EL PASO, Texas – Mexican officials are trying to persuade Americans to visit Ciudad Juárez, touting the city in a new billboard campaign as a “land of encounters.” North of the border, that sounds like a cruel joke.
More than 1,100 people have been killed this year in the city, population 1.5 million, in a drug-related bloodbath so staggering that the city has been declared off-limits to U.S. soldiers looking to go bar-hopping; El Paso’s public hospital is seeing a spillover of the wounded; and U.S. residents are afraid to cross the border to visit family members, shop and conduct business.
The city, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, has had more homicides this year than New York and Chicago together had in all of 2007.
Violence began to mount early this year after Mexico’s president launched a national offensive against drug lords. Initially, the bloodshed involved drug cartels fighting each other. Then, military troops, law enforcement officers and government officials became major targets. Lately, the assassinations have been more brazen, and more innocents have been killed.
The second-in-command of the Juárez police department was killed in a hail of more than 50 bullets near his home in May.
Robberies, carjackings and kidnappings for ransom are also rampant. “The government isn’t in control, and that makes for a very dangerous situation,” said Tony Payan, an expert on border crime at the University of Texas-El Paso.
Dozens of shooting victims – several of them U.S. citizens or legal residents – have been treated at Thomason General Hospital in El Paso at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of more than $1 million.
“There’s no law over there,” said Texan Fernando Apodaca, who was carjacked in Mexico.