An army convoy on the hunt for traffickers rolled out of its base recently in this border town under the control of the Gulf Cartel — and an ominous voice crackled over a two-way radio frequency to announce just that. The voice, belonging to a cartel spy, then broadcast the soldiers’ route through the city, turn by turn, using the same military language as the soldiers.
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“They’re following us,” Col. Juan José Gómez, who was monitoring the transmission from the front seat of an olive-green pickup truck, said with a shrug.
The presence of the informers, some of them former soldiers, highlights a central paradox in Mexico’s ambitious and bloody assault on the drug cartels that have ravaged the country. The nation has begun a war, but it cannot fully rely on the very institutions — the police, customs, the courts, the prisons, even the relatively clean army — most needed to carry it out.
The cartels bring in billions of dollars more than the Mexican government spends to defeat them, and they spend their wealth to bolster their ranks with an untold number of politicians, judges, prison guards and police officers — so many police officers, in fact, that entire forces in cities across Mexico have been disbanded and rebuilt from scratch.
Over the past year, the country’s top organized crime prosecutor has been arrested for receiving cartel cash, as was the director of Interpol in Mexico. The cartels even managed to slip a mole inside the United States Embassy. Those in important positions who have resisted taking cartel money are often shot to death, a powerful incentive to others who might be wavering.
This was a war started by Mexico, but supported — and in some ways undermined — by the United States. The template was made in the United States, a counternarcotics strategy originally designed for Colombia. Mexico is using American intelligence to track the traffickers and is awaiting a fleet of American helicopters and aircraft to pursue them, part of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid initiated by President George W. Bush and expanded in recent days by President Obama.
At the same time, American drug users are fueling demand for the drugs, and American guns are supplying the firepower wielded with such ferocity by Mexico’s cartels — a reality acknowledged by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her trip to Mexico last week.
With the prospect of a quick victory increasingly elusive, a rising chorus of voices on both sides of the border is questioning the cost and the fallout of the assault on the cartels.
Mexicans, aghast at the rising body count, the mutilated corpses on their streets and the swagger of the drug chieftains, wonder if they are paying too high a price in pursuing organized crime groups that have operated for generations on their soil. “Sometimes, I think this is a war you can’t really win,” a Mexican soldier whispered to a reporter, out of earshot of his commander, during a recent drug patrol in Reynosa. “You do what you can, but there’s so many more of them than us.”
Americans, including border state governors and military analysts in Washington, have begun to question whether the spillover violence presents a threat to their own national security, and, to the outrage of many Mexicans, whether the country itself will crumble under the strain of the war.
A War’s Origins
The impetus for the drug war began during President Felipe Calderón’s 2006 campaign.
Although the economy was the No. 1 issue, Mr. Calderón, a law-and-order technocrat, was paying attention to a steady rise in criminality early on. Mr. Calderón received threats on his life from drug cartels during the campaign, fueling his outrage, according to officials close to him. And he began to suspect that drug money was finding its way into political parties.
After a nail-biter of a victory, by about half of a percent of the 41 million ballots cast, so close that his main opponent still does not recognize it, Mr. Calderón opted to send the army into the streets to fight the drug cartels. He aimed for the bold step to win the support of the crime-weary population and to bolster his legitimacy as the president for all Mexicans.
While his contested election seemed to fade quickly from public discussion, the drug war proved a bigger headache. About 28 months down the line, the government trumpets record seizures of drugs, money and guns to show that it is striking serious blows against the traffickers.
As further evidence of success, the government cites the tens of thousands of arrests it has made of rank-and-file members of the four main Mexican cartels and of some of the kingpins leading them. Recently, three top traffickers have been arrested, including one accused of organizing an assault on the United States Consulate in Monterrey.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration says Mexico’s battle against drugs is clamping down on supplies, citing the doubling of cocaine prices in the United States over the past two years.
But violence has gone up, not down. Although Mexicans have largely backed Mr. Calderón’s efforts, the figure they seem most fixated on these days is the more than 6,200 drug-related killings in 2008, up more than 100 percent from 2007, and the more than 1,100 so far in 2009.
