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Juárez plan: what next?

The latest entry to the long list of internationally notorious manifestations of Mexico’s security problems was the massacre of more than a dozen partying teenagers in Ciudad Juárez in late January. This tragedy provoked a series of stories from publications like The LA Times, The New York Times, Time, and other media heavyweights whose names may or may not include the word “time.”

In Mexico, the reaction was likewise significant: television correspondents and newspapermen recounted the horrible event for scores of outlets around the country. When it was definitively established that the murdered kids had nothing to do with organized crime (there had been some debate immediately after the event), the sense of tragedy grew exponentially. As an editorial in the Mexico City daily El Universal said days later:

The death of these young people in Ciudad Juárez doesn’t deserve just a minute of silence, but rather the opposite. It warrants a powerful social voice. When will we acknowledge that these mafias survive because the society, either by design or negligence, tolerates them? When will we stop making cheap politics out of the issue, instead of demanding from local and national governments a precise account of what is happening? How long will we take to keep crime from reproducing itself?

In short, a threshold was broken. The government response to the Juárez massacre demonstrated a never-before-seen urgency. Calderón made two trips to El Paso’s next-door neighbor in six weeks after the killings (with a third planned for March 16), the first resulting in his being upbraided by the mother of two of the victims in a town hall meeting. On the second visit, Calderón avoided appearances with victims’ relatives, and instead focused more on the recovery of the city.

To that end, he announced a plan to spend roughly 50 million on a handful of new schools, hospitals, and programs directed toward at-risk youth, while also reinforcing the federal security presence in Mexico.

The Juárez plan is all well and good (though it seems underfunded), but it also points to a couple of ongoing deficiencies in Calderón’s crime policies. The first is that the president’s focus seems motivated more than anything by the explosion of public outrage. A government should always respond to the issues that most worry its citizens, but in Juárez, the latest outrage reflects nothing new.

Juárez has been the hemisphere’s most violent city for two years, and the world’s most violent for more than a year. Calderón hasn’t exactly ignored the city, but the abject failure of his militarization of Juárez—which is to say, Calderón’s previous best bet for pacifying the city—has been manifest since last summer.

Since then, Juárez has witnessed numerous massacres (though never before anything quite like the killing on January 31), as well as the constant hum of gangland killings (an average of eight a day over the course of 2009). We should be gratified that all the president’s men are finally focused on prettying up the nation’s biggest eyesore, but what took so long?

Nor are the social problems that the rescue plan seeks to address anything new. The news magazine Proceso reported in December of 2008 that only two high schools operated in the city West Side, home to roughly 600,000 people.

According to one recent study of the town’s youth population, 64 percent of Juárez residents between the ages of 15 and 24 neither work nor go to school. This state of affairs is nothing new, yet only a massacre and the subsequent avalanche of attention managed to provoke any movement.

That leaves one wondering if what determines whether an issue gets attention from Calderón and company is simply media coverage. If so, that’s bad news for Mexico, because the hand that guides the media’s focus is fickle indeed.

Furthermore, just as Juarez’s social problems deserved this kind of attention years if not decades ago, one wonders what other cities in northern Mexico are in danger of boiling over. Do the citizens of northern towns like Torreón and Reynosa, both of which have also witnessed acts of violence comparable to the Juárez killings in the past several weeks, need to wait for their cities to descend into complete anarchy before the federal government displays a comparable interest?

Weak local government, the persistent presence of organized crime, a deficient educational system, a hostile labor market, and rising (albeit slowly) youth drug use constitute a recipe for trouble in any city, and unfortunately this describes the status quo across Mexico’s North. Even if other cities are unlikely to sink to Juárez’s depths, Calderón’s government should be paying more attention, before law-abiding teenagers find themselves in the crosshairs.