JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — How much is a life worth in Juarez, where a low-level drug war has been raging in the city’s poorest neighborhoods for the past two years?
As little as $150 or a bag of drugs, says Chihuahua Deputy Attorney General Jorge Nava.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing that dynamic. Sometimes (criminals) don’t even get 3,000 pesos ($150) for committing violent acts, such as homicide,” Nava said. “We are seeing such an environment of degradation in which sometimes (criminals) are paid in drugs and (gang leaders) struggle to pay their members.”
Juarez has recorded 1,056 murders as of Tuesday, most of them drug-related, Nava said. The violence in the border Mexican city opposite El Paso, Texas has spiked since late 2018, as the drug cartels have increasingly turned to domestic drug sales. The city recorded nearly 1,500 homicides in 2019.
And it’s not only traditional illicit substances like marijuana and heroin that are being peddled in working-class neighborhoods near the Rio Grande or the southern part of the city. Nava says crystal meth is now the drug of choice among street-level gangs.
Most of the killings involve drug gangs collecting on a debt or moving in on rival turf or a gang becoming too successful and its own leaders trying to take out each other, Nava said Tuesday in a teleconference.
The deputy attorney general says local police have arrested more than 1,000 gang members this year, and that he’s come up with a strategy to reduce the violence.
The plan involves enhancing penalties for suspected murderers caught and brought to trial.
Prosecutors are now seeking 50- to 70-year prison sentences against people suspected of murdering others in retaliation or with extreme violence. This includes suspects who mutilate, decapitate or burn their victims.
Nava said enhanced penalties will also apply to those who kill a police officer or a journalist. The latter became a protected group recently, given they’ve become a target for criminal groups in recent years.
Those accused of killing three or more people will face life in prison — a penalty that’s been in the books in Mexico for many years but is rarely applied.
Nava said the harsher penalties are already making an impact.
He said three men arrested in July this week pleaded guilty to murder charges in exchange for 25-year sentences when faced with the possibility of a much longer sentence.
Javier Leopoldo Garay, Diego Guillen Albaca and Francisco Pale Garcia admitted killing two men and wounding a third one, in addition to shooting at the police officer who tried to arrest them.
Nava said many of the assassins killing people for small amounts of money are young drug addicts.
“To the young people, I ask that before you do this (commit a homicide), think about spending the rest of your life in prison,” he said.