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Little yield from drug raids

Despite its high profile, the Mexican president's initiative has produced little in the way of seizures and no arrests.

December 16, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Felipe Calderon didn't wait long to challenge the violent drug traffickers that control parts of Michoacan, his home state.

But Operation Michoacan United, announced Monday, so far looks like a bust -- and not the kind Calderon had in mind.

A week after taking the oath of office, Calderon ordered more than 6,000 soldiers, sailors and federal police to swarm towns where warring drug smugglers are believed responsible for as many as 500 killings this year. Hired assassins have added beheadings to their repertoire and recently started tossing victims from planes in an apparent effort to shock and demoralize rivals.

Despite the fanfare accompanying Calderon's anti-drug operation, which included roadblocks and air surveillance, the effort had yielded no arrests as of Friday afternoon.

The operation is concentrated in 13 municipalities in the southwestern portion of the state, an area suffering from high illiteracy and poverty rates and site of a third of the state's homicides this year.

"This operation doesn't aim to be spectacular," said Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina. "The focus is on territory, recovering geographical space for the public."

Tons of marijuana and cocaine pass through Michoacan each year en route to the United States. Armed drug runners control many public roads, which soldiers and federal police say they are retaking.

But no kingpins were arrested and little dope had been seized in the highly touted operation, despite, according to the newspaper Excelsior, government documents with a list of local drug gang leaders and organizational charts.

One suspected cartel gunman was killed Wednesday after he fired on soldiers trying to serve a search warrant on a property in the town of Dos Aguas.

Army personnel found several hundred rounds of ammunition, cellphones and shortwave radios, 10 weapons, a police uniform and a marijuana packaging device. They also found 1,100 marijuana plants and about 30 pounds of seed.

Port investigators have had better luck. On Dec. 5, they turned up nearly 20 tons of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient for Mexico's burgeoning methamphetamine labs. The drug can be legally imported, but the container was labeled as another product. No one claimed the shipment.

Government officials said Thursday that they planned to expand the operation to other states caught in the deadly smuggling routes tug-of-war between Pacific Coast-based and Gulf-based cartels.

The drug war is believed responsible for an estimated 2,000 deaths nationwide this year. Calderon has made public security one of his top priorities, along with reducing poverty and creating jobs.

He and advisors fear the cartels' war will scare off investors and saddle the country with an image of instability.

Analysts say Mexico has been less aggressive than the United States in battling drugs, which officials here have seen as more of a problem for U.S. addicts and their families than for Mexican citizens. But killings, including torture and dismemberment, and increased domestic drug use are changing that attitude, analysts say.

Some said former President Vicente Fox inadvertently triggered the violence by arresting a few cartel leaders and setting off a battle for market share. The conventional wisdom is that drug prices have held steady or fallen in U.S. cities, suggesting an unchecked supply despite interdiction efforts on both sides of the border.

The Calderon administration's strategy may be limited, at least for now, to warning traffickers that the government will interfere with their business unless the killings end, analysts say.

"They're not trying to end drug trafficking or drug use," said Jorge Chabat, a drug trade expert. "They're just trying to maintain a minimum amount of order.

"This is more like a father with a misbehaving adolescent."

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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