Jose Reyes Ferriz, mayor of the Mexican border city of Juarez, presides over what may be the western hemisphere's most dangerous town, certainly the hardest hit by Mexico's drug-war terror. Since the start of last year, Juarez has seen almost 2,000 drug-related murders. Reyes this month requested thousands of federal army soldiers to rein in the violence, which has subsided for the moment giving him a chance to rebuild Juarez's corrupt police force. He talked with TIME's Tim Padgett this week about his police reform, drug-cartel death threats against him and comparisons of Juarez to Baghdad. (See pictures of Mexico's narco-carnage.)
TIME: Why have the cartels issued death threats against you?
REYES: Organized crime here had infiltrated our police so deeply, and it was clear they didn't want a clean-up of the force. But it had to be done, and no other Mexican city has done such a widespread clean-up. And that caused the threats. Four weeks ago on a Sunday came the first public threat against me; but it was something we knew had been brewing for a while so I wasn't completely surprised or upset. I knew the consequences of the decisions I'd made.
The violence is a consequence of the Mexican political class's utter neglect of law enforcement, especially when the country was ruled by your party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Will that finally change now?
That's a key issue. As a country we really underestimated the value of police and looked down on police. That forced the issues we have now, particularly in Juarez. Our police department barely grew the past 15 years: we should have a force of 4,000 officers, but we have only 1,600. We knew about police corruption but as a society did nothing to force the clean-up of our department. Now it's become extremely difficult to do. It cost the lives of 50 people in city government last year, including two police directors. (See pictures of Mexico City's police fighting crime.)
Right now, with the military on your streets, things seem safer. But the soldiers can only stay so long. Can you really build a new, larger, reliable police force before they leave?
Yes, we can. About half [of the old force] are now out; most didn't pass the new "confidence exam." Our agreement with the federal government is that we'll have 3,000 new officers in place by the end of the year. So we're starting a huge recruitment effort. They'll have to have high school diplomas we're hoping about 500 will be college graduates. They're going to be some of the best paid in the country and eligible for subsidized housing for the first time.
Are Washington and Mexico City focusing enough attention and resources under the anti-drug Merida Initiative toward local police reform?
The U.S. needs to assure that enough money is put toward making the police forces along the border sufficiently robust precisely so they'll be the first line of defense for the U.S., just as it's equally important that U.S. border police be better able to stop the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico. The U.S. also needs to be able to share more information with Mexico like intelligence about [U.S.-based] gangs like Barrio Azteca, whose members are used by the Mexican drug cartels to commit so much of the violence here. (See pictures of Mexico's drug wars.)
Do you feel the Obama Administration, which this week announced plans to bring more federal agents to the border in large part for those purposes, is doing more than previous U.S. administrations to help your efforts?
Oh yeah. The previous Administration clearly felt that the problems with Mexico could be solved by building a big wall between the two countries to keep the problems here out of the U.S. That is clearly wrong, and President Obama recognizes that. His efforts are directed at the proper solutions for Mexico's problems which at the end of the day become problems for the U.S. If we don't attack those problems now, the violence will escalate and go into the U.S. And [Mexican] President [Felipe] Calderon, of course, has been very involved in the effort to find solutions to Juarez's problems. (See pictures of the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.)
What was this city like before the soldiers arrived?
People didn't want to go outside. Most people stayed at home; most parents didn't want their kids to go to parties. Our city normally has vibrant night life, and that all but stopped for most of the past year.
How do you feel about the comparisons between Juarez and Baghdad?
Well, it was a situation where the numbers were there. The situation was there. We tried to keep information flowing to remind people that of the 1,600 [killed last year] only 30 were innocent civilians. More recently, as we've put pressure on the police, we're seeing what we call "opportunistic" crimes like kidnapping and extortion.
There have been reports that you and your family live part of each week now across the border in El Paso, that U.S. law enforcement has helped screen your bodyguards.
I now have six bodyguards who carry assault weapons instead of guns. But I live in Juarez, I work in Juarez, I sleep in Juarez. [The reports] were fueled by El Paso Mayor John Cook, a good friend of mine, who said when the threats started that if the [Juarez] mayor wants to come to El Paso we'll provide security for him. I told him I didn't need it.
Despite its current troubles, Juarez has a history of leading change in Mexico. The Mexican Revolution and maquiladora assembly plants began here; Juarez was the first city to elect an opposition mayor during the PRI's rule. Will it be the first to create a model police force?
I think that is what's happening. We, of course, didn't choose these circumstances that are forcing us to do it.