically, Juárez is not as deadly as Medellin during the peak of the drug cartel bloodshed in that Colombian city in the early 1990s.
At its worst, Medellin had a homicide rate of 250 per 100,000 residents, while Juárez last year had a rate of 191, according to the public safety organization Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Publica y Justicia Penal (Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Penal Justice).
Medellin, which has 1 million more residents than Juárez, is arguably considered the most violent city of the past three decades.
“Juárez deserves the title of most dangerous city in the world not only for its homicide rate but also suffering very high numbers of other violent crimes,” the organization stated in a report last January.
The council reported Juárez last year had higher homicide rates than San Pedro Sula, Honduras, (119 per 100,000); San Salvador, El Salvador (95), and Caracas, Venezuela (94).
A CNN report last April listed Juárez in no particular order among the most dangerous cities in the world, including Karachi, Pakistan; Beirut, Lebanon; and Cape Town, South Africa.
The number of murders in Juárez is more typical of regions during a civil war, a revolution or other form of a state breakdown, said Randolph Roth, a historian who studies homicides.
“Whenever you have a real struggle for power — civil wars, revolutions — organized gangs can get very, very bad like you have in Juárez today,” Roth said. “It’s very rare to see the rates like this in a developed country. It’s very sad.”
Roth is a professor of history and sociology at Ohio State University who created a historical database examining U.S. homicide rates from different time periods and places. He is author of the book “American Homicide.”
Roth said the worst period for homicides in the U.S. was during Reconstruction in the Red River Valley of Louisiana, which had a murder rate of at least 196 per 100,000 per year from 1866 to 1876.
“You had the former Confederates. And the Ku Klux Klan were just in rebellion against the government,” Roth explained. “You didn’t have a central government.”
Mexico and Juárez government officials and El Paso economic development leaders have repeatedly said that authority has not broken down in Juárez despite the bloodshed. Government services continue. Businesses still do business. And the maquiladora industry is humming along.
A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated that a lot of attention has been placed on Juárez but that high homicides rates can be found along cocaine smuggling corridors in the Americas.
“Less attention has been placed on Central America, where the murder rates are four to five times higher than in Mexico, and where both the economy and the state are far less robust and resilient,” the report stated.
“While the drug violence has been intense in places like Ciudad Juárez, Mexico‘s overall murder rate remains moderate compared too many other countries afflicted by the drug trade.”
The report, “Crime and Instability. Case studies of transnational threats,” was issued in February. It also stated that much of the violence in Central America is not drug related but due to a legacy of social division and decades of civil war.
The Mexican government has deployed thousands of federal police and soldiers to Juárez but the violence has continued and most murders remain unsolved.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón this year also launched the program “Todos Somos Juárez” (We are all Juárez) intended to rebuild the city’s social fabric with education, sports, jobs and culture and other proposals.
Roth said law enforcement can only do so much to stem murders.
Roth advocates an uncommon theory, arguing that high murder rates are not linked to poverty, lack of police or gun control, but rather to trust in government and a sense of belonging.
“People settle their own scores when the state breaks down,” Roth said in a telephone interview from Ohio. “They think there will be no consequences. So, they act like there will be no consequences.”
Roth points to the Great Depression as an example of when homicides dropped while poverty increased because there was a sense of we are all in it together. In communities where there is no sense of kinship, the smallest slight can escalate to violence, he said.
Roth argued there is no correlation, beyond a certain point, between police staffing numbers and murders.
“Strong policing can deter auto theft rings, burglaries and gang violence but it has a hard time with murder because it is so spontaneous. It is so personal and the emotions involved so strong,” he said.
But if trust is the answer, it can be a difficult answer to find in a city like Juárez, infected for decades by corruption.
A public opinion poll last November by the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez showed that 97 percent of the population felt unsafe and that 52 percent disapproved of and distrusted all Mexican authorities.
“Ultimately what builds a sense of patriotism and fellowship is feeling a sense of connectiveness with your neighbor (and) that your government does care for your concerns and builds stability,” Roth said.
“It’s easier to revive an economy than build trust. (Government action) has to be seen as effective. It’s deeper (than just the government). It has to come from the people itself.”