Mexico — Jorge Nava Lopez’s personal border crisis has little to do with migrants or drug trafficking. For this crusading top cop, it has everything to do with the US-made guns that are killing his compatriots.
Every day, dozens of semiautomatic rifles, pistols and grenades are smuggled across the three international bridges that link this sprawling and dusty border city to El Paso, Texas, which is less than 11 miles to the north.
Nava Lopez, the attorney general for Chihuahua State Northern Zone, says the weapons are all purchased on the US side of the border — at Walmart and gun shops — and arrive in this city of 1.5 million in pieces, mostly hidden in transport trucks or under car seats.
“Guns from the US are our biggest problem right now,” he told The Post, adding that he is working closely with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace the registrations. “These are the weapons used in all of the homicides, and they are all coming from the other side of the border. We want to know who is buying them.”
Nava Lopez said the weapons were purchased by Americans before being smuggled into the country. In return, Chihuahua is the source of drugs and human trafficking that pour back into the US as part of a vicious cycle of illegal activity at the border.
Government figures show that thousands of women go missing from Chihuahua each year, with a significant number believed to be victims of sexual exploitation. The weapons purchased in the US also help fuel a bloody war between Mexican cartels feuding over who controls the drug trade.
So far this year, there have been 449 homicides in Ciudad Juarez. Last month there were 129 deaths — the most violent month the city has seen since the days of shootouts between rival drug gangs that turned the city into the most violent place in the world just 10 years ago.
By comparison, New York City, which has nearly eight times the population, recorded 289 murders in 2018.
Nava Lopez, 37, spent much of the last decade cleaning up the crime in Ciudad Juarez, and he says he doesn’t want to see a return to the dark days of the violence that gripped the city that locals refer to simply as Juarez.
Between 2009 and 2016, he headed up the state’s anti-kidnapping squad, inheriting the position from his boss who was gunned down in his armored vehicle on orders of the Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was recently convicted in a Brooklyn federal courtroom. Guzman is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
In 2010, as the city became a battleground between the Sinaloa and their rival the Juarez cartel, Ciudad Juarez recorded 3,200 homicides, and thousands of kidnappings, most of them conducted by drug trafficking gangs to finance their criminal enterprises and silence their opponents, Nava Lopez said.
“We used to have 10 kidnappings a day,” he told The Post. “And they weren’t confined to big businessmen. Everyone was a target — housewives, lawyers, Mormons, and even children.”
Nava Lopez, who says he is a committed Catholic, described how he once saved a businessman who was being held hostage in a safe house in the city.
“We had been looking for the man for a while and we were very frustrated we hadn’t found him,” he said. “But I really feel that God helped us and the next day a license plate led us to a safe house where he was being held. “
The kidnappers, led by a woman, had tortured the man, and cut off his two pinky fingers, sending them to his family to pressure them to pay ransom.
“We arrived at the right time,” he said. “The kidnappers were outside the house, drawing straws to determine who would kill the victim, whose hands were wrapped in gauze and bandages.”
By aggressively taking on the drug traffickers, it wasn’t long before Nava Lopez himself became a target. Almost as soon as he took over the anti-kidnapping squad, the cartels put a $1 million bounty on his head.
“My parents thought they would kill me and told me not to accept the position, but I decided to accept because I was surrounded by people who believed in me in the force,” Nava Lopez said. He starts his workday at 6 a.m. and often doesn’t get to sleep until 2 a.m.
By 2017, when he was named attorney general, he was already used to traveling in armored vehicles. He currently employs 12 bodyguards.
Nava Lopez has continued a state project to help identify the remains of the women that have been found throughout the region. He is also focusing on a new project to identify the remains of hundreds of other victims who were found in a mass grave on the outskirts of town.
And his crackdown on crime is paying off. There was only one kidnapping in Ciudad Juarez last year, he said. The big cartels have taken their deadly battles elsewhere, although he says his biggest problem now is violence from local gangs, such as a group called the Barrio Aztecas, who are bringing in their weapons from the US. Last year, there were 1,244 homicides in the city — half of what it was in 2009, but still too high, said Nava Lopez.
“Homicides are my priority,” he told The Post. “We have to end the killing.”