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The Fight to Save Juárez

The Fight to Save Juárez
Life in the Heart of Mexico's Drug War

Presenting a range of viewpoints that spans from high-level Mexican and U.S. officials to ordinary narcos and family members of victims, this portrait of Mexico’s bloodiest city offers a gripping, firsthand perspective on the drug war that has claimed close to 60,000 lives since 2007

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April 2013
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296 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 b&w photos |

The city of Juárez is ground zero for the drug war that is raging across Mexico and has claimed close to 60,000 lives since 2007. Almost a quarter of the federal forces that former President Felipe Calderón deployed in the war were sent to Juárez, and nearly 20 percent of the country’s drug-related executions have taken place in the city, a city that can be as unforgiving as the hardest places on earth. It is here that the Mexican government came to turn the tide. Whatever happens in Juárez will have lasting repercussions for both Mexico and the United States.

Ricardo Ainslie went to Juárez to try to understand what was taking place behind the headlines of cartel executions and other acts of horrific brutality. In The Fight to Save Juárez, he takes us into the heart of Mexico’s bloodiest city through the lives of four people who experienced the drug war from very different perspectives—Mayor José Reyes Ferriz, a mid-level cartel player’s mistress, a human rights activist, and a photojournalist. Ainslie also interviewed top Mexican government strategists, including members of Calderón’s security cabinet, as well as individuals within U.S. law enforcement. The dual perspective of life on the ground in the drug war and the “big picture” views of officials who are responsible for the war’s strategy, creates a powerful, intimate portrait of an embattled city, its people, and the efforts to rescue Juárez from the abyss.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue
  • 1. Christmas in Juárez
  • 2. The Saulo Reyes Affair
  • 3. A Meeting in Chihuahua
  • 4. The Strategist
  • 5. Public Relations
  • 6. Patiño
  • 7. La Cima
  • 8. The Mistress
  • 9. The General
  • 10. Twenty-Five Hundred Soldiers
  • 11. La Línea
  • 12. The Human Rights Activist
  • 13. Román
  • 14. The Pajama Chief
  • 15. The Journos
  • 16. Forty-Eight Hours
  • 17. Martial Law Undeclared
  • 18. Civics Lessons
  • 19. The Other War
  • 20. Addicts
  • 21. Los NiNi
  • 22. The Eagle’s Hill
  • 23. Villas de Salvárcar
  • 24. All the President’s Men
  • 25. The Visit
  • 26. Cibeles
  • 27. No Accidents
  • 28. The Federal Police
  • 29. The Election
  • Epilogue
  • List of Interviews
  • Index

A native of Mexico City, Ricardo Ainslie is an award-winning psychologist-psychoanalyst who uses books, documentary films, and photographic exhibits to capture and depict subjects of social and cultural interest. His books include Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder In Jasper, Texas; The Psychology of Twinship; and No Dancin’ In Anson: An American Story of Race and Social Change. His films include The Mystery of Consciousness; Ya Basta! Kidnapped in Mexico; Looking North: Mexican Images of Immigration; and Crossover: A Story of Desegregation. Ainslie teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and also has a private practice with adult patients.


The first time I saw José Reyes Ferriz was on March 16, 2009. The Mexican Army had just arrived in force and Reyes Ferriz, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, was swearing in a new police chief, his third chief in less than a year. Security surrounding the event was tight and the tension in the expansive room at police headquarters palpable. The city was on the verge of anarchy. Dozens of Juárez police had been assassinated over the course of the preceding year and the force's collusion with the drug cartels was so intractable that Reyes Ferriz had found himself compelled to disband the force entirely. As I stood behind a phalanx of television cameras, photographers, and journalists, the thought occurred to me that I was watching the most beleaguered man in all of Mexico.

