Monday, March 22, 2010

For Foreign Service workers in Mexico, Juárez slayings stress the increasing danger in drug war

A friend had a link to this on Facebook and I thought it was worth posting. It is a good reminder to Americans that it isn't just our military that endures dangerous conditions in order to serve.

For Foreign Service workers in Mexico, Juárez slayings stress the increasing danger in drug war

By TOM BENNING and ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

Laneice Brooker has not felt the direct fury of the vicious drug war stretching along the Mexico-Texas border.

But the unpredictability of that violence has gripped the 27-year-old Foreign Service officer at the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros. She avoids certain parts of town and tries to alter her daily routine.

Most of all, she wonders when it might hit near her office, her house, her family.
"You don't know what may happen or where," she said last week. "It can happen in the best neighborhood or the worst."

The drug-fueled tension in Mexico weighs heavily on Foreign Service workers posted along the border. Many who came to Mexico with the expectation of a mostly low-key assignment have been jolted by the brutal warfare among the drug cartels that has ripped apart communities and killed more than 18,000 people across Mexico since 2006.

The recent gangland slayings of an American Consulate worker and two others in Ciudad Juárez, a city across from El Paso, is yet another reminder of the danger faced by Foreign Service workers in Mexico and across the world.

"This incident in Juárez may have opened the eyes of the American public," said Daniel Hirsch, a vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents diplomats and consul officers. "But as terrible and shocking as it was, our eyes have been open for a long time in the Foreign Service."

Postings in dangerous and potentially violent parts of the world are recognized as part of the job, several veteran diplomats said. Diplomats receive special training to avert threatening situations, and those in especially risky posts receive hardship pay.

The most visceral reminder of that sacrifice is seen in the State Department's lobby, where a plaque honors the more than 230 American Foreign Service officers who have been killed in the line of duty.

But the attacks have been particularly jarring in Mexico – one of American's closest allies and where vacationers have flocked for years. It's not Kabul. It's not Baghdad. It's not Islamabad. And that could be part of the problem, a career diplomat based in Mexico City said.

"This is a country that as Americans we all grew up feeling pretty safe in, pretty comfortable," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We tend to drop our guard. And that puts us in a more potentially dangerous situation."

Drug crackdown

The uptick in violence and increased threat to American diplomats and citizens in Mexico can be attributed largely on two factors, experts said: Mexican President Felipe Calderón's decision to crack down on drug traffickers in 2006, which stirred up resistance by the cartels, and the insatiable appetite for drugs in the U.S.

Juárez and other border cities, including Matamoros and Reynosa, face drug trafficking groups that use their massive power to penetrate some of the most important institutions, from police departments to judicial institutions.

In Juárez, a city of more than 1 million people, funeral homes are packed and doctors shy away from working in hospitals. Coroners are overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead, about 500 this year and more than 4,500 since January 2008.

More than 116,000 houses sit vacant, according to city statistics, and more than 10,000 businesses have shuttered rather than pay steep extortion fees to gangs.

"Certainly, everybody in the building was aware things were getting worse outside," said Laura Dogu, the consular section chief at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, who noted the increasingly dire travel warnings put out by the State Department.

Investigators have yet to determine whether the shootings of Juárez consulate worker Lesley Enriquez, her husband and one other man were aimed at consulate employees.

The three had just left a children's social event sponsored by another consulate employee on March 13 when men believed to be part of the gang known as Aztecas chased them for blocks, apparently in separate vehicles, and gunned them down.

The American couple's 7-month-old daughter, in the backseat of their SUV, survived the shooting spree, as did the two children of the third victim, Mexican citizen Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros.

'Not normal here'

Even before the attack, edginess and security had increased at the Juárez consulate, said another employee, who asked not to be identified. Staffers, for instance, were told to stay away from certain areas, including a favorite local hangout, El Reco Bar, near the consulate.

"It's not normal here anymore, at least not now," said the employee, whose activity now consists only of going to work and going home. "The sad thing is we've seen this violence for years around us, and I knew it was just a matter of time something like this would impact us."

Earlier last week, senior U.S. officials said the consulate office in Juárez had been the target of recent threats.

The State Department had decided the day before the killings to allow dependents of U.S. personnel in six U.S. consulates, including Juárez, to evacuate because of increased violence.

Despite the danger, Foreign Service workers along the border said they remain committed to serving their communities and helping turn the situation around.

Brooker, the consul officer in Matamoros, said the aura of violence there has not stopped people from living relatively normal lives, both personally and professionally.

"We still get to live a good life here," she said. "We still have a great opportunity to experience the culture and community here."

And consulate staff members are refusing to give up one of the basic tenets of diplomacy: connecting with people face to face.

Even in Juárez, where employees are coming to grips with the horrific killings, that willingness to interact with locals won't change, said Dogu, the Juárez consular section chief.

"We all joined to be able to serve in a variety of situations, including this one," she said. "It doesn't mean we will go about it blithely, but we will adapt and do our best to get the job done."

1 comment:

A Daring Adventure said...

Oh. My. Soul.

They had just left a social event for their *children* and they were *chased for blocks*?

Oh. That is so heartbreaking. So tragic. So painful.