Almost as soon as he took office late last year, incoming Mexican President Felipe Calderón tried to win public support by sending out the military to take on the country's violent and powerful drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. Now, six months into Calderón's anti-drug offensive, more than 24,000 soldiers and police are operating in a number of Mexican states and cities, but the death toll keeps rising, the drugs keep flowing, and Mexicans are starting to ask if it's all worth it.
According to Mexican press estimates, more than 2,000 people died in prohibition-related violence last year. With about 1,000 killed already this year, 2007 is on track to be the bloodiest year yet in Mexico's drug war.
George Bush and Felipe Calderón (photo from whitehouse.gov)
Most of the victims are members of the competing trafficking gangs -- the Juárez Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel -- or their enforcers, like the ex-elite soldiers who switched sides and morphed into the Zetas or the former Guatemalan soldiers and gangsters known as the Kaibiles, or a new and shadowy presence on the scene, the Gente Nueva (The New People), a group supposedly formed of former police officers to take on the Zetas.
The violence among the battling cartels, factions, and enforcers has risen to horrific levels, with bloody beheadings taped on video and released to web sites like YouTube, heads being thrown on night club dance floors, and tortured bodies left on roadsides as exemplary warnings to others. On one day last month, at least 30 people died in prohibition-related violence.
But it's not only cartel soldiers dying. Hardly a day goes by without a police officer being gunned down somewhere in Mexico. Sometimes the attacks are spectacular, as when cartel gunmen attacked Acapulco police headquarters with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers, or when assassins killed the new head of the attorney general's national crime intelligence center in a brazen shooting in the upscale Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán last month.
That's not all. In May alone, five Mexican soldiers, including a colonel, died in an ambush in Calderón's home state of Michoacán; the body of an Army captain was found near the highway from Mexico City to Acapulco, and an admiral narrowly escaped assassination in Ixtapa. Earlier this year, Calderon admitted that even he had received death threats from the cartels.
But wait, there's more. Also in May, dozens of cartel gunmen invaded the town of Cananea, Sonora, not far from the Arizona border, kidnapped seven police and four civilians, triggering a battle that left 20 people dead. The director of the Coahuila state police kidnapping and organized crime unit was himself kidnapped, a corpse found in Monterrey carried a note threatening the life of the Nuevo Leon state attorney general, and four bodyguards for the governor of Mexico state were gunned down. A note left with a severed head appeared to tie their deaths to angry cartels.
But wait, there's still more. Last Tuesday, in the northern city of Monterrey, a congressman from Nuevo León, the 44-year old Mario Ríos, was assassinated while driving on a downtown street by gunmen firing at him from at least two cars, according to Wednesday's Seattle Times.
While the Mexican government claims the offensive is working, pointing to nearly a thousand arrests and numerous drug shipment seizures, the chorus is critics is growing. The popular left-leaning news weekly Proceso recently called the campaign "Calderón's Iraq." It isn't alone, on either side of the border.
"I don't think it's working at all," said Alex Sanchez, a Mexico analyst for the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "The problem is the way the cartels are structured. Taking out one guy, even a top leader, just leaves a vacuum that others fight to fill. There is a perpetual cycle of violence unless they can take down every single member of a cartel, from the top capos to the lowest drug runners," he said.
"Calderón says Mexico is winning, but his policies are just perpetuating all of this," said Sanchez. "It hasn't affected the flow of drugs from Mexico, so nothing has changed in that sense. What has changed is that the violence has reached a new level; there is essentially a civil war going on between the cartels and the government."
"The problem with this sort of strategy is that when you detain these capos, like Osiel Cárdenas of the Gulf Cartel, you get a power void inside the cartel and you see new violence as members of the cartel fight to replace him at the top," said Maureen Meyer, Washington Office on Latin America associate for Mexico and Central America. "You need a different strategy," Meyer argued. "They need to put a lot more emphasis on police reform, and there needs to be a lot more transparency and oversight," she said.