It would be some months later before I had the opportunity to interview Reyes Ferriz. The interview took place in his office at the Presidencia Municipal, the Juárez city hall. That day the offices of the mayor's communications director, Sergio Belmonte, were chock-full of journalists from all over the world waiting in queue to speak to the mayor. When it was my turn, I was escorted past armed guards and into an ample office on the second floor. The interview covered the typical topics: his understanding of the origins of the drug war in Juárez, the impact of the Mexican military patrolling the streets of the city, his aims for rebuilding the fractured police force. I had the impression that this was well-traveled terrain for the mayor, but for me it was a useful overview for understanding how the city's leadership was engaging the present crisis.

On prior visits I'd had the opportunity to observe the mayor being interviewed by others in impromptu encounters at public events. That day in March 2009, when the mayor had sworn in the new police chief, stood out. The director of a German documentary film crew had slammed Reyes Ferriz hard about the fact that the Juárez municipal police was rife with corruption and challenged the legality of using the military to intervene in the city. The interviewer was accusatory, hostile, and confrontational. While that wasn't my style by temperament, or perhaps by profession (as a psychologist-psychoanalyst my reflexive instinct is to find an empathic engagement with my subject, whether or not I agree with their actions or world view), I also had the feeling that it wasn't good journalism; the assumptions at work were too evident and facile. There was something else, as well. My gut instinct about Reyes Ferriz, as I observed him at these public events, was that this man was not the evil, corrupt politician that I, too, had expected. Quite to my surprise, I found that I liked the man.

By the time of that first interview in the summer of 2009, Reyes Ferriz had already been the object of numerous death threats. As events unfolded in the city, the cartels periodically threatened to kill the mayor and to behead him and his family. The heavily armed bodyguards that accompanied Reyes Ferriz's every move were ample evidence that the threats were taken seriously: Juárez was a city where officials were being executed routinely.

An exchange occurred during my interview with the mayor that opened the door to an opportunity to understand what was taking place in Juárez through his eyes. It came toward the end of the conversation, when I asked him about the death threats against him. He was circumspect about them, but I pressed the point, saying, "I imagine that there must be moments when you must feel terribly afraid." The mayor played it off as just a part of his job, although he acknowledged that he'd moved his family across the river to El Paso for security reasons. My impression was that there was something in that interaction, in that gesture toward his humanity, that seemed to have caught him by surprise. Whatever it was, it went unspoken, but I was granted a second interview upon my next visit to Juárez. Subsequently, I took advantage of every opportunity to interview the mayor or to observe functions at which he was presiding—press conferences, public ceremonies, speeches, and the like. It was in this way that José Reyes Ferriz gradually emerged as the central character of this book.


There are many who see in Mexico's present drug war the shadows of age-old culprits: government corruption and official collusion with the cartels. Stereotypes die hard. That's especially true when they draw from an infinite array of experiences and observations that reiterate and reaffirm the same truth. Given those facts, it is difficult to arrive at a conclusion other than what one has always known. So it is with the view that Mexico is a corrupt nation run by corrupt people whose primary interest is to engorge their bank accounts and to position themselves, their families, and their friends so as to profit from opportunities that if not seized will simply be seized by others. The examples that populate this notion are endless and go back to the birth of modern Mexico, if not before. Mexican presidents, cabinet ministers, legislators, governors, and mayors have fed at the public trough so voraciously and with such abandon that the very notion of public figures who would be honestly motivated to serve verges on the incomprehensible. In Mexico, there are few templates to draw from for this idea. The avarice has been indulged with such arrogance (the kind that comes from unfettered power), that the public's scorn saturates virtually every part of the political process and anyone associated with it. The same is true for many of the country's institutions, but none more so than law enforcement and the judiciary.

