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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Calderon's drug offensive stirs 'wasp nest'

The 2 1/2-year offensive has uncovered deep corruption and sparked violent gang wars, presenting a stark reality: The longer and harder the war is fought, the more complex and daunting it becomes.

July 13, 2009|Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO, AND MEXICO CITY — In the baddest precinct of Mexico's most violent city, Jose Manuel Resendiz is the law.

The army officer packs two pistols and a semiautomatic rifle as he patrols the Delicias district of Ciudad Juarez, the bullet-scarred border city that is the emblem of Mexico's drug-war mayhem.

Riding in a Ford pickup with five gun-toting soldiers, he pulls over suspicious-looking cars, sets up impromptu roadblocks to search for drugs and weapons, and tends to the nuisance calls that make up a cop's life: robberies, street fights, fender benders.

"I am an army lieutenant colonel," Resendiz said. "But now we're all police."

Ciudad Juarez resembles a city under military occupation as President Felipe Calderon ratchets up his war against drug traffickers.

Calderon launched the military offensive 10 days after assuming office in December 2006, saying it was necessary to restore government authority in parts of the country. Today, 2 1/2 years later, Calderon and Mexico face a stark reality: The longer and harder the war is prosecuted, the more complex and daunting it becomes.

The offensive has exposed corruption so widespread that key institutions, from police forces to city halls, appear rotten to the core. And a battered society has grown increasingly worried about the effects of the massive military deployment on its democracy.

A cascade of setbacks -- prison breakouts, kidnappings of federal officials, killing of priests -- has led to questions about whether Calderon was prepared for the breadth and depth of the problem.

By disrupting the cartels' operations, the offensive intensified turf struggles among the traffickers. About 11,000 people, some of them bystanders, have died in the violence.

"They hit a wasp nest, and the wasps are stinging," said Jose Luis Pineyro, an expert on national security at Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University. "There definitely wasn't a well-structured plan to know what kind of threat they were confronting."

Government forces have scored victories, almost all credited to the military: They've arrested more than 66,000 suspects, seized tons of cocaine and marijuana, and intercepted guns, grenades, airplanes -- even drug-laden, submarine-like vessels.

But every success is offset quickly by a fresh surge in violence, sometimes in unexpected places such as the tourist magnet of Acapulco. No state has been spared bloodshed or scandal. To date, the government has not gone after major money-laundering operations, the fuel that keeps the cartels going, and none of the current leaders of the main cartels has been captured.

"It's very hard to stop this trend," a senior military official in Ciudad Juarez said, speaking of the unyielding bloodshed. "We are fighting an enemy we don't know and don't see and only feel their results."

The drug gangs appear as strong and as vicious as ever as they fight not just for smuggling routes but for shares of the growing domestic market. Mexican cartels are now the dominant force in an industry once led by Colombians.

More than 45,000 troops have been deployed in these 2 1/2 years to hot spots across the nation. It's not just boots on the ground: Army generals and colonels have taken command of law enforcement in seven states and, from Juarez to Tijuana to Cancun, have supplanted civilian authority.

Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million, remains the test case, embodying the reach of Calderon's strategy and its risks. The military buildup in Juarez came after months of extraordinary violence. About 1,600 people were killed last year, including more than 200 in November alone.

In February, the police chief quit after several officers were shot dead and signs appeared threatening that more would be killed unless he stepped down. Other posters threatened the life of Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz. The governor of the state, Chihuahua, was ambushed in the state capital. (He survived, but his bodyguard was killed.)

Juarez officials appealed for federal help, and in March, Calderon's government sent 5,000 troops and 1,900 federal police officers -- adding to the 2,500 soldiers and police already there.

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Reliance on army

A retired general, Julian Rivera Breton, was appointed public safety chief, and an active-duty colonel, Alfonso Cristobal Garcia Melgar, was installed as police director. In all, 30 current or former military officers now hold supervisory roles in the police department.

At the height of the violence, in February, there were 10 or more killings a day. The number has dropped to an average of four to eight a day, and bank robberies and car thefts are also down, authorities say. Still, the homicide rate for the first six months of 2009 is higher than it was last year, according to media tallies. Kidnapping and extortion remain rampant.

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