After 5 years, Mexico’s drug war still rages

December 10, 2011

On Dec. 1, 2006, within hours of taking office after the closest real election in Mexican history, President Felipe Calderon ordered his military and police to confront the drug-trafficking and criminal organizations flourishing in his home state.

Joint Operation Michoacan began immediately. In a blunt demonstration of force, the government threw everything it had into play: 4,260 soldiers, 1,054 marines and 1,400 federal police officers, along with dozens of airplanes and helicopters.

The take? A hundred marijuana farms, 13 alleged traffickers, 5,000 pounds of cocaine, 20 tons of cold medicine used to make meth and a handful of AK-47s.

The interior minister at the time, Francisco Javier Ramirez Acuna, told Mexicans that the operation had been launched to protect their children, reclaim public space, end impunity for criminals, and return peace and tranquility to their communities. Curbing drug traffic appeared to be less of a priority.

Five years later, Calderon’s U.S.-backed war rages on, and despite victories here and there, many Mexicans would say Ramirez Acuna’s objectives have not been met.

Impunity reigns. The El Diario newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, dubbed “Murder City,” reported last month that 6,000 homicides since 2008 that have been linked to organized crime are not being investigated because state and federal prosecutors are bickering over jurisdiction.

Nobody wants the cases.

Calderon promised that the military would be a temporary solution, as the corrupt federal police force was culled and reformed. Today, with U.S. help in training at academies, the country has more than 30,000 new or retrained federal police officers. Yet 50,000 troops continue to patrol the streets and will do so until the end of Calderon’s six-year term next year.

But not without a price.

After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch reported last month credible evidence that the security forces, led by the military, were responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings in the five states they studied.

Just this week, a U.S. parole commission concluded that a young American who had been arrested by Mexican soldiers for allegedly carrying suitcases containing marijuana in Ciudad Juarez, on his way home to El Paso, was tortured in Mexico. Extradited a year later, he was freed by a U.S. court.

Meanwhile, the drugs keep flowing. Seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border indicate that marijuana and heroin are moving north unchecked, although in a rare piece of good news, cocaine sales in the United States appear to be down.

And the death toll in Mexico continues to mount.

No one knows exactly how many people have died in this war. The government released a tally of “deaths due to criminal rivalry” late last year, a total of 34,612. Despite promises of updates, it has been silent since.

Newspaper tallies, estimates by academics and testimony by U.S. anti-narcotics officials put the current toll somewhere between 45,000 and 60,000.

Calderon argues, correctly, that the homicide rates in many countries are much higher than Mexico’s. But it is impossible to overstate the extent, and barbarity, of the violence here.

In Mexico, a mutilated woman hung from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo is a one-day story, quickly forgotten. Five severed human heads dumped near an elementary school in Acapulco is a five-paragraph news item. Whose heads? Why?

It is also easy to forget that vast regions of Mexico, especially the tourist zones and Mexico City, remain calm and mostly safe. Yet no place seems immune.

New social networks have sprung up to cover the mayhem, as newspapers and TV stations stop carrying news. Citizens report rumors, fears, crimes, road blocks via Facebook and Twitter — and then are killed for posting. Some of the most popular blogs in the country display graphic videos, snuff films and photographs of torture, forced confessions and decapitation.

Psychologists here have begun to suspect that the population is suffering from a kind of collective post-traumatic stress.

The national human rights commission reports that the government has unearthed 310 mass graves since 2007, containing the remains of 1,230 people.

In April in the border state of Tamaulipas, beside pits dug with a backhoe, investigators found a sledge hammer, and medical examiners concluded that most of the 200 buried there had been bludgeoned to death. The majority of those victims were innocent migrants from Mexico and Central America.

Illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States is at a near-record low. Experts attribute that to the sluggish U.S. economy. But many Mexicans say that the one reason keeping them home is that they’re scared of crossing their own country.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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