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April 2, 2009 / jeni

The Worst Job in the World?

City Hall Fights Back:
Mayor José Reyes Ferriz is putting his life on the line to save Ciudad Juárez from drug traffickers

It has to be one of the worst, at least. Not many mayors have to deal with retaliatory crucifixions. Foreign Policy gives us a brief glimpse into the trials and tribulations of Mayor Reyes.

Juárez is embroiled in a war — 230 people died in the streets in February alone — and Reyes commands the front line. Rival drug cartels are battling for territorial hegemony in the city, while Mexican police officers and troops try to stop the drug trafficking and tamp down the cartels. Reyes, as Juárez’s mayor, has escalated the conflict in an attempt to rout the narcotraficantes and win his city back…

From day one, Reyes recognized corruption and the narcotraficantes as his top challenge. “It was obvious that the main problem was corruption within the police ranks reaching unacceptable levels,” he says. “The armed forces did not trust us, kept checking policemen, and throwing them in jail when they found drugs in patrol cars.”

Last summer, Reyes started Operación Limpieza (Operation Cleanup) to flush compromised officers out of the system. The crux of the program was a reliability screening test administered by federal agents from Mexico City using interrogations and lie detector tests. Out of 1,600 police officers, 220 quit when asked to be screened, 150 did not bring the appropriate documentation, and 334 failed the test. “It was an earthquake,” Reyes says. The narcotraficantes had nearly half of the city’s police force on their payroll or under their influence.

So, he and his newly appointed police chief — Roberto Orduña Cruz, a former Army major with an impeccable record — started a new enlistment program in June 2008. Now, the mayor says, “our police today are trusted by the local population. It’s not totally clean, of course. There are still people that should not be there. Way less, though.”

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of cleaning up the police force is that if the cartels can no longer reliably exploit it, they will not hesitate to target it.

First came the threats against the chief of police, Roberto Orduña Cruz. A handwritten sign appeared on a wall downtown: “If you do not resign we will kill a cop every 48 hours.” Orduña did not resign, and the narcotraficantes kept their promise. Within a day, they killed his second in command and three other policemen. Next, two more cops died in a hailstorm of bullets, outside their homes.

“I thought,” the mayor says, “it was pure terrorism. But nevertheless, I asked Orduña Cruz not to give up.”

The police chief felt wracked with guilt over the mortal threat against his officers. Word reached the mayor’s office that the police were ready to mutiny if Orduña did not resign. “I didn’t want to give up,” Reyes says. “But Orduña Cruz told me, ‘If the policemen are no longer with us, the narcotraficantes will win. But if we strategically withdraw, without leaving the terrain, we will win in the end, ‘” speaking like the Army major he once was. “I thought about it. There was just one way out: to accept his resignation and ask the central government to directly appoint the new police chief without territorial connections.”

The threat to Reyes and his family is so severe that he actually lives across the border in El Paso. Even if the ramp-up in military and state action succeeds in drawing down the violence, one can imagine that local leaders such as Reyes might never really feel safe again.

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