As Mexico Battles Cartels, The Army Becomes the Law

By Steve Fainaru and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 2, 2009

PETATLAN, Mexico -- President Felipe Calderón is rapidly escalating the Mexican army's role in the war against drug traffickers, deploying nearly 50 percent of its combat-ready troops along the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the country, while retired army officers take command of local police forces and the military supplies civilian authorities with automatic weapons and grenades.

U.S. and Mexican officials describe the drug cartels as a widening narco-insurgency. The four major drug states average a total of 12 murders a day, characterized by ambushes, gun battles, executions and decapitated bodies left by the side of the road. In the villages and cities where the traffickers hold sway, daily life now takes place against a martial backdrop of round-the-clock patrols, pre-dawn raids and roadblocks manned by masked young soldiers.

Calderón's deployment of about 45,000 troops to fight the cartels represents a historic change. Previous administrations relied on Mexico's traditionally weak police agencies to combat the traffickers, who funnel 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States. The cartels corrupted local authorities and reached tacit agreements with the national government, limiting the violence while the drugs continued to flow.

After Calderón became president in December 2006, he told Mexicans that the use of the military against the cartels would be limited and brief. But it is now the centerpiece of his anti-narcotics strategy, according to interviews with senior U.S. and Mexican officials and dozens of people on the front lines of the war.

"It can be traumatic to have the army in control of public security, but I am convinced that we don't have a better alternative, even with all the risks that it implies," said Monte Alejandro Rubido, a senior public security official who is overseeing the overhaul of Mexico's police forces.

The military's withdrawal is dependent on the success of the police reforms, according to the government. U.S. and Mexican officials predict that troops will be patrolling the streets for years. In many regions, the army has become the law. But rather than quelling the violence, it increasingly appears to have been drawn into a deepening morass of cartel rivalries, local political disputes and blood feuds.

In the southern state of Guerrero, the army ratcheted up security last year, killing several alleged drug traffickers and making dozens of arrests. That was followed by a two-month stretch in which nine soldiers were abducted and decapitated in the state capital, four policemen were incinerated in a daylight grenade attack near a beach resort and a former mayor was shot 24 times before 1,000 people packed into a plaza for the coronation of a town beauty queen.

Mexicans have greeted the unprecedented deployment of federal troops in their communities with a mix of gratitude and dismay.

"There are a lot of opinions. I personally feel more secure to see the army out in the streets," said Denis González Sánchez, a 29-year-old city administrator in Petatlan, a Guerrero beach town of 30,000 where the army began patrols last year after three dozen gunmen massacred the family of a former mayor accused of links to traffickers. "A lot of people feel exactly the opposite: They say that the army is making us less secure. But I always think it's better knowing that they are out there protecting us, that they are watching over us, when there is nobody else to do it."

Mexican officials say the cartels operate on a $10 billion annual budget earned from drug sales in the United States; according to U.S. government estimates, they employ 150,000 people. This year, the Mexican government will spend $9.3 billion on national security, a 99 percent increase since Calderón took office.

Since December 2006, more than 10,100 people have been killed in the strife, including 917 police officers, soldiers, prosecutors and political leaders, according to Milenio, a Mexican media organization. At the same time, human rights complaints against the army have surged 576 percent, according to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, including allegations of unlawful detentions, forced disappearances, rape and torture.

A 'Courageous Step'

Calderón and his advisers have described the military's deployment as an emergency measure while he seeks to reform Mexico's local, state and federal police forces. He has promised that when the new police forces are ready, the troops will return to their barracks. That process may take until the end of his six-year term in 2012, he said recently.

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