APATZINGAN, Mexico - Soldiers stopped cars and frisked passengers Tuesday, searching for drugs or weapons. Helicopters swooped low over remote mountaintops, looking for signs of opium and marijuana fields. Ships patrolled Mexico’s main Pacific port, a hub for drugs arriving from Central America and Colombia.
Less than two weeks after taking office, President Felipe Calderon launched a full-scale attack on the drug trade in his home state of Michoacan, promising to bring an end to beheadings and large-scale production.
The campaign follows earlier crackdowns by Mexican presidents who ordered mass firings of corrupt police, revamped courts, sent thousands of troops to battle traffickers and accelerated drug seizures - without making much of a dent on the quantity of narcotics crossing the U.S.-Mexico borderan interview Tuesday with the Televisa network, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said the operation was aimed at “reconquering territory” controlled by drug gangs.
“It’s not just a war against drug lords,” he said. “It’s a war against the entire criminal structure.”
Medina Mora acknowledged drug lords will likely just find another stronghold, saying: “It’s a complicated war, but it is a war we can win.”
Calderon brushed aside concerns the crackdown could lead to violations of human rights and claim innocent victims.
“It’s about recovering the calm, day-to-day life of Mexicans who live in the state,” he said Tuesday.
Calderon took office Dec. 1, promising to fight the execution-style killings, corrupt police and defiant gangs that plagued Vicente Fox’s presidency. Calderon has budgeted more funds for law enforcement and appointed a hard-line interior secretary, Francisco Ramirez Acuna.
On Tuesday, Calderon met with federal lawmakers and urged them to support his program.
U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza has repeatedly expressed concern about the rising violence, some of which has spilled into the United States, and the State Department has warned U.S. citizens about travel to Mexico.
Warring cartels have killed at least 2,000 people this year and forced Fox to send troops into the border city of Nuevo Laredo and the beach resort of Acapulco.
But those efforts failed to deter traffickers, who have left human heads outside government offices accompanied by written warnings. One recent message in Michoacan read: “See. Hear. Shut up. If you want to stay alive.”
In the most gruesome case, gunmen burst into a Michoacan nightclub and rolled five human heads onto a dance floor, smearing the white-tile floor with blood. In another, a pair of heads were planted in front of a car dealership in Zitacuaro, a town known as a nesting ground for monarch butterflies.
During his six-year term, Fox arrested several drug lords, creating an underworld power vacuum in the country that is the conduit for most of the marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines in the United States.Investigators say the Gulf cartel was encouraged to battle its way into Michoacan following the 2004 arrest of Valencia drug gang leader Armando Valencia and his lieutenant Carlos Alberto Rosales Mendoza, who are allied with Joaquin Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel.
Michoacan’s rugged, remote mountains are perfect for growing opium and marijuana, and the region is a key route to the U.S. border.
Security experts say it will take more than brute force to defeat the cartels, which are making billions of dollars and have arsenals that include rocket-propelled grenades and bazookas.
Thousands of federal police and soldiers, dressed in body armor and armed with automatic rifles, arrived Tuesday.
At one highway checkpoint staffed by more than a dozen federal police, officers frisked passengers and searched vehicles for drugs, weapons and drug leaders.
Across the street at a gas station, 50-year-old Alejandro Arias watched. The owner of a small convenience store, he has had to pay drug lords protection money.
“It’s been a terrible year. It’s gone from bad to worse,” he said. “But you have to have hope. We don’t have anything else.”
In the capital of Morelia, 22-year-old computer technician Hernan Hijano wasn’t as optimistic.
“When the soldiers leave, the problems will continue,” he said. “This is just for the cameras.”