"There was a need to have a very strong response, given the level of violence that had been accumulating," said Meyer. "But it seems at least in the short term that it has not produced the results people wanted. What is Plan B?"
"It's just a big circus," said Mercedes Murillo, head of the state of Sinaloa's independent human rights organization, the Frente Cívico Sinaloense. "The US comes in and says 'Bravo! Look what he's doing!' but he isn't achieving anything," she said. "They began doing this without any investigations, and that's a big, big problem. They don't know where the traffickers are, they haven't really caught anyone important, but now they have soldiers and tanks in downtown, they have checkpoints with a hundred soldiers at the same time parents are taking their children to school. The soldiers break down doors and search homes without warrants, they break things and steal things, and sometimes they rape the women."
And sometimes they kill innocent people. That's what happened June 2 at a military checkpoint in Sinaloa when troops opened fire on a vehicle they claimed failed to stop and opened fire on them. But it wasn't drug traffickers, nobody fired on them, and five people were killed, including school teacher Griselda Galaviz Barraza, 25, and her three young children. The Mexican military has arrested three officers and 16 soldiers in the case, but that has done little to assuage concerns about human rights violations by the military.
"And now they are killing people," Murillo said. "Instead of bringing out the military, they should be investigating where the money comes from. We don't have any real industry here, but you ought to see all the luxury cars, the luxury homes, the boats, the jewelry. Why can't they figure out where the money is coming from?"
Popular newspaper columnist Sergio Sarmiento, writing in Reforma, said the Sinaloa incident showed that innocents were being killed in the drug war. "The idea that drug dealers and the people close to them are the only people caught up in the violence we are living in Mexico is a silly lie made up to keep the population calm," Sarmiento wrote. "We are in the midst of war... a struggle in which two sides face off without any concern or thought about the civilian population."
The official Mexican National Commission on Human Rights has criticized the government for using the military in domestic law enforcement. The non-governmental national human rights organization the Centro de Derechos Humanos "Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez" is also raising the alarm about widespread military searches and detentions in Michoacan. American analysts are also raising concerns about the use of the military.
"The very strong military presence in these operations concerns us," said Meyer. "While it is understandable, we hope that reforming the police would effect a transfer from the military to the police in these operations. We are now seeing some of the unfortunate results of relying on the military to do law enforcement. What happened in Sinaloa is a very clear example of the risk of using the military trained for combat as opposed to a police force trained to use the least force possible."
"Soldiers are soldiers, they're not supposed to be used as a domestic police force, they're trained to fight an enemy," said Sanchez. "They're scaring the whole population, but they're just being themselves. The Mexican police are not capable of battling the cartels, but if you bring in the military, that will mean human rights violations."
"Mexico is at the greatest risk of any country in Latin America, warned COHA executive director Larry Birns. "You have the convergence of endemic and systematic corruption -- the corruption of the security forces is approaching Iraqi standards -- mated to a fragile political system with an unpopular president, and the near unraveling of civil society. For the average Mexican on the average day, law and order doesn't exist," he told the Chronicle.
Mexico blames the cartel problem on the demand for drugs in the US. "I have argued that this is a shared problem between the United States and Mexico," Calderon said last week. "The principal cause... is the use of drugs. And the US is the prime consumer in the world."
The prohibition-related violence in Mexico could also have an impact on US domestic politics. "This is becoming a real security problem for the US as we approach the latter phases of NAFTA," COHA's Birns argued. "The truck inspections will be more minimal, and the situation will compromise drug policy all along the border. It will also provide rhetorical weapons for those skeptical of any kind of open borders or amnesty program for undocumented workers. Open borders would mean near unrestricted infiltration of drugs and traffickers into the United States."
With neither government willing to address the root cause of the problem -- drug prohibition -- this year's drug war in Mexico is going to look a lot like next year's and the year after that. The only difference appears to be ever-escalating levels of violence, gruesomeness, and brutality.