Friday, December 5, 2008

The Killing Fields South of the Border

If you've been able to stand a break from following the beautiful collapse of our economy and have been willing to turn your eyes down south for the occasional disheartening diversion from the insular American news cycle, you've no doubt noticed the alarming, increasing reported carnage left in the wake of brutal warfare between Mexico's drug cartels.

But before you get glazed over and dismiss this issue as irrelevant and unimportant (cockroaches killing cockroaches in another country), remember how this bled through the border into Vegas, in one of the better-covered stories of October.

This issue is personal to this household in that two of our close friends living in Tijuana are constantly affected by the violence that has erupted recently. So much so that even the tough-local cookies they both are, they've advised us to postpone an upcoming trip to visit them.

The explosion of violence connected with Mexico’s ruthless drug cartels has left more than 5,000 people dead so far this year, nearly twice the figure from 2007, according to unofficial tallies by Mexican newspapers. The border region of the United States and Mexico, critical to the cartels’ trafficking operation, has been the most violent turf of all, with 60 percent of all killings in the country last month occurring in the states of Chihuahua and Baja California, the government says. And it has raised fears that violence will consistently spill across the border, because dozens of victims of drug violence have been treated at an El Paso, TX hospital in the last year.

The federal government argues that the rising death toll reflects President Felipe Calderón’s aggressive stance toward the cartels, which has forced traffickers into a bitter war over the dwindling turf that remains. So far the feds have no concrete answer other than the fact that dealers are being squeezed and so this is all collateral damage.

True, most of the deaths do appear to be the result of infighting among traffickers. But plenty of innocent people are caught in the crossfire, and the spate of brutal, disfiguring killings — bodies are routinely decapitated or otherwise mutilated and left in public places with handwritten notes propped up nearby — has left people from all walks of life worried that they might be next.

The savage madness has permeated almost all aspects of Mexican daily life. From the New York Times:

Hit men (are) pursuing rivals into intensive care units and emergency rooms. Shootouts (take place) in lobbies and corridors. Doctors are kidnapped and held for ransom, or threatened with death if a wounded gunman dies under their care. With alarming speed, Mexico’s violent drug war is finding its way into the seeming sanctuary of the nation’s hospitals, shaking the health care system and leaving workers fearing for their lives while trying to save the lives of others.

“Remember that hospital scene from ‘The Godfather?’ ” asked Dr. Héctor Rico, an otolaryngologist (in a Tijuana hospital), speaking about the part in which Michael Corleone saves his hospitalized father from a hit squad. “That’s how we live.”

Doctors are particularly vulnerable. When they leave their offices, they say they face the risk of being kidnapped and held for ransom, as about two dozen Tijuana physicians have been in the last few years. Doctors also complain about receiving blunt threats from patients or their relatives. “Sálvame o te mato,” save me or I will kill you, is what one orthopedic surgeon said he was told by a patient, who evidently did not grasp (or care for) the contradiction.

Adding to the madness, hospitals and health care workers have to legally notify the authorities when a patient comes in with a gunshot or knife wound, a requirement of which traffickers are fully aware. That leads to further threats.

Hospital General de Tijuana, the city’s main public hospital, has twice been raided by police officers and soldiers in the past two years. The first time, in April 2007, gunmen stormed the building either to rescue a fellow cartel member who was being treated in the emergency room or to kill a rival, said the police, who were not certain which scenario it was. Two police officers were killed, and all but one of the gunmen got away. The second time was this past April, when soldiers in camouflage ringed Hospital General de Tijuana, shutting it down to allow doctors to treat a handful of traffickers wounded in various shootouts throughout the city. The Mexican Army was apparently trying to prevent a repeat of the 2007 shootout.

The problem everyone in Tijuana faces is that they might be indirectly associating with traffickers without even knowing it. You're headed out to the supermarket where, unbeknown to you, the son of a rival cartel bodyguard is also shopping. The opposition decides to take him down with a flurry of Uzi lead at around the same time you're picking fruit from a bin, standing next to him. This is happening more and more.

Doctors in private practice now screen their patients carefully. Traffickers usually pay well and in cash, but they are not worth the trouble they bring, doctors say. But general hospitals do not have that luxury. They have to treat everyone. They are morally obligated to do so.

(sources: NY Times, CNN, AP)


Anonymous said...

Yeah . . . I heard an bit on npr on that the other day. Between this piece and the fact that I just listened to the song 'Invalid Litter Dept.' by At the Drive-In, I am feeling compelled to pick up and (finally) read 'The Daughters of Juárez' as I style and profile in my snappy 'Made in Mexico of USA components' shirt.

Anonymous said...

It's getting to be all-out war. I have family friends in Sao Paolo, and they've been living with armed bodyguards since 1980. Now it's Mexico's turn.