In Mexico, where it was once said that not even a leaf fell from a tree without the president's permission, the power of political office has eroded significantly over the last nineteen years. The first clear sign of this was a horrific act of violence. On March 23, 1994, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI by its Spanish initials), was wading through a crowd of well-wishers on a campaign stop in a poor Tijuana neighborhood when a man walked up to him and shot him at point-blank range. Colosio's assassination shook the nation. It was partly the brutal act itself in a country where no president or presidential candidate had suffered such a fate in modern times, but it was also the fact that Colosio was enormously popular because he was campaigning on a promise: he would end the PRI's "anointing" process of selecting presidential candidates, the process that made the notion of democracy in Mexico a sham, a mere posture, a dissimulation that no Mexican failed to see through. Colosio was committed to transforming Mexico into a real democracy, and many believe that it was that ambition that forced the hand of the PRI's old guard, who felt their power eroding. In short, it is a commonly held view in Mexico that Colosio's democratic ambitions led to his execution.

Ernesto Zedillo, Colosio's successor in the campaign, became Mexico's next president, and he helped usher in the reforms that Colosio had championed. In the next Mexican presidential election, in 2000, Vicente Fox of the Partido Acción Nacional (or PAN by its Spanish initials) became the first president since the 1910 Mexican Revolution to come from an opposition party. The PRI's uncontested rule, with which it had governed Mexico for seventy years, was over. Felipe Calderón, the author of the current war against the drug cartels, assumed the Mexican presidency following Vicente Fox in December of 2006. He is also from the center-right PAN party.

The PRI continues to exert a powerful influence in contemporary Mexico. The majority of the thirty-two state governors are from the PRI, for example. But in the spring of 2012, the PAN had eight governors while the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática by its Spanish initials), the other (center-left) main opposition party, had three governorships as well as the all-important Federal District, where Mexico City lies. The three parties have mayors in municipalities all over the country. Every election since 1994 has brought real shifts in the distribution of power among the political parties. Though brittle, fragile, and still rife with problems (including corruption), Mexico is emerging as a fledgling democratic state.


In 2009 I interviewed Fernando Castillo Tapia, the director of communications for the federal attorney general's office (Procuraduría General de la República, or PGR by its Spanish acronym). The meeting took place in Mexico City in a modern building near the Historic Center. Mr. Castillo was polite if circumspect, and he took umbrage at my referencing "Mexico's war against the drug cartels," making it a point to correct me. "This is not a war," he clarified. "It is a law-enforcement action."

The distinction was not convincing. For one thing, the main force being deployed around the country was the Mexican Army. In addition, at the very start of his six-year administration, while visiting a military base in his native state of Michoacán in December of 2006, Felipe Calderón, the Mexican president, had actually used the word "war" in declaring his intentions to go after the drug cartels. By 2008, throughout the country one had the feeling that Mexico was, indeed, at war. For example, while driving from Puebla to Mexico City in 2008, I was struck by the steady stream of public-service announcements coming over the radio waves, such as, "Your federal government reminds you that it is a federal crime to buy property in the name of another person or to carry large sums of cash for others." Or, "Your federal government reminds you that it is a federal crime to be in possession of weapons that are for the exclusive use of the military [a reference to assault weapons]." Or the listing of drug war–related arrests: "In the last month your federal government arrested the following lieutenants from the Sinaloa, Gulf, and Juárez cartels." For years now, print and electronic media have been awash with daily accounts of army and federal police operations taking place all over the country as well as the ever-present shock waves of bloody cartel actions that include hangings, beheadings, torture-executions, and mass killings.

This is a war by anyone's standards. By the spring of 2012 the PGR estimated that between December 2006 (the beginning of the Calderón administration) and the end of 2011, 47,515 Mexicans had been killed in the course of the drug war, a figure close to the casualties the United States suffered over the course of ten years of war in Vietnam. However, pundits and government critics assert that the actual number easily exceeds fifty thousand and may be closer to sixty thousand, given that government figures do not include people who have been "lifted" and thus have simply disappeared. Every month or so mass graves are discovered in the states bearing the brunt of the narco-war.

