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Calderón's Offensive Against Drug Cartels

"My hand won't tremble" in acting firmly to stop the crime that is holding Mexicans hostage, Calderón said repeatedly.

On Dec. 11, 10 days after taking office, Calderón launched the first of six military operations, sending more than 6,000 federal troops and police officers to his home state of Michoacan. The next day, a cousin of first lady Margarita Zavala was found murdered in the trunk of a car outside Mexico City -- a killing that some suspect was retribution by drug gangs. Undaunted, Calderón sent a force of 3,000 to Tijuana three weeks later.

The day after the Tijuana raid became a signal moment in Calderón's drug war. He donned a khaki hat and military uniform to review his troops in the city of Apatzingan, purportedly the first time in a century that a Mexican president had dressed in military attire. Columnists fretted that he would turn Mexico into a military state. Others mocked the hang of a baggy uniform on the diminutive, unathletic Calderón.

"He looked pathetic," Sen. Graco Ramírez -- a Calderón nemesis who is the son, grandson and brother of Mexican army generals -- sniffed during a recent interview at Mexico's legislative palace.

Ramírez is more than a fashion critic; he and other members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party are among the leaders of a push to declare the use of the military in drug raids unconstitutional. Medina Mora counters that under the Mexican constitution, the armed forces "have not only the power but the duty to preserve internal order."

Calderón dismissed the criticisms. In February, he announced a 45 percent pay increase for the army, a move that contrasted neatly with a decision to lower his own salary by 10 percent and abolish pensions for Mexican presidents.

Admirers in the U.S.

In the six months since he first appeared in a military uniform, Calderón has sent thousands of troops to the infamous drug zones of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua, known as the Golden Triangle, and to Acapulco, Veracruz and the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, home to Mexico's industrial capital, Monterrey. The soldiers operate roadblocks, cordon off urban areas for house-to-house searches and often engage heavily armed drug dealers in gun battles.

The troops have arrested more than 580 people, according to the government, though only one would qualify as a major figure. Since the military campaign began, 19 troops and 168 police officers have been killed; more than 1,080 civilian deaths have been recorded, though most of those were the result of infighting among cartels.

Analysts say it is too soon to tell whether the military operations will have a long-term effect. Execution-style killings have decreased somewhat in recent weeks, but some news reports attribute that to what they call a truce between warring cartels; Medina Mora credits the military and said there was no evidence of such a truce.

None of the deaths has resonated like five that occurred mistakenly June 2, when soldiers shot two unarmed women and three children at a roadblock in the northern state of Sonora. The killings set off fierce criticism in Mexico, but Calderón has kept to his military strategy.

The approach has won admirers in the United States, where law enforcement agencies have long pushed for Mexico to confront drug cartels more aggressively.

That positive reception comes at a potentially critical moment in U.S.-Mexico talks to dramatically increase American aid.

News accounts originally compared the Mexican initiative to the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia, an extensive aid package designed to eradicate coca and erode support for Marxist rebels. Mexican diplomats scrambled to note that their proposal differed in one key way: It does not contemplate a U.S. military presence similar to the one in Colombia. Any hint that U.S. troops would operate in Mexico is wildly inflammatory here; people still bear historical wounds from the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

María Eugenia Campos Galván, chairwoman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the lower house of Mexico's Congress, said in an interview that Mexican authorities have considered asking for as much as $1 billion. U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, is pushing for a major commitment of U.S. dollars.

"If we're smart, it'll be very high," Reyes said in an interview.

Mexican authorities say they've demonstrated cooperation by sharply increasing extraditions -- already in 2007 breaking Mexico's annual record with 63 extraditions in the first six months of the year. They are hoping the United States will reciprocate by paying for additional training and equipment, including technology that would allow for instant transfer of information between law enforcement officials on each side of the border. Calderón, in particular, is suggesting that the United States has an obligation to help with Mexico's law enforcement costs because of the extent of Americans' illegal drug use.

The talks have been complicated by sensitivities in the United States related to Mexico as Capitol Hill lawmakers were debating immigration proposals.

"When there was a school shooting over in Russia, I got e-mails saying, 'That's why we need a wall on the Mexican border,' " Reyes said. "Regardless of what we do, there are going to be those who try to politicize it."

Mexican authorities are well aware that political tensions could delay or scuttle proposals for more U.S. aid. For now, they are preparing for months, maybe years, of military battles with drug leaders without more help from the United States and for long Monday mornings in the presidential library.

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