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New Strategy Urged in Mexico
Calderón's U.S.-Backed War Against Drug Cartels Losing Political Support

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.

Héctor Hawley Morelos, the state forensics chief for Juarez, said he expects this year to be bloodier than the last. He said the soldiers don't help solve crime cases and often get in the way of investigations.

But Calderón has no intention of changing course, according to senior Mexican officials. In some respects, the government has become more combative. After a La Familia leader called a television station and said the cartel was "open to dialogue," Gómez Mont vowed that the government would never strike a deal with the traffickers.

"We're waiting for you," he warned La Familia.

In the interview, Gómez Mont said that to ease up now would be to sanction criminal behavior and its corrupting influence on Mexican society.

"We have to do this while we are strong enough to do it," he said. "We know we are right. Do I have to accept corruption as a way of stabilizing our society? No. I have to act."

"This battle is a full frontal assault," Monte Alejandro Rubido, Calderon's senior adviser on drug policy on Mexico's National Security Council, said in an interview. "There are no alternatives."

Calderón is highly regarded in U.S. law enforcement circles for declaring war on the traffickers and increasing cooperation between the two governments. Asked whether he would make any changes to the Mexican president's strategy, Anthony Placido, chief of intelligence for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, replied: "None."

But Placido said he was concerned that Calderón was fighting not only well-entrenched criminal organizations. "He's also fighting the clock," Placido said. "Public support for this can't remain high forever. He's really got to deliver a death blow, or significant body blow, in the short term to keep the public engaged."

Calderón appears to be increasingly isolated in Mexico, weakened by his party's defeat in recent mid-term elections and by the relentless carnage. The cover of the influential news magazine Proceso this week featured a photo of the 12 federal agents, their bound and mutilated corpses in a pile, beneath the headline: "Calderón's War."

"The president feels alone, and he told me that personally," said Galindo, the senator, who belongs to Calderón's conservative National Action Party.

Galindo said he urged Calderón to change course. Instead of relying on the army to destroy the cartels, he said, the federal government should work to strengthen local communities that are most vulnerable to the traffickers.

"Every day that we delay making these communities more self-sufficient, it is going to become more difficult to find good people prepared to serve as mayor in any city -- no matter how large or small -- because it's like a death sentence," he said.

Dan Lund, president of the MUND Group polling organization, said public support for Calderón's strategy appears to be weakest in the places where the federal government needs it most. "In a series of national surveys, polls consistently have found a reasonable but cautious level of support for using the military in the front lines against the cartels," he said. "But in all the states where the military is actually deployed, the support goes down, sometimes dramatically."

The situation has been exacerbated by the global economic crisis, which has cast millions of Mexicans into poverty. José Luis Piñeyro, a Mexican military analyst who maintains close ties with the armed forces, said rising unemployment and poverty "is creating what I call an 'army in reserve,' " for the traffickers.

In Michoacan, La Familia has used the media to try to align itself with the disenfranchised. After the recent attacks, one of its leaders, Servando Gómez, called a local television station and told viewers: "I want to say to all Michoacanans, we love them and respect them."

"Everyone here has known us since we were kids," said Gómez, who is known as "La Tuta." "We are with the people of Michoacan."

Carlos Heredia, a former Michoacan official who now works as an analyst at a Mexico City think tank, said the government's iron-fisted approach is a recipe for failure in regions where mistrust of the government is high.

"You don't have the hearts and minds of the local population," Heredia said. "And if the local drug lords play Robin Hood, then you are lost. Because the people are ultimately going to say, 'What do those officials in Mexico City care about us? They despise us. And these drug guys, at least they give us something.' "

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