Reporting from Mexico City — When he was the ruthless military commander of El Salvador's leftist guerrillas two decades ago, Joaquin Villalobos was a big fan of body counts. The higher the death toll, he would say, the closer to victory, because it meant the enemy was being eliminated.
Today, the man U.S. officials once called "the baby-faced killer" has emerged somewhat improbably as one of the key advisors behind conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderon's military crackdown on powerful drug cartels. And his message, if not his ideology, is much the same.
He argues that a death toll that has soared to 30,000 in nearly four years reflects the "self-destruction" of drug cartels as they fight one another. It is a doctrine that Calderon has begun to quote publicly and repeatedly.
It does not set well with many Mexicans, nor with other Calderon advisors, who have argued that the strategic priority should be to contain the violence because of the debilitating, fear-producing repercussions on broader society.
An examination of Villalobos' role provides a rare glimpse of the power behind the throne, the thinking that has gone into the formation of the close-to-the-vest president's strategy as he wages the deadliest conflict in Mexico in a century.
"Calderon sees him as some kind of a guru," said a senior government analyst who disagrees with Villalobos and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
In fact, Villalobos' and Calderon's rhetoric on the subject is so close that it is at times difficult to determine who first uttered a certain line or phrase.
"Villalobos says that what happened in Colombia, and what's happening now in Mexico, is that when you confront these cartels, it generates a process of self-destruction that, clearly, weakens them," Calderon told a television interviewer several weeks ago.
"Despite the fact that [it] generates great anxiety in society, the violence is part of the destruction of these groups, and that has a lot of logic to it," Calderon said in another appearance, again citing Villalobos. "These criminals would prefer to be at peace, doing their business."
Villalobos, who first started consulting for the Mexican government in 2005, months before Calderon was elected, seems to have uniquely gained the president's confidence, to the chagrin of other government officials who believe that the philosophy espoused by the former rebel commander is mistaken because he does not know Mexico or its peculiarities.
Those officials say Villalobos hews too closely to the lessons of Colombia's guerrilla war, lessons that don't really apply. And, they argue, a high body count alone does not necessarily translate into success because of the steady supply of pliable new recruits that seems to keep cartel ranks well stocked.
Villalobos, in an interview, said that the violence will be reduced only when broader goals are achieved, such as overhauling the police force and reforming the judiciary, and that Mexican society must prepare itself for a long struggle.
"The imperative is to restore state authority, order, where the government has lost it," he said. "The growth of the state is a slow process, and only then will the violence diminish."
That the former leftist guerrilla chief now advises right-wing governments — he also counseled former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe — is part of a personal evolution that began as El Salvador's war was winding down and as Villalobos fell out with most of his onetime comrades.
Now approaching 60, grayer and a bit slower, Villalobos in the 1980s commanded the most combative faction of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, in his nation's civil war. He was a formidable military strategist, one of the region's top rebel leaders.
But he was also instrumental in the FMLN's decision to lay down weapons, join a peace process and accept a settlement that ended the war in January 1992.
William Walker, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the end of the conflict, recalls being surprised and impressed. The U.S. had steadfastly backed the right-wing Salvadoran government against the guerrillas; Walker and Villalobos, then, were sworn enemies.
"He gave the most reasonable, constructive speech" at a ceremony formally ending the war. "It was: The war is over, we have to work for El Salvador.
"He was smart and pragmatic and not an ideologue," Walker said. "Once, he was confessing to me the mistakes they had made. He said, 'We should never have presented ourselves to the world as Marxist Leninist. We didn't know what it meant. We just knew it irritated the hell out of you guys.'"
With ideology cast aside, it was easier for Villalobos to reinvent himself as a post-Cold War security expert and peacemaker.