Almost none of the executions in Mexico have been adequately investigated or documented, making the specific circumstances surrounding the deaths all but impossible to tease out in many instances. Most of the victims have been executed as part of the schisms between cartels and attempts to take over rival territory in order to control smuggling routes. The bulk of the dead are young men between sixteen and twenty-five years of age, many of them members of the street-level gangs that the cartels increasingly employ to manage their retail drug markets. A smaller number of victims are civilians who have been killed because they have not paid extortions or because they have been caught in cross fires. Some of the victims have been killed in the course of firefights with the authorities, and at least a thousand Mexican Army and federal police members have been killed in the course of the war. But the tally of the dead also includes an unknown number of individuals who died while in police or military custody. Official accounts minimize these deaths because Mexican officials are sensitive to accusations of human rights violations, while opposition groups are eager to inflate the figures. We may never know their actual number.

The cartels have expanded their "business model" in recent years to include other criminal acts, especially extortion, kidnapping, theft of gasoline and petroleum products, and human trafficking, among other activities. Thus, while the majority of the tally of the dead reflects drug war casualties, it is sometimes difficult to separate those executions from criminal activity that is not specifically about the drug business. In addition, non–drug cartel criminal enterprises often emulate the cartels' criminal activities (extorting neighborhood businesses, for example). All of this makes it difficult to nail down exactly what is taking place in Mexico and who is doing what.

The bloodshed in Mexico occurs primarily in nine states. Four of these are border states (Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Tamaulipas); two are on the coast and have important ports (Guerrero and Veracruz); and two states form part of the "golden triangle"—the ancestral home of the Mexican drug trade and the families that created it (Sinaloa and Durango, with Chihuahua forming the third leg). Finally, Michoacán has also been a site of considerable violence. Eighty percent of the killings have taken place in but 162 of Mexico's 2,441 municipalities, according to the PGR's statistics.


There are many truths to be told about what is taking place in Mexico. This book braids together the lives of a Mexican mayor caught in the vortex of his city's unraveling; a midlevel cartel player's paramour who lived the narco-life on the inside; a human rights activist caught between the abuses of the authorities and the stories of their victims; and a journalist caught between the ideals of his profession and the police, the cartels, and the gangs who don't want stories told.

I spent three years exploring the tragedy that has befallen Mexico through the lens of its darkest place: Ciudad Juárez. I've seen many dead in Juárez, their bodies splayed out on the pavement midstreet or on sidewalks or caught as they desperately attempted to reach the sanctuary of their homes. I have been to cemeteries and to wakes where mourners are praying the rosary. I've interviewed the frightened neighbors of cartel victims (frightened that they might be next, frightened that someone might see them talking to me, frightened that the future no longer holds promise for them or for their children). I've spoken to the relatives of the executed at their kitchen tables and under their carports and I have driven around with them in hobbled cars, down trash-strewn, rut-filled streets that have never known pavement. I know the neighborhoods where the night belongs to the gangs. I have gone to these and other neighborhoods trying to understand, trying to comprehend the nightmare that has enveloped the life of every person in this city.

I have seen the many faces of Juárez. In researching this book I have gone to the site of mass narco-graves and I have gone to the police stations. I have interviewed Catholic priests whose lives are threatened because they care for the sick and impoverished in neighborhoods controlled by the cartels and their gangs. I know the efforts of leftist community organizers as well as people working for non-profit organizations, all trying to help young people from poor communities avoid becoming the rank and file of the cartel hit squads and the worker bees of the cartel business. I have interviewed Mexican journalists, many of whom have been personally threatened (and all of whom know colleagues who have been assassinated for covering the cartels' work). I have interviewed elementary-school teachers who describe the ways in which the ever-present deaths have shaped the worlds of their charges. I have also witnessed terror in the eyes of high-school students in their school uniforms, toting book bags as they walk around crime-scene tape a few feet from the bullet-ridden body of a man who has just been executed at the entrance to their school. I have talked to rich people and to poor people, I have talked to right-wingers who favor death squads if the government can't do its job, and I have talked to leftist neighborhood organizers who want the army and the federal police out of their city.

