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Mexico: Five Years Into The Drug War

Mexico Drug War

ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON and KATHERINE CORCORAN   12/10/11 09:52 AM ET   AP

VERACRUZ, Mexico — Brighitte Cuesta Sanchez answered the telephone the same day a local newspaper ran a front-page story that she was dead.

It was her mother checking on the 22-year-old sex worker, a local celebrity in blond extensions and black hot pants who drove a red Mini Cooper. The two laughed and called the paper for a correction. But that night Brighitte disappeared.

Two days later masked gunmen dumped her bound body along with 34 others on a central boulevard at rush hour. A banner claimed the dead were members of the Zeta cartel, eliminated by rivals.

The governor said most of the victims were convicted criminals. Federal prosecutors differed, saying only a handful had prior records, and loose if any ties to organized crime. Nearly three months later, none of the victims have been publicly identified.

Meanwhile, Brighitte's mom said her daughter's disappearance seemed like a kidnapping for ransom. She got a call from someone demanding the Mini Cooper.

This is a snapshot of Mexico five years after President Felipe Calderon launched his all-out assault on organized crime: Mass killings as cartels fight each other for territory and civilians caught in the violence; police unable to prevent the mayhem or to investigate the aftermath.

Just 10 days into his term, on Dec. 11, 2006, Calderon sent 6,500 troops to his home state of Michoacan to battle drug cartels. The government needed to act decisively, he said, to prevent organized crime from taking over the country.

Over the next five years, he deployed 45,000 troops, made major hits on the leadership of at least five cartels and spent nearly $46 billion fighting organized crime, his defining domestic policy.

Since then, chaos has exploded on the ground in once-quiet places across the country, including Veracruz. As authorities cracked down in one spot, violence moved to another. When cartel leaders were arrested, the gangs dissolved into more violent splinter groups fighting in areas where corrupt local authorities did not fight back.

The warring splinter groups have allowed two major cartels to take over most of the territory.

The death toll has grown from 2,000 in 2006 to more than 45,000 by many counts. Calderon says the government was reacting to violence that was already heating up among cartels, not the cause of it.

Meanwhile, drugs continue to flow into the United States. According to various U.S. drug reports, cultivation of marijuana and poppies is up. Mexico continues to be a source of 95 percent of all cocaine going into the United States and remains the primary foreign source of marijuana and methamphetamine.

One of the main results of the five-year war is that Mexicans live with a new kind of fear.

"They're afraid when they leave their houses," said pollster Roy Campos, adding that one in six Mexicans knows someone killed by drug violence. "We no longer just watch it on television, we feel it."

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Calderon's initial offensive was one-dimensional – to send the military to destroy crops and labs, set up checkpoints and do searches and arrests. In January 2007, he outlined a five-point program that included sending soldiers to reinforce the federal police, increasing his security budget and asking the attorney general for a plan to improve security and prosecution of crime.

Five years later, Calderon has managed to build a large, vetted federal police force. But his main tool is to deploy them and the military to quell explosions of local violence. Programs to reform the courts and police have been anemic. A constitutional judicial reform passed in 2008 called for open trials, and established principles of innocence until proven guilty and cases built on evidence rather than confessions extracted by torture. But only one of 32 states has implemented the reform so far. Twenty-three, including Veracruz, are still in the initial phases.

Even Mexico's closest allies, who praise Calderon's efforts, say the government wasn't prepared for the chaos its policy created in the streets.

"I don't think they realized how difficult this undertaking would be," said one senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico, who couldn't be identified for security reasons. "I don't know if they thought that they would need the support of the state and local security apparatus. I think they probably thought they could do it with the feds and the military."

Calderon has said he needed to act to keep parts of Mexico from falling into the hands of the cartels. But some entire states were controlled by cartels, which benefited from a culture of corruption that dated back decades.

Under Mexico's 71 years of single-party rule, traffickers moved drugs and controlled certain states, often making alliances and truces with other cartels, as well as law enforcement and politicians, to do business.

The new attack on the cartels' leadership led to the break up of some of the gangs, triggering the creation of smaller groups vying to control local territory. Security rapidly deteriorated because police, long the purveyors of local organized crime in Mexico, were colluding with the cartels.

The rapid recruiting of foot soldiers for gang warfare created an increasingly vicious kind of criminal.

"It's the spontaneity of criminality in a state without laws," said Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet, diplomat and environmentalist who grew up in Michoacan, where Calderon's war started. "This produced a new kind of Mexican, monsters, who people can't believe have the capacity to commit these atrocities."

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Calderon used to say the spike in violence meant that gangs were on the run and that the government was winning. He dismissed the dead as criminals. Now he has changed course, emphasizing a need to take care of victims and reform courts, police and forces necessary for long-term security.

It has been a stubborn process.

Calderon, who leaves office in December 2012, has promised to leave a secure police force. To root out corruption, the federal government has been pushing an elaborate process for vetting all of Mexico's 460,000 police officers.

According to federal figures, only 16 percent have been vetted so far, and only 8 percent of the total passed the background checks and tests. In Veracruz, a state even Calderon conceded had been handed over to the Zetas, 14 percent of state police had been evaluated as of the end of September, and 6 percent of municipal police. The number who passed was not available, but less than a month after the 35 bodies were dumped, authorities announced the firing of nearly 1,000 state police officers for failing their tests.

