Mexicans in drug war city call on army to leave

Ciudad Juarez (Mexico): Thousands of people dressed in white demanded soldiers leave Mexico’s most violent city on Sunday, accusing troops of provoking a surge in drug-war killings and running protection rackets.

Around 5,000 people marched through Ciudad Juarez on the US border, many with white balloons and holding signs saying “leave Juarez, soldiers and federal police.” It was a rare protest in a city where most people are too frightened to speak out, and a show of the depth of anger at the army’s failure to stop drug murders.

Gruesome drug killings have surged in Ciudad Juarez since President Felipe Calderon sent in 10,000 troops and federal police to crush warring cartels in March, according to police and media tallies.

After being received as heroes, the army has lost public support as the city’s death tally from cartel violence has risen to 2,400 so far this year, compared with 1,600 in all of 2008.

Murders have reached a dozen a day and bullet-ridden vehicles and bleeding bodies on busy streets are commonplace. Businesses that fail to pay protection money to corrupt police and cartels have been set on fire or their owners kidnapped, tortured and killed.

“We are tired of living in hell. Things have only worsened since the army arrived,” said a 53-year-old businessman at the march, who declined to give his name.

“There’s evidence that soldiers and federal troops are behind some of the extortions and kidnappings and they are protecting the drug gangs, not the population,” said the man, holding a sign saying “united for peace.”

Manufacturing base

The army was not immediately available for comment in Ciudad Juarez on Sunday. But generals in Mexico City say only a handful of troops and federal police have been corrupted by the drug gangs and that the army sends in fresh, replacement troops every few months to prevent soldiers being tainted.

Police and local media said about 5,000 people took part in the protest in the desert city across from El Paso, Texas.

Ciudad Juarez has become the bloodiest flashpoint in Mexico’s fight against feuding drug cartels in a war that has killed more than 15,000 people across the country since Calderon took office in late 2006.

With over 235,000 manufacturing jobs and 70 Fortune 500 companies in the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso area, investors and Washington officials had hoped to see a quick victory in the Mexican city and a domino effect across the country.

“The issue is that soldiers alone cannot stop the violence,” said Jose Maria Ramos, a security expert at the Tijuana-based research institute El Colegio de la Frontera Norte near San Diego.

“The government needs to do more to reform corrupt police, stop the flow of guns smuggled from the United States and create a social policy that gives youngsters opportunities so they don’t join the cartels,” he added.

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