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Drug Trade Tyranny on The Border

Drawing on firepower, savage intimidation, and cash, drug cartels have come to control key parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, as Mexican troops wage a multi-front war with the private armies of rival drug lords.

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 16, 2008

TIJUANA, Mexico

The killers prowled through Loma Bonita in the pre-dawn chill.

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In silence, they navigated a labyrinth of wood shacks at the crest of a dirt lane in the blighted Tijuana neighborhood, police say. They were looking for Margarito Saldaña, an easygoing 43-year-old district police commander. They found a house full of sleeping people.

Neighbors quivered at the crack of AK-47 assault rifles blasting inside Saldaña's tiny home. Rafael García, an unemployed laborer who lives nearby, recalled thinking it was "a fireworks show," then sliding under his bed in fear.

In murdering not only Saldaña, but also his wife, Sandra, and their 12-year-old daughter, Valeria, the Loma Bonita killers violated a rarely broken rule of Mexico's drug cartel underworld: Family should remain free from harm. The slayings capped five harrowing hours during which the assassins methodically hunted down and murdered two other police officers and mistakenly killed a 3-year-old boy and his mother.

The brutality of what unfolded here in the overnight hours of Jan. 14 and early Jan. 15 is a grim hallmark of a crisis that has cast a pall over the United States' southern neighbor. Events in three border cities over the past three months illustrate the military and financial power of Mexico's cartels and the extent of their reach into a society shaken by fear.

More than 20,000 Mexican troops and federal police are engaged in a multi-front war with the private armies of rival drug lords, a conflict that is being waged most fiercely along the 2,000-mile length of the U.S.-Mexico border. The proximity of the violence has drawn in the Bush administration, which has proposed a $500 million annual aid package to help President Felipe Calder¿n combat what a Government Accountability Office report estimates is Mexico's $23 billion a year drug trade.

A total of more than 4,800 Mexicans were slain in 2006 and 2007, making the murder rate in each of those years twice that of 2005. Law enforcement officials and journalists, politicians and peasants have been gunned down in the wave of violence, which includes mass executions, such as the killings of five people whose bodies were found on a ranch outside Tijuana this month.

Like the increasing number of Mexicans heading over the border in fear, the violence itself is spilling into the United States, where a Border Patrol agent was recently killed while trying to stop suspected traffickers.

Drawing on firepower, savage intimidation and cash, the cartels have come to control key parts of the border, securing smuggling routes for 90 percent of the cocaine flowing into the United States, according to the State Department. At the same time, Mexican soldiers roam streets in armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters patrol the skies, and boats ply the coastal waters.

"The situation is deteriorating," Victor Clark, a Tijuana human rights activist and drug expert, said in an interview. "Drug traffickers are waging a terror campaign. The security of the nation is at stake."

Dominated by a Private Army

More than 1,900 miles southeast of Tijuana, the city of Reynosa stretches along the Rio Grande across from south Texas. This is Gulf cartel country, a region dominated by the cartel's private army, Los Zetas. Their arsenal befits a military brigade, exceeding those of some Mexican army units.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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