Mexico urged to change drug war strategy

US-backed plan not working, say political leaders

Soldiers stood at attention at the military base in Morelia, Michoacan, earlier this month. Authorities have arrested 76,765 suspected drug traffickers since December 2006. Soldiers stood at attention at the military base in Morelia, Michoacan, earlier this month. Authorities have arrested 76,765 suspected drug traffickers since December 2006. (Eliana Aponte/Reuters)
By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post / July 29, 2009

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MEXICO CITY - President Felipe Calderon is under growing pressure to overhaul a US-backed antinarcotics strategy that many political leaders and analysts said is failing amid stunning drug cartel assaults against the government.

There are now sustained calls in Mexico for a change in tactics, even from allies within Calderon’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 Ramon Galindo, a senator and Calderon supporter who is a former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, a border city where more than 1,100 people have been killed this year.

US officials said they now believe Mexico faces a longer and bloodier campaign than anticipated and is likely to require more American aid. US 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 is next 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.’’

US and Mexican government officials say the military strategy, while difficult, is working. Since Calderon 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. Calderon’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 Gomez 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, Calderon 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. Last Wednesday, a man eating lunch at a Denny’s restaurant across the street from the US Consulate was shot six times in the head by three gunmen.

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

Hector 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 Calderon 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,’’ Gomez 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, Gomez Mont said that to ease up now would be to sanction criminal behavior and its corrupting influence on Mexican society.

“We know we are right,’’ he said. “Do I have to accept corruption as a way of stabilizing our society? No. I have to act.’’