It is not only brute violence that signals to the people of Juárez that theirs is a city bordering on anarchy. Anarchy has many faces. In Juárez I have spoken to people who have been extorted by the gangs and I have seen their businesses burning in the night when they do not comply. I have spoken to assembly plant workers who are forced to pay neighborhood thugs a third of their weekly pay just to have safe access to and from their homes. I have interviewed professionals who lock their office doors with deadbolts during work hours and who monitor the entrances to their businesses with security cameras; they live under constant threat that they or their families will fall victim to kidnappings, extortions, or assassinations. In the course of my work I have come to know the fear that is lived in Juárez on a daily basis.

I have also seen the resilience of life: the teenagers playing their trumpets as they rehearse for a party and children playing in the parks and families having barbecues. I have driven the streets of the poorest neighborhoods as sunset falls on another scorching day in the desert and heard the music pouring out of the windows as people sit along graffiti-tagged walls in white plastic chairs escaping the heat trapped in their homes.

The city of Juárez is ground zero for the Mexican government's strategy against the drug cartels. Almost a quarter of the federal forces that Felipe Calderón has deployed in this war have at some point been sent to Juárez, and almost 20 percent of the country's drug-related executions have taken place in the city, a city that can be as unforgiving as the hardest places on earth. It is here that the Mexican government came to turn the tide, and the outcome of what happens in Juárez will have lasting repercussions for both Mexico and the United States.

Christmas in Juárez

On a late December night in 2007, between Christmas and New Year's, the recently elected mayor of Juárez stood alone in his office staring out the window. The usual vibrant chaos of the border city's streets below had yielded to an almost ghostly absence of activity; in addition to the holidays, the violence was beginning to have a dampening effect upon Juárez life. With executions perpetrated by the drug cartels averaging one and sometimes two people a day that year, the weight of the dead upon the city was palpable. City hall was empty save for the bodyguard posted outside the mayor's door. Earlier that evening, José Reyes Ferriz had received an urgent call from the federal government's security representative in Juárez to say that it was imperative that they meet, which is why the mayor had come to city hall during the holidays and at such an unusual hour. The need for a face-to-face meeting only added to the sense of urgency, but it was also the case that no one in Juárez trusted their cell phones—it was too easy for someone to monitor them.

The window at which the mayor stood faced south and spanned nearly the entire length of the wall. Outside and below lay the city of Juárez. The more proximate buildings were readily discernible, but beyond them, in the desert night, the city was aglitter with twinkling lights, like so many diamonds cast upon a sheet of black velvet. Upon assuming office a few months earlier, Reyes Ferriz had instructed his people to remove the blinds and the wood panels that divided the window into sections. He wanted to optimize the view, and the vantage from this particular window was already the mayor's favorite. He loved the view, but it was also the light; he loved natural light.

The federal government's intelligence operative arrived shortly, escorted into the office by the mayor's bodyguard, who left them to talk in private. Reyes Ferriz greeted him at the door, next to the larger-than-life print of Benito Juárez, Mexico's revered first president (following the reign of Maximilian in 1867). The two men sat down in the chairs and couch that formed a small seating area at this end of the office, under Juárez's watchful eye. (During Mexico's war against French intervention, Benito Juárez had taken refuge from the French forces in what was then a remote hamlet called El Paso del Norte; Juárez's stay during that turbulent time eventually gave the city its name).

"What's going on?" Reyes Ferriz asked. It was evident that the intelligence officer had something pressing on his mind.

"Mayor," the federal officer said, "I have some disconcerting news." The agent proceeded to describe new intelligence indicating that in all likelihood a bloody war was about to erupt in Ciudad Juárez between the Sinaloa cartel and the Juárez cartel. "It will happen sometime this coming month," he said. He couldn't be more specific.

