By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; A01
MEXICO CITY -- An explosion of drug violence in Mexico has killed hundreds of people in the past five days and prompted the country's president to issue a 5,000-word manifesto warning that the fight against organized crime must continue "or we will always live in fear."
As the latest spasm of killing has spread across the country, cartel assassins, local thugs and federal troops have died in running gun battles, highway ambushes and prison melees. On Tuesday, shooting broke out in the popular tourist town of Taxco, south of the Mexican capital. Mexican army troops, acting on a tip, raided a house and a firefight ensued, leaving 14 gunmen dead.
The string of grisly attacks since Thursday has included the execution-style killing of 19 drug addicts in a rehabilitation clinic and several assaults targeting police, including an ambush this week that killed 12 federal officers.
In an editorial printed in newspapers nationwide Monday, President Felipe Calderón defended his drug war as vital to the country's security. More than 23,000 people have died in drug-related violence since December 2006, when Calderón first sent the Mexican military into the streets, according to a government report.
The president directly blamed the United States.
"The origin of our violence problem begins with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest levels of drug consumption in the world," Calderón wrote. "It is as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world."
The cartels, he said, have grown rich and bold -- fed with billions of dollars from the United States. Experts estimate that $10 billion to $25 billion in drug profits flow to Mexico each year from the north. About 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States passes through Mexico, which also smuggles at least half of the marijuana and methamphetamine sold in U.S. cities. Meanwhile, many of the weapons the cartels use, including grenades and military-style assault rifles, are smuggled into Mexico from the United States.
Calderón told his country that Mexico would be in a much worse state if his administration had not taken on the criminal gangs. It is a battle that is supported by the Obama administration and Congress, which has dedicated $1.3 billion in aid to train police, reform the courts, and supply drug-sniffing dogs, armored cars, night-vision goggles and Black Hawk military helicopters.
Several hundred Mexicans have been killed in confrontations in the past week in some of the worst violence since the U.S.-backed drug war began.
The Mexican newspapers that keep running tallies of drug-related violence reported last week that a record was set when 85 people died in a 24-hour period, topping the previous record from November 2008, when 58 were killed over a similar period.
But the pace of killing quickened. On Monday, El Universal newspaper reported that 96 people in seven states died, and another record was set.
The attacks began Thursday when two dozen gunmen stormed into the Faith and Life drug rehabilitation center in the northern state of Chihuahua, forced the patients onto the floor or against the wall and killed 19 of them. The dead ranged in age from 16 to 63.
One of the teenagers managed to make a cellphone call to his home, shouting: -- "Mommy, they've come to kill us!"
Violence against addicts at rehab centers, where patients are often low-level workers in the drug trade, is increasingly common in Mexico.
Calderón later issued a statement from Johannesburg, where he was attending the opening of the World Cup, decrying "the barbaric acts."
On Monday, gunmen killed 15 federal police officers in separate attacks in two states known for heavy narcotics trafficking. In the mountainous state of Michoacan, west of Mexico City, mafia assassins used burning buses to block a major highway and ambush a convoy of police returning to the capital, killing 12 officers and wounding at least eight others.
Also Monday, 29 prisoners from rival gangs attacked one another with pistols, an assault rifle and knives in the Mazatlan jail in the western state of Sinaloa, home to Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. The billionaire cartel boss, whom Forbes magazine has named one of the richest men in Mexico, is among the most wanted fugitives there and in the United States.
Prison officials said that 18 inmates were killed in initial assaults and that 11 others died of stab wounds and beatings when fighting spread to other cell blocks.
In Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, seven or eight people are killed in drug-related violence every day, often garnering only a few paragraphs in the local newspapers. Almost 1,200 people have died in Juarez this year.