A few weeks ago, Army Captain Ramón Velásquez got his introduction to Ciudad Juárez, ground zero in Mexico's war against violent drug cartels.
A stocky man with round glasses, Capt. Velásquez led a 10-man patrol in midday traffic on one of the city's major boulevards. Suddenly, gunmen with automatic rifles opened up on a taxi stuck at a traffic light about three blocks away, killing two men and a woman.
Capt. Velásquez scrambled to the site of the killings, where the gunmen had already vanished. He and his men yelled questions at dozens of eyewitnesses: How many killers were there, what kind of car did they drive? "Not one person said a word. Not even what direction they had gone," says Capt. Velásquez, 42. "Executions here happen at any time, at any place. That terrifies the population. They don't trust anybody. And they don't talk."
For two years, the center of Mexico's bloody drug war has been this gritty city of 1.5 million people across the river from El Paso, Texas. Two of Mexico's most powerful gangs are battling for control of the city, a gateway for drugs going to the U.S. as well as a growing local drug market.
In response, President Felipe Calderón has sent 7,000 soldiers and 2,000 federal police to stem the violence —so far, unsuccessfully. In 2008, 1,600 people were killed in drug-related hits. This year, more than 2,500 have died. By some estimates, Juárez's approximately 165 deaths per 100,000 residents make it the murder capital of the world. That compares with 48 violent deaths per 100,000 residents of Baghdad.
The chaos in Ciudad Juárez has snared Mexico's army, the country's most respected institution, in what may be a no-win situation. Even as the violence rises, so do allegations of human-rights abuses by the army. The failure to pacify Ciudad Juárez has put Mr. Calderón's antidrug strategy—based largely on using the military to retake control of the country from drug cartels that have corrupted local police and politicians—on embarrassing public display.
"The assassins have won," says Bernardo Garcia, the white haired owner of a tiny tortilla factory. His brother Refugio, a clothes vendor, was killed two weeks ago as he left a church service with his daughter by a drug gang who wanted to extort him. "Only God can help us now," he says.
Mr. Calderón's war on drug gangs has defined his presidency so far. Within months of his 2006 inauguration, he dispatched the army to states where drug-related violence was on the rise, calling powerful drug cartels a threat to national security. Three years later, some 45,000 troops—about a quarter of the army—patrol areas ranging from Ciudad Juárez to Mr. Calderón's home state of Michoacán.
The conservative has won praise in many quarters, including Washington, for squarely taking on the drug gangs. Mr. Calderón has extradited dozens of traffickers wanted in the U.S. Last week, elite Navy troops killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva, one of Mexico's most powerful drug lords, in a four-hour battle at a luxury condominium complex in the resort city of Cuernavaca.
But in weary Ciudad Juárez, he is blamed for having gone to war without a comprehensive victory strategy. Since first sending troops to Ciudad Juárez in March 2008, Mr. Calderon has only made two fleeting visits to the city. He hasn't engaged residents on the violence consuming the city. "He stays for two hours and he's gone," says Daniel Murgía, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "They've left Ciudad Juárez totally alone. There is a total absence of authority."
Mr. Murgía and other business leaders last month called for the United Nations to send peacekeepers to tame the city's violence. Mr. Murgía went further and breached a Mexican taboo when he asked that the U.S. send military police to help. In early December, 3,000 Juárez citizens staged a protest march. Some carried placards asking the army and federal police to leave.
Jorge Tello, Mexico's National Security adviser, says the government has devoted more resources to fighting drugs and violence in Ciudad Juárez than any other place in Mexico. "We are doing everything we can," said Mr. Tello, who travels monthly to the city, but he acknowledges: "We need better results."
Ciudad Juárez has the look and feel of an occupied city. Soldiers, their faces covered with black balaclavas and manning automatic rifles or 50 caliber machine guns, constantly crisscross Ciudad Juárez in open-backed SUVs.
In some ways, Capt. Velásquez and the Mexican army in Ciudad Juárez are in a similar situation to U.S. soldiers when they first occupied Baghdad after ousting Saddam Hussein. The U.S. had overwhelming superiority in troop strength and firepower, but its conventional forces were soon bogged down in a guerrilla war with an enemy that ambushed U.S. troops with devastating results. Lacking good intelligence, the U.S. could neither protect the general Iraqi population nor effectively strike back at its guerrilla tormentors.
While Ciudad Juárez' drug dealers and hit men aren't guerrillas or suicide bombers—largely they are trying to kill each other instead of Mexican soldiers—they do use the hit-and-run tactics of guerrillas, melting back into the population and making it difficult to tell who is who. As in Iraq, ordinary citizens are afraid to provide information to the authorities. On their daily rounds, Capt. Velásquez and his men are also under constant surveillance from young boys working for the drug gangs who inform their bosses of his patrol's every movement.
"There are many people who watch us all the time," says Capt. Velásquez, an artilleryman who, like most soldiers here, is on a two-month rotation. "They control time and place. It's the same rule anywhere: He who knows the terrain has superiority."
Ciudad Juárez's troubles began in January 2008, when Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman, tried to take over the city's drug trade from the local Juárez Cartel, which was itself backed by a cadre of corrupt cops and ex-cops called La Linea, or The Line. Mr. Guzman recruited two local gangs—the Artistic Assassins and the Mexicles—to take on the Aztecas, another gang in the service of the hometown La Linea, according to the city's mayor and other officials.
The confrontation has reshaped life in Ciudad Juárez. At times, hit men from both sides have broken into hospitals to finish off wounded victims, so now, people wounded by assassins are only taken in at three city hospitals which have extra security. Funeral corteges are also targets, so funeral masses are shorter and also have special security.
