Army's Presence in Juarez Gets Mixed Reaction

By Steve Fainaru and William Booth
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — President Felipe Calderon sent in the army after the rule of law appeared to break down entirely in Ciudad Juarez. Local traffickers had succeeded in forcing out the police chief by threatening to kill one of his officers every 48 hours until he resigned.

At the time, Jorge Alberto Berecochea, 42, a former lieutenant colonel in the air force, had been retired from the Air Force for three years, following a 20-year career. He was living in Pachuca, the capital of the south-central state of Hidalgo, running a company that makes steel blades for cutlery and farm equipment, when he received a phone call summoning him to the army's headquarters in Mexico City.

The army's chief of operations addressed a meeting of about 100 inactive and retired officers. "He told us that it was a very critical situation in Juarez," Berecochea said. "He said it had reached the point where the security of the nation was at stake."

Berecochea had a 2-year-old son. His wife was five months pregnant with their second child. "I could have refused, but what would I tell my kids when they asked me what I had done for Mexico?" he said.

Berecochea, a burly man with thick brown hair, was given a blue police uniform with three gold clover leaves across the shoulder and assigned to run the Aldama district police station in Juarez. Camouflaged soldiers patrol the roof of the building, which was strafed by automatic weapons fire last year. As blue-and-white squad cars and Ford pickups file out of the parking lot, they pass a sign reading: "Be careful. Your family is waiting for you."

While on patrol, Berecochea's men — nine soldiers, some wearing masks, and three uniformed officers — slowly weaved their vehicles through the dark neighborhoods, shining lights into windows and alleys and watching for suspicious activity. At one point, the squad searched a parked car as its owner stood by with several friends.

"Keep your noses clean, boys," said Berecochea, smiling as he walked away.

Calderon's deployment of the military to fight the cartels has dramatically changed the way law enforcement works in Mexico. The army is authorized to make arrests only when a suspect is believed to be in the process of committing a crime.

However, the government has erected a largely secret legal apparatus that allows commanders to conduct raids, arrest suspects and initiate wiretaps after presenting evidence to local prosecutors. The prosecutors, in turn, submit petitions for arrest and search warrants over a secure Web site to a panel of anonymous judges in Mexico City.

"We know (the judges) exist, but they work in a place that is unknown to the public," said Hector Garcia Rodriguez, a representative of the federal attorney general's office in Juarez. "I don't even know who they are."

According to the attorney general's office, the army detained 1,465 people in Juarez over the past year.

The army is required to immediately turn over detainees to local authorities. But Javier Perez Ch vez, a public defender whose office represents four out of every five suspects arrested by the military, said at least half have reported that they were held for periods of a day or two to more than a week. He said nearly all have reported being beaten while in the army's custody.

"The army has turned Juarez into an occupied city in which all citizens are presumed to be drug traffickers," said Gustavo de la Rosa, the state human rights commissioner.

Last week, Javier Eduardo Rosales, 21, a former X-ray technician, was found beaten to death on a motorcycle trail outside the city. Another man, Sergio Fern ndez, told his family that while buying beer, he and Rosales were detained by soldiers, blindfolded and taken to an unknown location, where they were beaten. Fern ndez said he and Rosales were doused with gasoline while a soldier stood by with a match and that they were finally left on a hill at about midnight the following day.

Rosales' mother, Margarita Rosales, said Fern ndez told her that her son was beaten more savagely because he had serpent tattoos that led the army to believe he was a member of Los Aztecas, a local gang whose members serve as enforcers for the Juarez cartel. She denied that her son was a member. Fern ndez was in an El Paso hospital under protection.

"They are doling out their own brand of justice," said Rosales' aunt, Ana Maria, "and it's the same kind of justice as the people they are supposed to be protecting us against."

The army has denied responsibility for the slaying. A military spokesman said organized criminals have been donning army uniforms and impersonating soldiers to sow mistrust and anger against the armed forces.

The military operation will be evaluated in September, said Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz. He said he hopes a civilian police department will be ready to replace the army and federal police by the end of the year.

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