MEXICO CITY — As a tactical matter, the gangsters and government security forces fighting Mexico’s drug war have typically opted for the spectacular over the subtle.
Massacres, beheadings and other unspeakable cruelties became cartels’ preferred form of violence. In response, the government sent masked troops with machine guns to patrol Mexico’s streets and paraded its captured drug suspects on television like hunting trophies.
But in the past few months, that has changed. Mexico’s drug war has gone quiet.
Not less lethal. Just less loud.
The country’s drug-related homicide numbers remain essentially undiminished. More than 12,000 people were murdered last year in gangland violence, according to the latest Mexican media tallies, roughly the same number that were slain in 2010 and 2011.
Yet polls show public perceptions of security improving. Nearly six months have gone by since gangsters have staged one of the large-scale massacres seemingly devised for maximum shock and terror, like the slaughter of 72 kidnapped migrants near the U.S. border in August 2010 or the time killers dumped 49 human torsos along a highway last May.
Grenade attacks, car bombs and wild urban gun battles have also become more rare. In one especially telling shift, Mexico’s military says the number of attacks on its soldiers dropped more than 50 percent last year, a sign that traffickers were looking to avoid — not ambush — army patrols.
“They’re still fighting each other, but the last thing the criminals want to do right now is confront the military,” said Martin Barron Cruz, an analyst at Mexico’s National Institute of Criminal Sciences. “They have learned that spectacular acts of violence only bring more pressure to bear on them.”
The change appears to be a tactical decision, Barron and other security experts say, as cartel bosses increasingly eschew the kind of open warfare and extravagant barbarity that defined the drug war in 2010 and 2011.
The gore, it seems, was bad for business. A sickened Mexican public has backed the deployment of more and more troops and federal police, bringing new highway checkpoints and additional pressures on the gangsters that drive up the costs of smuggling drugs, most of which are bound for the United States.
Another mass killing or elaborate ambush could happen at any moment, of course. Violence has flared in recent weeks in the gritty cement-block barrios that ring Mexico City. And in northern Mexico last week, gunmen barged into a private party and kidnapped 18 musicians and crew members from the band Kombo Kolombia. One band member escaped; the other 17 were shot and thrown down a well.
But in general, while the cartels are still killing each other at almost the same clip, they’re doing it more quietly and in areas of the country where they’re drawing less attention.
It is a strategy that the Mexican government appears to have adopted as well, in its own way.
Just as the traffickers have lowered the visibility of the violence, so has the administration of Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, made the drug fight the central focus of his presidency and his public statements. But since taking office on Dec. 1, Peña Nieto has looked to change the conversation — by talking about trade, poverty reduction, and education and energy reform.
Peña Nieto has also instructed Mexican security forces to curb the practice of dragging handcuffed criminal suspects and alleged traffickers in front of the television cameras before they’ve been charged, a custom known as “presentation” that was a near-daily feature under the previous administration.
These perp-walks often exhibited suspects with fat lips, facial bruises and other signs of rough treatment by authorities.
But if the spectacle was used by Calderon and his predecessors to show the public they were winning the war, Peña Nieto’s decision to end it is meant to signal a new approach.
Officials in his administration say the sight of suspects smirking defiantly as authorities read aloud their criminal aliases — monikers like “Tweety Bird,” “Barbie” and “The Moustache” — sent the wrong message, especially since many later go free for lack of evidence.
Peña Nieto’s government says it wants to focus on securing criminal convictions and protecting judicial integrity, not making Mexico’s bad guys into TV personalities.
Still, the government’s effort to shift the public conversation away from drug violence is a risky one, analysts say, given the lingering perception that Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was corrupt and soft on the cartels when it ran Mexico for much of the 20th century.
Peña Nieto assures U.S. officials he will press on with the drug fight and forge ahead with implementation of the $2 billion security assistance package from Washington known as the Merida Initiative.
But he has also sent the message that his administration wants its relationship with the United States to be about more than drugs, said Eric Olson, a Mexico scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“The question is: In doing that, does the urgency of dealing with security issues fall off the agenda?” Olson said. “Or the urgency of judicial reform, modernizing the police and reforming the prison system?”
“He’s walking a fine line,” he said.
The more discreet violence is giving the new administration a chance to talk publicly about other issues — something that isn’t possible when authorities are busy cleaning up after a mass murder or political assassination.
According to tallies by the Mexican media organization Milenio, the number of drug-related homicides in December 2012 — Peña Nieto’s first month in office — was actually higher than during the same month in previous years.
The Mexican government no longer releases its own body count estimate. But Peña Nieto insisted during his presidential campaign his success should be judged according to whether he’s able to slow the pace of the killings.
It’s a goal that leaves him boxed in, since the reforms he has proposed — including a massive reorganization of state-level and federal police forces — will take years to implement, said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official who is now a security analyst at the think tank Mexico Evalua.
“If he doesn’t bring down violence, he fails,” Hope said. “But nothing that he has proposed will do that in the short term.”
And if the cartels commit another huge massacre or deadly ambush on federal forces, Peña Nieto may be forced to turn his attention back toward the fight.
“There’s more availability of drugs and more availability of guns, and if that doesn’t change, we’ll continue to see the same trends,” said Alberto Islas, a security expert at the consulting firm Risk Evaluation.
For now though, the new president seems to have some breathing room, partly the result of quieter times in the big border cities that have long been red zones, such as Tijuana and shell-shocked Ciudad Juarez, where the murder rate has dropped nearly 80 percent since 2010, when more than 3,100 were killed.
Local authorities in those cities say their police reforms are paying off and that they have purged their ranks of corrupt officers. Federal forces say they’ve weakened the cartels by taking out many of their top leaders.
But analysts say the violence has simply moved elsewhere, to new flash points in central-northern Mexican cities, like Torreon, that are hundreds of miles south of the border but strategic for control over lucrative smuggling routes.
“There may be a perception, on a national level, that security has improved. But not here,” said Javier Garza, editor of the newspaper El Siglo de Torreon.
It’s one of the places where Mexico’s two most powerful cartels are crashing into each other. The Sinaloa Cartel controls much of western Mexico and the Pacific. The Zetas dominate the country’s eastern states and the Gulf Coast.
Torreon had 114 murders in December 2012, Garza said, its second-worst month for the year. In 2012, nearly 1,100 people were slain in the city, a record.
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.