The federal government this year allotted $331 million (4.3 billion pesos) for 200 cities to train and re-equip municipal police forces. It suspended aid to 162 cities in July for not meeting the spending requirements, then changed course yet again, deciding to give most of the money back.

Governors in turn have complained that they lack the expertise to set up centers equipped to do polygraphs, background checks and other measures to ensure the integrity of their police forces.

Half of Mexico's 32 states still don't have an accredited evaluation center. One of three centers planned in Veracruz has been accredited.

Security analyst Eduardo Guerrero, who initially supported Calderon's attack on organized crime, now thinks the strategy was ill-conceived.

"They should have taken the first year to plan, to size up the enemy we're dealing with and to clean up the government itself, purge the elements linked to organized crime," Guerrero said.

Former Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora would not say if corruption was a factor when asked by The Associated Press why states are so resistant to the cleanup. He only said the process was slow, "but going in the right direction," and called on citizens to hold their local authorities accountable for making the proper changes.

Blake Mora died in a helicopter crash last month. The new secretary of the interior, Alejandro Poire, was unavailable for comment.

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Long a grower and supplier of marijuana and opium poppies, Mexico has waged a drug war since at least 1948, when the government sent troops under the "Great Campaign" to destroy illegal crops.

Under Calderon's term, spending on security among the army, navy, federal police and attorney general's office has nearly doubled since 2007, totaling more than $46 billion (600 billion pesos) through next year. The $900 million spent so far by the U.S. under the Merida Initiative is but a small fraction.

About 45,000 troops have been deployed, plus several thousand more from the navy infantry, or marines. More than 45,000 people have been killed by several counts, though the government stopped giving figures on drug war dead when they hit nearly 35,000 a year ago.

With each military and federal police crackdown, the violence moves to a new location. The breaking up of cartels and disruption in the balance of power has led to the growth of two major cartels, Sinaloa and the Zetas.

The Calderon government has made major hits on several cartels, most notably La Familia in Michoacan, the Beltran Leyva gang in central and southern Mexico and La Linea in Ciudad Juarez. It also has weakened the Gulf Cartel, which created the Zetas as its enforcement arm.

Veracruz is bearing the brunt of both: When the government cracked down on violence-plagued Tamaulipas, the state north of Veracruz that borders the U.S., the bloodshed moved to Veracruz.

The Zetas and Sinaloa now battle for the state.

The Zetas have arguably been the biggest beneficiaries of Calderon's assault on other cartels, metastasizing in little more than two years into one of Mexico's top criminal organizations. When the Zetas sought to expand into territory traditionally controlled by the powerful Sinaloa Cartel in the west, a splinter group aligned with Sinaloa called the New Generation arrived to terrorize the Zetas.

The 35 bodies dumped Sept. 20 were left with a warning note from the New Generation, a cartel aligned with Sinaloa, that it intended to rid Veracruz of the Zetas. Since then dozens more bodies have been found, including seven last week.

Now that marines heavily patrol Veracruz, authorities already see the conflict moving to Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, home turf of the New Generation. Until now, it has been known for mariachis, tequila and colonial cobblestone streets.

Twenty-six bodies were left in three abandoned trucks there late last month in what many consider revenge for the 35 in Veracruz. The victims included a truck driver, a soft-drink vendor and a dental technician.

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It is unclear what will happen to Mexico's drug war when Calderon leaves office a year from now. All the presumed candidates planning to run for president in 2012 promised to stop the violence and put the military back in its barracks. But to get there, none has proposed anything much different from what Calderon is already doing.

People try to carry on the everyday life of Veracruz, including the "Papaquis," street celebrations and competitions leading up to Carnival in February, one of Mexico's biggest fiestas. On a recent school day, a dozen girls in purple leotards twirled batons and danced to Reggaeton alongside a truck decorated with balloons. A young beauty queen waved to the crowd.

But life is not the same.

The marine raids have gotten out of control, said Ezequiel Guzman, president of the Mexican Hotel and Motel Association in Veracruz and Boca del Rio.

"Sometimes they violate human rights. In the past 20 days, they've entered eight hotels looking for people, making unreasonable searches," he said. "They scare the guests – honest people."

A marine official in Veracruz, who couldn't be identified for security reasons, says his troops operate within the law.

The families of the victims don't want to talk about the body dumping. Not one person who came to retrieve their loved ones wanted to make a criminal complaint, said Gina Dominguez, spokeswoman for Gov. Javier Duarte.

Brighitte's mother had a small funeral for her transgender child, who was born Ivan Cuesta Sanchez and left high school to transform herself into a local star. She advertised on Facebook, made enough to drive a nice car and charged for media interviews – one of which got more than 100,000 views on YouTube.

Her mother is as much afraid and confused as grief-stricken.

"I don't want to give anymore information because of the way things are," she said from her apartment in a rough area of Veracruz as dozens of taxis drove by, lookouts for the drug dealers. "I don't want anything to happen to my family, my kids, my mother."

She has heard that the marines have Brighitte's Mini Cooper. But she doesn't intend to ask.

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Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo, Olga R. Rodriguez and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report from Mexico City, and Mark Stevenson from Michoacan.

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Filed by Eline Gordts  |