April 23, 2004


By Victor Clark Alfaro

TIJUANA, Mexico—Seen from here, the number of deaths along Mexico’s northern border with the United States in the last decade is entering an unusual dimension. Together with the dead, thousands of their surviving family members have become direct victims of the violence in what has become an astonishingly frightening Mexican border society. Even the way the hapless die is becoming more brutal.

—More than 411 women have been murdered and more than 500 disappeared among what is known today as “The Dead Women of Juarez,” cases of mostly young, pretty women often found mutilated in the desert around Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in the state of Chihuahua.

On the Tijuana side of the U.S. border barricade, crosses represent migrant deaths. Photo: Tanya Aguiniga

—More than 600 persons have been kidnapped and then disappeared, and more than 2,000 executed as a result of organized crime vendettas in northern Mexican states.

—More than 2,800 undocumented Mexican migrants have died trying to cross the U.S. border, often on the United States side.

Seen as a whole, the count of bodies is entwined with organized crime, authorities involved in crime, corruption and government impunity.

There have been many hypotheses about why so many women have died in Juarez, for instance, from the participation of police, drug traffickers, and serial killers to delinquents linked to satanic cults. What is certain is that the deaths remain unsolved and the dead continue to appear.

An average of one undocumented immigrant a day has died of the cold, drowning or sunstroke since the end of l994, with the implementation of U.S. operations Hold the Line in El Paso, Gatekeeper in San Diego, Safeguard in Arizona and Rio Grande in south Texas, which have forced migrants to re-route trails through harsh mountains and deserts.

But it is the “detained-disappeared” which present the most graphic picture of how death has become deliberately cruel.

The first cases of these new disappeared were documented in the early 1990s. Today these cases number in the hundreds. Unlike the disappeared of the 1960s and ’70s — youth who were exterminated after they organized and took up arms to change the system — today’s detained-disappeared were not struggling against authoritarianism. Most were involved in organized crime.

In the early l990s, drug traffic organizations began to consolidate until they reached the level of cartels, or transnational drug corporations, with violent profiles and in permanent conflict with each other on the border, struggling over routes and territories. Their activity developed parallel to the development of increasingly high levels of government corruption, officials who were direct beneficiaries and occasional victims of the violence. It was a growth of a business that brought with it hundreds of dead and disappeared.

Where are they? Surely in some clandestine grave, like the one found in January in Ciudad Juarez holding the remains of 12 people.

The forms and styles of extrajudicial executions have become ever more refined and savage. No day goes by without the appearance of dead bodies with the signs of organized crime on the border. A headline in my local paper today is not unusual: “Nine Executed in 24 Hours in Tijuana, One in Nogales, A Woman Found Dead in Ciudad Juarez.” Details accumulate: hands and feet tied; a head enveloped in plastic bags; handcuffed bodies, bodies found in a car trunk. The daily, journalistic descriptions of forms and practices of killing become so habitual they no longer shock.

There are no longer Chicago-style shoot-outs from car to car, just like in the movies. Today, victims are kidnapped and tortured, or killed with a “tiro de gracia,” such as a shot to the head at close range. There is a new vocabulary: cadavers found wrapped in blankets are “encobijados,” the stuffed-into-blanket ones; “enteipados” are the taped-up ones; those stuffed into trunks are “encajuelados”; or if no prints can be tolerated, the victim is “incinerado” in the interior of a car.

Killings linked to organized crime remained unsolved, perhaps because there are not enough police to investigate all the cases. Or perhaps it is because of fear, or perhaps the authorities themselves are involved. Cases that proceed to some degree of solution invariably show police complicity with the killers. But police enjoy impunity here.

In the last 11 years violence has also reached the government and political class, directors of the municipal police, prosecutors, federal and state police, even the candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, who would certainly have become president in l995 had he not been shot to death in this city.

On the border, what happens on one side has repercussions on the other. The dead appear on both sides. Drugs, weapons, dirty money cross borders, as does organized crime. Today, the focus of anti-crime efforts is increasingly bi-national cooperation between Mexico and the United States, as it has to be, because we are facing endemic violence on the border, more organized crime and corrupt police. The border’s quality of life has deteriorated, the capacity for public shock diminished. A spectator society has lost count of its dead.

Alfaro (clark12@telnor.net) directs the Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana, Mexico.

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