Drivers in the morning rush hour have sometimes been greeted with the grisly sight of dismembered bodies. One favorite dumping ground is a highway overpass known as the Rotary Bridge in honor of the city's Rotary club. Authorities say women are taking up the assassin's trade, and they can be as cold-blooded as the men. It was a woman who walked up to another woman dropping off a friend at the city's largest hospital and shot her dead two weeks ago in the middle of the day.
The drug gangs have branched out into extortion. On a recent patrol, Capt. Velásquez' convoy stopped at a modest strip mall, where a woman swept out the broken glass from a small restaurant. The previous night, three gunmen in a beat-up Nissan Sentra, who had been demanding protection money, drove by and shot up the place. Extortionists had driven out 14 out of the mall's 18 clients.
The landlord, a lanky, leathery-faced man wearing a blue jean jacket, said he'd cut the restaurant's rent by half, to $350 a month, because the violence has driven many clients away. "Anybody who has any money is leaving for the other side of the border," he said. "You can't live here anymore."
The extortion wave has spread to funeral homes. Last month, an assassin and his driver parked in front of the Funeraria del Refugio, a squat, yellow building on a crowded street. The killer walked in, interrupting a funeral, and locked mourners in the bathroom, yelling that he had come to collect a protection payment. He then executed the funeral home's manager, police and eyewitnesses say. The next day, the men returned and burned down the funeral home.
In March, 2008, soon after the troubles began, Mr. Calderón dispatched 2,000 troops. As the violence rose, he ordered a surge of an additional 5,000 troops and 2,000 federal police in April of this year. Both times, the murder rate fell sharply after the troops arrived. But the drop-off in killings lasted a few weeks. As soon as the drug gangs figured out the new patterns of army and police patrolling, they resumed killing.
Some experts say the Mexican army needs to adopt the style of the counter-insurgency tactics used by the U.S. military in the Iraq war. That strategy got American soldiers out of large bases and forced them to interact with the population and get intelligence. "They have to co-mingle with the locals and find out who's who in the zoo. Find out where the bad guys are, and preempt them," says a former U.S. military officer with knowledge of the Mexican army. But, the official says, the Mexican army, which is made up of conscripts, isn't trained on how to interact with the community. The result: a lot of patrolling that's good for show but bad for results.
In Ciudad Juárez, soldiers generally are on patrol or back at a local army base or other temporary housing, including abandoned factory buildings. One reason: the high command fears that contact with the city's drug traffickers could induce desertions to the dark side.
It has happened before. In 1997, about 30 defectors from an elite army unit went to work for the Gulf Cartel. These former soldiers, known as "Zetas," became the Gulf Cartel's enforcers, deploying tactics such as decapitations to terrorize rival cartels and law enforcement.
Manuel Aponte, a former army lieutenant who deserted in 2004, has become the right hand man of Joaquin Guzman, the cartel leader, and is leading the Sinaloa cartel's assault on Ciudad Juárez, according to a recent Mexican intelligence document viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Soldiers aren't considered to be remotely as corrupt as Mexico's notorious police forces. But the army has a questionable record. A decade ago, Mexico was deeply embarrassed when its newly named drug czar, army Gen. Jesús Gutíerrez Rebollo, was arrested for being in the pay of a drug lord.
The army says it is slowly turning things around in Juárez. In the past year, it has arrested the vast majority of the 5,518 people detained for alleged drug trafficking and weapons violations, according to Enrique Torres, a spokesman for the joint army and police operation.
Two weeks ago, the army held a news conference to display five handcuffed men, whom they introduced as members of the Azteca gang. The five are alleged to have quickly admitted to taking part in or ordering 268 killings. Mr. Torres says the army has arrested 60 people responsible for more than 1,000 killings.
Others in Ciudad Juárez doubt such claims. Mexican authorities, be they army or police, have little capacity to investigate crimes. Many people here believe that the authorities resort to torture or beatings to wring confessions out of suspects. "So what does the army do? They find a guy, and they hang 30 murders on him!" says Hernán Ortiz, a professor and civic activist. "Does anyone believe these cases were investigated?"
Another problem is mounting allegations of human rights abuses that could hurt the army's image. Since its incursion, the army has been accused not only of beatings and looting homes, but also, in more than 20 cases, of disappearing people and conducting extrajudicial killings.
One such case concerns two brothers, Carlos Guzmán, 28, and José Luis Guzmán, 27. The two worked at a shop run by their father, Javier, that sells everything from old sewing machines to used typewriters. Both sons were detained in a raid by soldiers and federal police on Nov. 14, 2008. A federal police report says the two were detained by the army, which took them to a nearby base. They haven't been seen again.
For a year, the army denied it had anything to do with the case. "We protested, but the army has always denied it took them," says the elder Mr. Guzmán, 56, wearing a baseball cap as he stands by a stack of old radios. But on Dec. 2, Mr. Guzman met with three army lawyers who told him they would investigate.
"They say the last thing that dies is hope," says Mr. Guzman. "But a year has passed and you imagine the worst. Every 15 days I go to the morgue to see if my sons have turned up."
The army largely dismisses complaints of abuses as the work of people allied with drug traffickers who want to drive the soldiers out of the city. "Many times they make human rights complaints because they want to limit our capacity for action and besmirch the institution," says Brigadier General Jesús Hernández Pérez, commander of the 4th Artillery Regiment, and Capt. Velásquez' commanding officer.
Mr. Guzman says he was happy the soldiers had arrived to clean up Ciudad Juárez. "Not all the military are bad," he says. "Some do their job right. But the ones I got were bad."