By the Numbers
Progress against violence here, but still far to go in much of Mexico.
The violence has subsided so much in Juarez and Palomas that the memory of it has become almost an abstraction.
I felt the horror palpably in the winter of 2008-2009, when I was going down sometimes to Palomas and also reading every last report of murders from the Diario de Juarez, which usually included the color of the shirt and pants and the type of shoes of every victim.
When I went outside my house in Deming at night, I turned on both the front and back floodlights and carried a flashlight, just in case sicarios jumped out at me from the shadows. I thought, my neighbors will report it if I scream.
My fear dissipated when I realized the stories about cross-border violence were basically myths and that foreign journalists were not being touched in Mexico.
But from that time to this, according to El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector, 56 elected officials (including Palomas Mayor Tanis Garcia), 37 police chiefs, and 21 human rights activists have been killed in the state of Chihuahua alone in the past six years.
In terms of per capita homicides, Juarez was #1 in the world from 2008 to 2010 and #2 in 2011. But the numbers dramatically slid down to #19 last year. The level really is lower than #19 as 2013 begins, because the numbers last year pretty steadily went down from 122 killings in January to 31 in December. Chihuahua City was statistically at #32 last year.
The Ministerio Publico in Palomas told me that there were only two murders there last year. It can be assumed this is because of the Pax Mafiosi that exists there. It's often rumored that Mayor Miguel Chacon engineered an accord with the narco leaders.
It's dramatically quieter in Chihuahua State than it has been in five years. But in some parts of Mexico there's more violence than before.
Acapulco is now #2 in the world for its homicide rate. There were six other Mexican cities on the 2012 top-50 list (compiled by the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice in Mexico City). Torreon achieved the #5 status, Nuevo Laredo was #8, Culiacan was #15, Cuernavaca #18, Victoria in Tamaulipas #36, and Monterrey #47.
There were also six US cities on the list: New Orleans was #17 (a little higher than Juarez), Detroit was #21, San Juan, Puerto Rico, was #33, St. Louis #37, Baltimore #41, and Oakland #43.
According to the Trans-Border Project at the University of San Diego, the total numbers of murders in Mexico may have been reduced 5%-10% in 2012. The tipping point may have been reached.
Zacatecas is a state in central Mexico that swept my heart away 15 years ago when I visited for a month. I was perpetually elated as I walked up and down the steep cobblestone streets of the capital city of Zacatecas and gaped at its Baroque and Churrigueresco churches.
People actually stop and talk to you on the streets for 5 or 10 minutes when you ask for directions. They're courteous and warm. Men lead donkeys bearing aguamiel (honey-water) through the streets for thirsty tourists, and tamborazos, small bands of trumpets, saxophones, a trombone, a tuba and a bass drum, keep things lively at night.
The Spanish-language school I went to was tops and the teachers there were good friends.
But Zacatecas serves as a crossroads in Mexico for the transportation of drugs, and it's had a murder rate in the middle range for a few years.
It's painful now to learn that every municipio in the state has been wholly or partially taken over by the notorious drug group called the Zetas.
The beautiful town of Sombrerete has seen an increase in Zeta foot-soldiers in the past year. "Get rid of the panic we are living through," pleaded a public newspaper message to Governor Miguel Alonso Reyes, according to Proceso. The writers wanted the Mexican Marines to come back and help the town.
I remember being charmed by the way people of all ages walked in the two blocks near my hotel in Sombrerete till 10 p.m. But I was told that beyond that area you had to watch out for crime.
Sain Alto, a town I once stayed in overnight, now has a Zeta training camp in that municipio. (The saying goes in the New Mexico towns of Hatch and in Salem that 50 local families came from Sain Alto.)
On Feb. 14, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a report on journalists in Zacatecas. Reporters there are in heartrending despair over their situation.
The CPJ researcher said one reporter in his hotel room rolled up into a ball and wept. There are many incidents journalists can't report on, and they can't even telephone their editors about them for fear the lines are tapped.
This is why I can't be a wholehearted opponent of the drug war, as lots of people are. The drug organizations are so evil, and they're so huge.
It's difficult to see people you had affection for come to such a hard place. It seemed as if Zacatecas might be a nice place to live for a while.
But the flow of drugs crossing the border at Juarez apparently continues unabated, making the whole Mexican drug war virtually pointless for the US.
Innocent Mexicans are still suffering from crossfire, extortions and kidnappings by drug organizations or members of the armed forces. The government is only beginning to chip away at the problem of impunity for crimes and the lack of investigations.
Mexicans and the international community are now watching President Enrique Pena Nieto, who promises to lower killings through the establishment of social programs and a new paramilitary law force for the most violent areas.
Some observers fear the government will try to distract the public from the reality of the violence instead of really diminishing it. Journalists will keep their eyes open.
There's a question as to whether Pena Nieto will use the traditional PRI tactic of making deals with organized crime organizations in order to keep the peace.
Saving lives very logically ought to be the first priority for Mexican governments, national or local. Deals with the drug organizations, despite the way this would leave their not-quite-seen, underground power structures intact, are the pragmatic thing to do, even though they can involve government corruption.
There may be a genuine lessening in the number of killings in the next couple of years.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.