But if the government sees victory at hand, the reality in the hot farmlands and mountain hamlets in the western state of Michoacan feels very different.
Wary locals say that little has changed. Their state continues to resemble an occupied zone. Three municipal police chiefs have been executed in Michoacan this year, the most recent three weeks ago. Military units and gunmen lighted up the night with a firefight at an isolated village Tuesday, leaving four dead. On Wednesday, the naked, tortured bodies of four people were found dumped along a roadside.
With just 18 months left in his six-year term, President Felipe Calderon is desperate to show that his U.S.-backed strategy of sending thousands of soldiers and police to fight the traffickers is working and that his government can calm the storm of gruesome violence that has killed more than 35,000 people and threatens the nation’s stability.
In December, when Mexican and U.S. agents heard on their wiretaps that bosses of the La Familia drug cartel and hundreds of their followers were gathering to party at a ranch south of this busy farm town, authorities gave the order: Capture or kill.
What followed was the most aggressive assault seen in four years of Mexico’s drug war. Over two days, 800 federal agents in helicopters and armored vehicles battled cartel gunmen through lemon groves and along rural roads, as residents barricaded themselves indoors.
By the end, government forces said they had shot dead La Familia’s founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, a messianic folk hero known as “El Mas Loco” (the Craziest One) who had become the largest supplier of methamphetamine to the United States.
“We gave La Familia the biggest blow in their history,” a triumphant Calderon declared.
A month after the December raids against La Familia, banners hung from highway overpasses announcing the cartel was disbanding.
It was a lie. La Familia is still very much here.
‘Nothing has changed’
At the fire station here in Apatzingan, where La Familia was born, supervisor David Olivera described how he still must call ahead to ask La Familia representatives for permission to send ambulances to gather the sick and injured.
Olivera is also the managing editor of a local newspaper, La Voz de Michoacan, and said his reporters cannot cross the river to cartel-controlled towns without a military escort.
According to Calderon’s security officials, Moreno’s death and the killing or arrest of top crime bosses of other cartels in the past year is proof that they are finally winning the war against the cartels. Their evidence: Twenty of the 37 most-wanted drug lords in Mexico are dead or behind bars.