CIUDAD JUÃREZ – A black ball cap with FBI stitched in yellow sits on the top shelf of this city’s new prosecutor.
Jorge Nava López, 34 years old, moved into the ground floor office of the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office here in October, where he is in charge of state-level prosecutions for a city of 1.3 million people that only recently has recovered from a brutal drug war.
The office windows have translucent glass so he can’t see out, nor can anyone see in. Nava López keeps the cap and certificates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Colombia’s National Police on display – emblems of a man whose career has been molded in an era of drug wars and evidence of the law enforcement links between the United States and key drug-producing nations.
The month he arrived in Ciudad Juárez, homicides spiked to their highest level in years: 96 in October, up from about 30 a month in the first quarter of the year. Local drug gangs were fighting over points of sale, he said, and took advantage of a power vacuum in the wake of July elections and the October turnover of governments.
“What we wanted to do was send a clear message, and fast, that we’re working,” he said. “We didn’t come here to learn, and we’re working with all levels of government. What needs to be highlighted is that in just one month we contained the crime trend.”
Last year, Nava López graduated from an FBI training program for international law enforcement in Quantico, Va. He says training is key to earning the trust of U.S. authorities and continuing cooperation on drug violence – which is “everybody’s problem,” he said.
“There is total coordination with U.S. authorities,” he said, citing regular meetings that bring together the U.S. Marshals, FBI, Mexican state and federal prosecutors offices and other law enforcement entities.
“For the U.S. authorities to give us information or ask for information, they have a strict protocol to trust authorities in other countries,” he said. “All of us who were present (at the last border law enforcement meeting) have been through a vetting process with U.S. authorities, specifically so we can exchange information.”
Taking office in the midst of a spike in drug-related homicides, Nava López said he reinforced his narcotics investigation unit with additional investigators and set up an intelligence unit to help investigate and prosecute drug-related homicides – the kind that ravaged the city between 2008 and 2011.
“It’s the kind of crime that alarms residents, especially given the conditions in which the murders happen – many times in rush hour, in popular places, in front of restaurants, vehicle to vehicle,” he said. “These are people that do these things when they can; they don’t study their victims and they don’t care how much damage they cause.”
Homicides dropped to 35 in November and were on pace to end in December around that level, but the city is ending 2016 with the first increase in murders – to more than 500 – since the waning days of a drug war that killed some 10,000 people in Ciudad Juárez in four years.
Nava López led a statewide anti-kidnapping force for seven years before taking the job in Ciudad Juárez. Those were years when criminal organizations made kidnapping their bread and butter, a source of income to line their pockets and finance their turf war.
Over that time, more than 700 people were incarcerated in Chihuahua state for kidnapping – about 300 of whom have been sentenced, while the rest are in jail on kidnapping charges.
The years between 2009 and 2011 were the worst, he said, with more than 400 reports of kidnapping in three years. After numerous arrests and the dismantling of some 130 crime rings, he said, there were four reports of kidnapping in 2016. Arrests were made in all four cases and the alleged perpetrators are being prosecuted, he said.
Today, Nava López is tasked with going after crime bosses and gang leaders, assassins and drug dealers, in a country where fewer than 5 percent of crimes prosecuted result in convictions, according to the 2016 Global Impunity Index produced by the Center for Impunity and Justice Studies at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico.
Experts on the Mexican justice system routinely point to the impunity rate – the percentage of crimes that go unpunished – to show that arrests rarely result in convictions. That fact alone calls into question statistics on the number of people incarcerated on a given charge, like kidnapping.
And the public’s reporting of crimes is known to be very low. The Center for Impunity and Justice Studies reports that, in Mexico, just seven in 100 crimes is reported to law enforcement.
Still, it’s Nava López’s job to enforce the rule of law in an imperfect system, in a country where top cops, judges and prosecutors have too often been fatally targeted by criminal organizations for trying to do their job.
Is he afraid?
“There is a feeling of being on alert that we should all have,” he said, “but it doesn’t stop our work.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.