The deaths, many of them gruesome mutilations intended by the cartels to attract notice, come from dealers enforcing discipline within their ranks, from bitter turf battles among rival cartels and from clashes between criminals and the authorities. Prompting the most outrage, but representing the smallest number, are innocents struck down by stray bullets, enveloped by the ever-present drug war.
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While Mr. Calderón dismisses critiques suggesting that Mexico is a failed state, he and his aides have spoken bluntly of the cartels’ attempts to set up a state within a state, levying taxes, throwing up roadblocks and enforcing their own codes of behavior. The Mexican government says there are now 233 “zones of impunity,” areas where crime runs rampant, down from 2,204 zones a year ago.
Mr. Calderón and his security team argue that the violence shows the desperation of the cartels as the government dismantles them. The D.E.A. agrees that the cartels are in their death throes, but it says it expects the violence to get worse in the near future.
Any projection that tougher times are on the horizon alarms an already jittery public. Tougher than the head of the federal police killed by hitmen last year? Tougher than the heads of nine soldiers found in plastic bags? Tougher than the cartels flaunting their power by hanging banners on bridges listing their demands?
It has long been considered a Mexican cultural eccentricity that the country’s police officers are poorly paid and encouraged by supervisors to make ends meet through bribes. These days, however, those offering the biggest mordidas, as the illicit changing of money is known, are the traffickers, who Mr. Calderón’s administration acknowledges have thousands of police officers, small-town mayors and even high-level government officials across the country on their payroll, something now regarded as a full-fledged national crisis.
“Anybody could be a narco,” said a Mexican government official, using the Spanish slang for someone with links to the drug traffickers.
In fact, before the Mexican government names someone to a high-level antidrug post, it often runs the leading candidates by the D.E.A., which conducts background checks and lie-detector tests to ensure that the people about to be hired to fight criminals are not criminals themselves.
Even in normal times, when morgues are not overflowing, the bulk of Mexico’s crimes are never solved. One investigation found that only 24 of every 1,000 crimes reported to authorities resulted in suspects being sentenced. Of every 100 people taken into custody on suspicion of committing a crime, fewer than 4 were ever found guilty, the same study found. Evidence is mishandled, witnesses refuse to speak and the judiciary is manipulated.
The authorities often spotlight arrests, hauling the suspects before the cameras, and then quietly release them after the 80 days of investigation that Mexico’s system allows.
Mexicans long ago lost faith in their judicial authorities. One recent study found that about 90 percent of those who have been victims of a crime never reported the episode to the authorities, convinced it would do no good.
“I didn’t see anything,” is the national refrain, one that Mr. Calderón is chipping away at with anonymous tip lines and beefed-up rewards.
The United States government, which has set aside a portion of its aid money for so-called institution building and judicial reform in Mexico, recently estimated that 450,000 Mexicans were making their living in the drug industry, about one-third of them involved directly in the business of trafficking drugs and two-thirds cultivating drugs in the countryside. But nobody really knows how many people are linked to what is a sprawling drug economy.
Some are inside Mexican customs, where someone recently dabbed Vicks VapoRub on the nose of a drug-sniffing dog. Airports, land borders and seaports have been a clearinghouse for the cartels’ central ingredients — illegal drugs, illicit cash and smuggled guns — as some customs employees charged with searching for the goods have turned a blind eye for a fee. In fact, American authorities are discussing a plan to inspect vehicles leaving the United States for Mexico to make sure they are not carrying contraband.
Mexico’s prison system presents another vulnerability. Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and the most-wanted man in Mexico, presides over a huge drug production and trafficking operation with the help of an extensive network of turncoat politicians and police officers. Although he was sent to prison, he managed to bribe prison officials to help him escape in 2001. Aware that Mexican prisons are often run by the prisoners, Mexico has been extraditing record numbers of drug suspects to the United States, something it resisted doing for years.
On Thursday, a man who was in the process of being extradited to the United States for drug trafficking received help in escaping from a hospital in Chihuahua State, where he was undergoing medical treatment under police guard. The men who facilitated his escape were apparently his fellow traffickers, and the authorities are also investigating whether some of the police guards were part of the breakout plan.
