Across the border from El Paso, Texas, the city of Juarez is being torn apart by a drug war.
The number of murders in Juarez has jumped from 300 in 2007 to roughly 1,500 this year.
Amid the drug war, robbery, kidnapping and extortion in Juarez have mushroomed unchecked, and U.S. residents are also getting killed in the violence.
A Familiar Scene
A call comes over the police radio that three decapitated bodies have turned up at a used car lot. Federal police in ski masks and black storm-trooper uniforms surround the scene. They clutch M-15 assault rifles as they scan the gathering crowd.
Across the expanse of yellow police tape, a woman wails and pounds on a man's chest. This has become an all too common scene in Juarez where, on average, seven people are being gunned down every day.
At almost the same time that the coroner was poring over this murder scene, gunmen across town were ripping apart a Crown Victoria with automatic weapons fire.
"When they stop, I show my face in the window," says Rudy Garcia, who starts to shake as he describes the shooting in front of his house. "I saw this brown car fleeing the scene. There was a car that was all shot at. This guy came out of the car with blood all over the head."
Nationwide, the number of killings attributed to organized crime doubled in 2008 to more than 5,000, and no city has been harder hit than Juarez. The murder rate here is five times higher than in 2007, but Garcia says all types of crimes are skyrocketing.
"The criminals got into the schools and robbed all the teachers," he says. "Told the teachers that they were going to come back for the Christmas bonuses of the teachers. If they don't do it, they're going to take hostages of the children and kill the children and kill them. So these teachers didn't come back to school. Their schools are closed."
Two of the nation's most powerful criminal groups, the Juarez and the Sinaloa cartels, are fighting for control of Juarez. Both groups move billions of dollars worth of drugs into the U.S. each year, and their hit men carry high-powered assault rifles, machine guns and even grenades.
'This Thing's Out Of Control'
President Felipe Calderon has sent thousands of federal police and soldiers to confront the gangs, but as the federal authorities focus on organized crime, Juarez's municipal police force has collapsed. Hundreds of local officers have been fired for corruption. And in this vacuum, crime has been allowed to flourish.
"They were like, 'I already shot you once. I'm going to kill you right here if you don't give me the keys to your truck,' " says Julio, who runs a small one-hour photo studio in a row of shops on the south side of Juarez. He's been robbed at gunpoint twice in the past three months, and he doesn't want to give his full name because he says he's terrified.
The first robbers shot his co-worker in the leg and demanded the keys to a flashy, four-door pickup truck that was parked out front. The vehicle actually belonged to a customer at the hair salon next door.
"They went next door and put the gun on the little girl so the owner of the truck could give the keys," Julio says.
He says the police took statements after both robberies, but nothing ever happened. He says the authorities in Juarez don't do anything.
"If you want to defend yourself, you have to have a gun in your business so you can kill whoever comes here," he says. "And that's what people are doing — getting guns. This thing's out of control."
Despite the fact that guns are illegal in Mexico, Julio says the only reason he hasn't gotten one is that he can't afford it.
Cartels Wield Enormous Power
The drug trade affects almost every part of the country. According to the U.N., Mexico has become the world's largest producer of marijuana, and Mexican cartels control most of the cocaine that's sold in the U.S. In recent weeks, at least half a dozen top law enforcement officials have been arrested and accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the cartels.
Oscar Maines, who teaches criminology at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, says this is also an American problem.
"The power that the drug cartels have is fueled by the consumption of drugs in the United States," he says.
He points out that the cartels also get their arsenals of high-powered weapons north of the border.
"The quantity of weapons that the criminals have at their disposition is enormous," Maines says. "I understand the difficulty of the federal government to fight these. It can be done, because I don't think that the cartels are more powerful than the state at this moment."
But the situation continues to get worse in Juarez, and the violence continues to rise. November was one of the deadliest months ever in the city, with 184 people executed.
Juarez pushes right up against El Paso, Texas. The two cities are tightly linked economically, and many people have family members on both sides of the border.
Since September, at least seven U.S. residents have been gunned down in Juarez, including one woman's uncle and cousin.
"My family is naturally living here in the border," says the woman, who does not want to be identified for security reasons. "It's naturally that half of the family used to live in El Paso, half in Juarez."
Sitting in a cafe in El Paso, she recounts how her uncle was shot at his Juarez hotel in October. Then in late November, gunmen in Suburbans strafed the hotel again, killing his daughter, her cousin. Finally, heavily armed men in SUVs attacked her cousin's funeral procession, killing another cousin, that cousin's boyfriend and wounding a 10-year-old boy. She says the dispute started when her uncle refused to pay for protection from the Juarez cartel.
"And these people interrupt the house and kill him in front of the ... grandchildren," she says.
Referring to Juarez as "my city," she says the place has been kidnapped by organized crime.
"They act with impunity. They don't care," the woman says. "They have connections with the government. Everyone knows that. That's why journalists, anyone who starts to open their mouths — they've been killed. This is a war."
Her uncle and the cousin killed in the funeral procession were both U.S. citizens, and law enforcement officials in Texas at both the local and the federal level say they don't and can't get involved when Americans are killed across the border. They have no jurisdiction in Mexico.
Amid all the killings, a pair of lost camels wandered into downtown Juarez at the beginning of December. Men were building life-size nativity scenes in several city parks, and the two camels, looking like lost members of the Wise Men's entourage, wandered in out of the desert.
They'd escaped from an amusement park.
For several days, the fuzzy pack animals displaced the decapitated bodies and gunshot victims from the front pages of the newspapers. Even when a federal prosecutor was gunned down at a stoplight, the camels led the local TV news — in part because this city is exhausted by the relentless violence.