A corporate attorney by training with a master's degree from Notre Dame in international law with a specialization in international business, José Reyes Ferriz had only been in office since October. There was little in the mayor's curriculum vitae or in his appearance that would suggest him as a likely candidate to face off with the most violent cartels in the history of Mexico or cast him in the role of the would-be savior of Juárez. In addition to his law practice, he also held a part-time appointment teaching law at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, arguably the best university in the city, something he'd done for years (he had decided to keep his classes notwithstanding his new responsibilities). A man of modest stature with a mild-mannered style and a jowly, rather cherubic face framed by wire-rimmed glasses, the forty-six-year-old mayor did not look the part of a border city politician, certainly not in the old-school Mexican sense of the role. His speeches were rarely strident, and some might even have described him as soft-spoken. The affable mayor dressed conventionally—blue or charcoal-gray suits, pressed white shirts with cufflinks, and muted primary-colored ties, his feet typically ensconced in loafers. None of it added up to the challenges that lay in store for José Reyes Ferriz and his city. Had he known, Reyes Ferriz might well have passed on the opportunity to run for mayor of Juárez. State and local politics were flush with intrigue, and there was no shortage of cutthroats and backstabbers, but being at the epicenter of his country's war against the drug cartels was another matter.

The intelligence officer's report pointed to something ominous looming on the horizon, adding a new dimension to the mayor's worries. Reyes Ferriz was not one given to overreaction, but alone again in his office, staring out upon the flickering lights of his city, the mayor felt a sense of foreboding.

José Reyes Ferriz had been elected on a platform that included cleaning up the city through a program he called the Municipal Accord of Order and Respect (AMOR, or "love" by its Spanish acronym). Reyes Ferriz planned to put an end to the proliferation of cars without registrations and license plates and address criminal impunity by shoring up the district attorney's procedures, among other things. One could safely say that the program's vision fell short of the earth shattering. In addition, however, the mayor had ambitious economic goals for the city. He wanted to increase its importance as a financial hub for business between the United States and Mexico. Mexico was already the United States' third-most important trading partner, but most of that trade centered on the maquiladora assembly plants along the border or the big Mexican companies like Bimbo and the Moctezuma Brewery. "Midlevel and smaller companies didn't know how to interact with U.S. markets," the mayor told me. He felt that the Juárez business community's expertise could make the city a key player in helping these midlevel companies find a home for their products in the U.S. Another initiative of interest to the newly elected mayor was medical tourism. "We have great hospitals in Juárez," he told me. "And the U.S. has a medical crisis."

Whatever its merit, the mayor soon discovered that his agenda for the city was easily derailed by unforeseen events. For example, a wave of car thefts in Juárez had produced this odd fact: the cars were turning up again, abandoned on the street, days or sometimes only hours after they had been stolen. The mayor and his police chief concluded that the cartels were using the stolen cars to ferry drugs across the river before driving them back and abandoning them. To disrupt these operations, the mayor decided that he would provide American customs officials with car descriptions and VIN numbers of stolen vehicles as soon as these were reported. Reyes Ferriz announced the new program one morning at 11 a.m.; that afternoon, while the mayor was at his private law office, one of his bodyguards rushed in to tell him that armed men had surrounded the building. When Reyes Ferriz peeled the curtain back to peer out he saw two Suburbans and a dozen or so men with assault rifles forming a perimeter around the office. With only four bodyguards, the mayor's security team was no match in either number or firepower: the mayor's men were armed only with pistols. "It was a clear threat," the mayor would later tell me. The Juárez cartel was letting the novice mayor know that there was a cost to interfering with their operations. He'd only been in office a month. "It was my initiation," Reyes Ferriz noted. The mayor increased his personal security team to six and arranged for them to be trained in the use of automatic weapons.

