Three federal police agents were gunned down along a highway in Puebla state… (Ulises Ruiz Basurto, EPA )
Reporting from Mexico City — Nearly four years after President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led crackdown against drug traffickers, the cartels are smuggling more narcotics into the United States, amassing bigger fortunes and extending their dominion at home with such savagery that swaths of Mexico are now in effect without authority.
The groups also are expanding their ambitions far beyond the drug trade, transforming themselves into broad criminal empires deeply involved in migrant smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and trafficking in contraband such as pirated DVDs.
Undeterred by the 80,000 troops and federal police officers arrayed against them, gunmen frequently take on Mexican forces in the open. Operatives of one group, the Zetas, did so in northern Mexico this spring when they blockaded army garrisons. In June a group believed to be linked to another organization, La Familia, ambushed federal police in the western state of Michoacan, killing 12 officers in early morning light.
Since Calderon announced the offensive when he took office in December 2006, more than 28,000 people have been killed. Most of them have been traffickers, dealers and associates. But innocent civilians account for a growing portion.
Billions of dollars have been spent on the anti-drug effort with the enthusiastic backing of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Calderon and his administration say one reason progress is proving so difficult is that the problem festered far too long. They have predicted that the violence will subside by the end of the year.
But statistics, intelligence reports and interviews with Mexican and U.S. authorities over the last six months make it clear that the effort has failed to dismantle the networks or significantly slow the flow of drugs.
Scarcely a decade after Mexico took a giant step toward genuine multiparty democracy, traffickers may now pose a long-term danger to its stability. Rising chaos "requires us to change our view of the problem, that it is no longer a matter of organized crime but rather of the loss of the state," the leading newspaper El Universal said in an editorial in June.
Calderon himself acknowledged the threat last week in comments at a national security conference: "This criminal behavior is what has changed, and become a challenge to the state, an attempt to replace the state."
Mexican traffickers have increased their shipments of several types of narcotics north across the border, becoming titans of an industry that by some estimates earns $39 billion a year, equivalent to almost 20% of the government's annual budget.
They have muscled aside competitors to gain control over shipments of most types of illegal drugs in the hemisphere: marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
And they are becoming increasingly important producers, a shift from an earlier age when Mexican gangs served chiefly as smugglers for South American producers. Marijuana and poppy fields have flourished for decades in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, but now production has expanded into states from Chihuahua in the north to Oaxaca in the south. Some of the world's largest meth labs have been uncovered in Michoacan.
The Zetas and La Familia have grown into trafficking powerhouses since Calderon became president. They have altered the playing field by employing methods once unthinkable, such as beheading or dismembering rivals and then displaying the remains in squares, on street corners and in other public places.
Trafficking groups flex their muscles by hanging threatening banners from bridges, stringing up corpses or parking buses across key streets to paralyze traffic, actions that appear increasingly aimed at cowing the populace.
Drug gangs armed with military-class weapons smuggled from the United States or, as The Times has reported, left over from U.S.-backed wars in Central America now threaten or hold sway over vital industrial cities such as Monterrey. On July 15, traffickers hit another chilling milestone by detonating a car bomb in an attack on federal police officers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's deadliest city.
The cartels have diversified, grafting human trafficking onto their drug-smuggling routes, and padding their income with kidnapping, extortion and the movement of a wide range of contraband, including fake luxury products and exotic animals.
In large parts of Calderon's home state of Michoacan, criminal groups charge businessmen to operate, essentially usurping the government's role as tax collector. The same phenomenon occurs in states such as Tamaulipas and Coahuila on the Texas border.
This year, traffickers succeeded for the first time in shutting down major operations of Pemex, the state oil company and top source of national income.