CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – Killings continued unabated in this crime-wracked city near El Paso, Texas and the surrounding state of Chihuahua despite heavy security accompanying a visit by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, authorities said Friday.
Three murders were committed Thursday in Ciudad Juarez, where Calderon unveiled a new strategy to battle violent crime, and four others occurred that same day in different parts of the state.
The number of homicides was similar to the daily average in that part of the country in 2010 despite the strong presence of army soldiers and municipal and federal police.
In the hours before the president’s arrival Thursday morning, the charred bodies of a shop owner and an employee were found inside a food store, while gunmen riddled a 25-year-old man with bullets as Calderon was giving a speech.
The other killings took place in Chihuahua city, the state capital, and in the towns of Camargo and Guerrero, authorities said.
Calderon came to Juarez, in part, to apologize to the parents of 15 youths killed in a Jan. 31 massacre.
The president had said hours after the massacre, during a visit to Japan, that the killings were a settling of scores among rival gangs. His words sparked indignation among the parents of the youths, who were teenage students celebrating a sports victory on that fateful day.
The president said during a meeting at a Juarez convention center that he met with the parents early Thursday and explained that his initial comments about the murders came after a detained suspect had said they were the result of an aggression by one criminal gang against a rival.
“That led to a lack of understanding and stigmatization. But whatever may have been the meaning of my words, I ... offered the parents my most heartfelt apology if any of those words offended them or the memory of their children,” Calderon said.
While Calderon was talking, a dozen family members of the victims protested by standing up and turning their backs to the president, who continued with his speech.
Members of the presidential guard tried to get them to sit down but were unable.
Among those taking part in the protest was Luz Maria Davila, the mother of two youths killed when the cartel gunmen burst into the party.
“It’s clear to me and I’ve said it ever since. They were exemplary young men, athletes, students, good students and good sons, as we would hope all our sons were,” the president said.
Calderon referred to the encounter during a meeting with several members of his Cabinet, Chihuahua Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza, Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, representatives of civic organizations, and the parents of the victims.
The meeting was organized to come up with an action plan to reduce runaway violence in Ciudad Juarez, a border city of 1.3 million people where 1,600 killings attributed to organized crime occurred in 2008 and 2,400 last year.
In his speech, Calderon called for more social programs for the poor and a greater effort to tackle corruption and impunity, but also defended his strategy of deploying army soldiers to Ciudad Juarez as vital to the city’s security.
Prior to his address, Calderon listened to social representatives who painted a bleak picture of the city’s security situation and denounced abuses by army soldiers deployed there by the thousands to battle the drug gangs.
Despite the complaints, Calderon said he has no plans to remove the army from Juarez and said accusers must document the instances of abuse when they occur and offer concrete proof to support their allegations.
“Abuse will not be tolerated, but neither will the insulting of soldiers who are risking their lives for other citizens,” Calderon said in defending the army, the main pillar of his administration’s struggle against drug cartels.
Over the past three years, roughly 17,000 people have been killed nationwide, with authorities attributing most of the deaths to fighting among the different drug mobs.
Calderon said institutional and operational improvements, greater spending on social programs and increased citizen participation were all needed to tackle the crime problem in Juarez.
He said one of the causes of spiraling crime has been impunity and said it is important to determine why authorities have not been able to act on criminal charges that are filed and punish the perpetrators.
In the social realm, the president pledged federal support in the form of scholarships for the poorest families so their children can attend school, as well the construction of sports facilities for youths in low-income neighborhoods.
He also said that 300,000 people without medical coverage in Juarez will be included in government health programs.
“Without people, we can’t solve this problem,” Calderon said, stressing the importance of citizen participation.
He said that does not mean ordinary people will be involved in law-enforcement duties, but rather that committees must be set up so that people can report crimes without fear that they or their families will be victims of retaliation.
He also called on the need for rebuilding the city’s social fabric, a task that he acknowledged will take a long time.
Public Safety Minister Genaro Garcia Luna, for his part, announced at the meeting that another 2,600 federal police and 400 intelligence agents – in addition to 2,000 already in the city – will be sent to Juarez to boost crime-fighting efforts. EFE