Not long thereafter, a series of mutinies occurred at the Juárez city prison, known as the CERESO (the Spanish acronym for Social Rehabilitation Center, as Mexican prisons are called). A local gang called Los Aztecas took over the prison and systematically killed rival gang members. Video footage from security cameras caught the bloodletting on tape and order was difficult to restore at the prison, where Los Aztecas were armed with automatic weapons that someone had smuggled in to them. The authorities conducted a systematic search after regaining control of the prison, but the weapons were never found. The incident underscored the extent to which gangs held sway in the Juárez prison.

While José Reyes Ferriz may have had plans for his city, others clearly had their own agendas. There were powerful forces at work in Juárez, and Reyes Ferriz's "initiation" was but the sparest of gestures intimating what lay ahead.

From his bunker at the Secretariat for Public Security on Avenida Constituyentes in Mexico City, Genaro García Luna, Mexico's top law enforcement official, had a vantage that was different from that of Reyes Ferriz. Since Felipe Calderón had assumed the presidency and declared war on the drug cartels in December 2006, García Luna had been a busy man. He was a key player in the president's security cabinet, and his federal police were second in importance only to the Mexican Army in the now-declared war. Over the course of that first year other regions in Mexico had occupied García Luna's attention. For example, there was open warfare between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels for control of Nuevo Laredo, across the river from Laredo, Texas. The violence in Nuevo Laredo had included many deaths, an ambush by municipal police on a column of federal police as it was arriving in the city, the execution of the Nuevo Laredo police chief within hours of his installation, and an assault on the offices of the city's main newspaper in which cartel hit men had thrown hand grenades and sprayed the newsroom with AK-47 fire. Nuevo Laredo was a major commercial hub between Mexico and the United States and thousands of commercial trucks crossed the border there every day. The Mexican government had been attempting to tamp down the violence in Nuevo Laredo, but the battle between the two cartels was raging full force.

And there were other hotspots in Mexico that were demanding García Luna's attention. In Michoacán, an important transit point for Colombian cocaine into Mexico, a new cartel had formed and was now at war with the Gulf cartel and its military wing, a group of former elite military troops who had defected over to the dark side and were known as Los Zetas. Michoacán was producing almost daily headlines in the national press because La Familia, as the new cartel was called, had taken to severing the heads of its victims and putting them on display. In the highlands town of Tepalcatepec, in August 2007, a note was pinned to one such head with the following message: "See. Hear. Shut up. If you want to stay alive." In another incident, in Uruapan, they had rolled the heads of five victims onto the dance floor at a nightclub. Such tactics had a kind of shock-and-awe effect and were spreading fear throughout the country. Similarly, a rift between the Sinaloa cartel and the Tijuana cartel was leaving a trail of blood and horrific acts of violence in Baja California where hundreds had died. And there were other states in Mexico where grisly executions were taking place on a daily basis.

These battle zones were getting all the media attention and absorbing a great deal of García Luna's time. Ciudad Juárez remained far down on the list of priorities or concerns. American intelligence was not picking up much on Juárez, either. The Congressional Research Service's February 2008 report to Congress merely described the Juárez cartel as one of the four most important Drug Trafficking Organizations operating in Mexico and mentioned, almost in passing, that the Juárez cartel "may no longer be tied to the Federation due to murders committed by another Federation member" (the Federation was the name given to the Pax Mafiosa that had held Mexico's main cartels in a tenuous peace since 2006). That clause was the only reference in the CRS report that suggested that things between the Juárez and the Sinaloa cartels might be taking a different turn.

To be sure, there were rumblings. García Luna's people were picking up reports about Ciudad Juárez through the network of federal intelligence sources and what he heard worried him. He knew that in 2004 the Sinaloa cartel had executed Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, the brother of the head of the Juárez cartel, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. An enraged Vicente Carrillo Fuentes had purportedly put in a call to Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a long-standing ally of both Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and of El Chapo Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel. Zambada was also a member of the so-called Federation to which the CRS report had made reference. "Are you with me?" Carrillo Fuentes is said to have asked. Zambada said he was. "Then I want you to deliver the head of that son of a bitch!" Carrillo Fuentes said, in reference to El Chapo Guzmán. But the head never came, and later El Chapo's son, Edgar Guzmán, was assassinated in a hail of AK-47 fire when Juárez cartel operatives ambushed him in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa. This was the assassination to which the CRS was referring in its report.

