New Strategy Urged in Mexico

In a typical evening in Ciudad Juarez, scores of dead bodies show up on the streets. The killings underscore the recent turn in public opinion against Mexican President Felipe Calderon's U.S.-backed anti-narcotics strategy, as the number of drug-related murders passed 12,000 this July.
By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- President Felipe Calderón is under growing pressure to overhaul a U.S.-backed anti-narcotics strategy that many political leaders and analysts said is failing amid spectacular drug cartel assaults against the government.

There are now sustained calls in Mexico for a change in tactics, even from allies within Calderón's political party, who say the deployment of 45,000 soldiers to fight the cartels is a flawed plan that relies too heavily on the blunt force of the military to stem soaring violence and lawlessness.

"The people of Mexico are losing hope, and it is urgent that Congress, the political parties and the president reconsider this strategy," said Ramón Galindo, a senator and Calderón supporter who is a former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, a border city where more than 1,100 people have been killed this year.

U.S. officials said they now believe Mexico faces a longer and bloodier campaign than anticipated and is likely to require more American aid. U.S. and Mexican officials increasingly draw comparisons to Colombia, where from 2000 to 2006 the United States spent $6 billion to help neutralize the cartels that once dominated the drug trade. While violence is sharply down in Colombia, cocaine production is up.

Mexico, nearly twice Colombia's size, faces a more daunting challenge, many officials and analysts said , in part because it sits adjacent to the United States, the largest illegal drug market in the world. In addition, at least seven major cartels are able to recruit from Mexico's swelling ranks of impoverished youth and thousands of disenfranchised soldiers and police officers.

"The question is whether the country can withstand another three years of this, with violence that undermines the credibility of the government," said Carlos Flores, who has studied the drug war extensively for Mexico City's Center for Investigations and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology. "I'd like to be more optimistic, but what I see is more of the same polarizing and failed strategy."

U.S. and Mexican government officials say the military strategy, while difficult, is working. Since Calderón took office in December 2006, authorities have arrested 76,765 suspected drug traffickers at all levels and have extradited 187 cartel members to the United States. Calderón's security advisers said they have few options besides the army -- as they just begin to vet and retrain the police forces they say will ultimately take over the fight.

"No one has told us what alternative we have," said Interior Minister Fernando Gómez Mont, gently slapping his palm on a table during an interview. "We are committed to enduring this wave of violence. We are strengthening our ability to protect the innocent victims of this process, which is the most important thing. We will not look the other way."

Drug-related deaths during the 2 1/2 years of Calderon's administration passed 12,000 this month. Rather than shrinking or growing weaker, the Mexican cartels are using their wealth and increasing power to expand into Central America, cocaine-producing regions of the Andes and maritime trafficking routes in the eastern Pacific, according to law enforcement authorities.

In Mexico, neither high-profile arrests nor mass troop deployments have stopped the cartels from unleashing spectacular acts of violence. This month, the cartel called La Familia launched three days of coordinated attacks in eight cities in the western state of Michoacan. Responding to the arrest of one its leaders, La Familia abducted, tortured and killed a dozen federal agents; their corpses were found piled up beside a highway.

In Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Calderón flooded the city with 10,000 troops and federal police officers in February in an effort to stem runaway violence. After a two-month lull, drug-related homicides surged 307 percent, to nearly eight killings a day in June. On Wednesday, a man eating lunch at a Denny's restaurant across the street from the U.S. Consulate was shot six times in the head by a trio of gunmen.

Lawmakers in Chihuahua state, where Juarez is located, debated this month whether Calderón's surge was "a total failure." Antonio Andreu, president of the state legislature's commission on security, said it appears that drug gangs have infiltrated the military's intelligence networks and figured out how to circumvent the gauntlet of security forces in Juarez.

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