Although Mexico’s military is regarded as significantly less corrupt than the country’s police forces, defense officials estimate that 100,000 soldiers have quit to join the cartels over the past seven years.
In Reynosa, the Gulf Cartel, which controls a vast swath of territory along Mexico’s eastern coastline, has hired a paramilitary force, known as the Zetas, to protect its turf. Founded by army deserters, their arsenal is so extensive that even their system of informants cannot keep it hidden.
On night patrol in Reynosa in November, soldiers came upon some suspicious men, who led them to a house that was packed with armaments for the drug cartels — 540 rifles, 165 grenades, 500,000 rounds of ammunition and 14 sticks of dynamite. It was Mexico’s biggest arms seizure to date — but the owners of the cache themselves, as they so often do, escaped to fight again.
The reach of the drug kingpins has even the army fearful. Many soldiers cover their faces while on patrol to avoid being identified and singled out by the drug cartels. The army also recently began allowing soldiers to grow their hair longer, because military-style crew cuts were believed to be putting off-duty soldiers at risk.
To address the problem of corruption in the military, the Defense Ministry has proposed a 60-year prison term for any soldier linked to organized crime. Commanders admit that they must carefully guard information on their missions from potential cartel members in uniform. And the roadblocks they set up, like one that stopped cars recently near the bridge connecting Reynosa and McAllen, Tex., only work for a few minutes before cartel spies discover them and route traffic elsewhere.
“Imagine Bush sending a military infiltrated with Taliban to Afghanistan,” said Samuel González, a security analyst who was the top drug prosecutor in the presidential administration of Ernesto Zedillo in the 1990s. He likens the fighting in Mexico to the trench warfare of World War I.
“It’s block by block,” he said.
Quest for Alternatives
The war analogy is not a stretch for parts of Mexico. Soldiers, more than 40,000 of them, are confronting heavily armed paramilitary groups on city streets. The military-grade weapons being used, antitank rockets and armor-piercing munitions, for example, are the same ones found on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The country’s challenge, though, may be tougher than that of a conventional war. The enemy is more nebulous and the battlefield is everywhere — in border towns like Tijuana, regional capitals like Culiacán and in the metropolis of Mexico City, where Mr. Calderón gathers with his national security staff every morning in his wooded compound ringed by soldiers to strategize and count the previous day’s dead. The presidential protective detail got a thorough review after one of its members was found to have received money from a cartel.
The brutality and brazenness — the fact that drug assassins are chopping off heads, dissolving bodies in acid and posting notes on mutilated corpses taunting the authorities — has prompted more and more second guessing of Mr. Calderón’s approach.
“Calderón took a stick and whacked the beehive,” Javier Valdez, a Sinaloa journalist who covers the drug trade, said in an oft-heard critique of Mexico’s drug war.
The Mexican president is faulted for starting a head-on assault on the heavily armed cartels without first gathering intelligence on them, without first preparing a trustworthy police force to take them on, without preparing the country for how rough it would turn out to be.
He is taken to task for not aggressively pursuing the politicians collaborating with the cartels. He is criticized for failing to put a significant dent in the drug profits that fuel the cartels’ operations.
An effort is under way to change laws to make it easier to seize businesses that are linked to traffickers, but it has been bogged down by fierce political infighting. “We keep hearing we’re going to win,” Víctor Hugo Círigo Vásquez, the speaker of the Mexico City Assembly, said to a reporter recently. “That’s what the U.S. president said in Vietnam.”
There are calls for a completely new approach. One of Mr. Calderón’s predecessors, Mr. Zedillo, recently joined two other former heads of state from Latin America in pushing for a complete rethinking of the drug war, including the legalization of marijuana, which is considered the top revenue generator for Mexican drug cartels.
Mexico is nowhere near such a transformative step as legalizing drugs, which would cut drug profits but also might cause use to soar. Still, there are initiatives on the horizon.
Three years ago, the Mexican Congress passed a plan to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of cocaine and other drugs, but Vicente Fox, then the president, killed the bill after American officials raised an alarm. Mr. Calderón made a similar proposal last fall, albeit lowering the amounts still further, and this time American officials did not utter a peep.
By MARC LACEY
March 29, 2010
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