Squabbles and conflicts between the cartels were nothing new. It was in the nature of their business. The tit-for-tat aggressions between the Sinaloa and Juárez people had been going on for a while, but these flare-ups had a way of being short-lived, after which the cartels went back to their day-to-day work. At the same time, García Luna was keenly aware that in the world of the drug cartels incidents like these also did not simply disappear from the institutional memories. They remained part of the backdrop to what went on between them, pools of resentment and discontent that could be tapped and which could burst into the open like molten lava when triggered by a new incident or by shifting allegiances within the cartel world. What was surprising was that such resentments could be sealed over at all, given that what most often fueled them were the assassinations of blood relatives, close friends, or long-standing associates.

By December 2007, the Gulf cartel had succeeded in beating back the Sinaloa cartel's attempt to seize control of Nuevo Laredo. As a result, the Sinaloa cartel had turned its sights on Ciudad Juárez. García Luna knew that the Sinaloa cartel was preparing to make its move. The intelligence suggested that war had been declared, although in Juárez a relative calm reigned, like the still waters that precede the arrival of the hurricane. It was a war that was partly fueled by revenge, but it was also mobilized by greed: the Sinaloa cartel believed that the Juárez cartel had become weakened because of rivalries and internecine conflict, and it saw in this weakness an opportunity to move on what all of the cartels knew to be prime real estate—the city of Juárez, which had long been one of the most important transit points for crossing illicit drugs into the United States. Factoring all of these threads together, García Luna had decided it was time to alert Mayor Reyes Ferriz about the coming storm.

The Christmas warning to Reyes Ferriz foretold a coming war, but even with the warning the mayor had no way of grasping what lay in store or how his life and the life of his city would be irretrievably transformed. "I couldn't imagine the possible scale of what was coming," Ferriz would later tell me. And it was precisely that failure of the imagination, that failure to grasp or to conceive, that amplified the feeling of apprehension. The mayor of Juárez knew that somewhere beyond his window lay a threat, but he could not yet fully fathom its contours.



“The Fight to Save Juárez is the book we’ve been waiting for that deconstructs a major Mexican city’s descent into agony. Ainslie documents how a perfect storm of marauding drug cartels, corrupt police forces, and unprepared city officials left citizens helpless and terrorized in what became the world’s most murderous city. Significantly, he hammers the prepotent truth that organized crime could not and would not have run amok in Mexico were it not for the collusion of the mobsters’ trusted acolytes—the police, at every level.”
John Burnett, National Public Radio

“This is a deeply reported, razor smart, up-close account of the Great Drug War. This book is absolutely courageous in its fairness and search for answers. Ricardo Ainslie’s story has room for both angels and demons. He finds noble characters struggling under incredible strain—and threat of death—to do the right thing, to try to save Ciudad Juárez from itself. And he finds evil and the corruption and incompetence that lets the bad bury the good. If you want to begin to understand the violence and chaos that have laid siege to our neighbor’s house, this is the book.”
William Booth, Washington Post Bureau Chief for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean

“Ricardo Ainslie’s The Fight to Save Juárez couldn’t be more timely. It is also of vital relevance: headlines of beheadings and massacres in Ciudad Juárez have captured the world’s attention, but Ainslie deftly goes deeper into the story and helps us understand what makes Ciudad Juárez tick. Through interviews with Mexican officials, citizens, and even some drug traffickers, Ainslie offers an insightful view into what has occurred in Ciudad Juárez as the drug war has devolved in the border city. The interviews are strong and intimacy with the characters ever apparent.”
Malcolm Beith, author of The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, The World’s Most-Wanted Drug Lord


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