Pubdate: Tue, 28 Jul 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A01, Front Page
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Authors: William Booth and Steve Fainaru, Washington Post Foreign Service


Calderon's U.S.-Backed War Against Drug Cartels Losing Political Support

MEXICO CITY -- President Felipe Calderon is under growing pressure to 
overhaul a U.S.-backed anti-narcotics strategy that many political 
leaders and analysts said is failing amid spectacular drug cartel 
assaults against the government.

There are now sustained calls in Mexico for a change in tactics, even 
from allies within Calderon's political party, who say the deployment 
of 45,000 soldiers to fight the cartels is a flawed plan that relies 
too heavily on the blunt force of the military to stem soaring 
violence and lawlessness.

"The people of Mexico are losing hope, and it is urgent that 
Congress, the political parties and the president reconsider this 
strategy," said Ramon Galindo, a senator and Calderon supporter who 
is a former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, a border city where more than 
1,100 people have been killed this year.

U.S. officials said they now believe Mexico faces a longer and 
bloodier campaign than anticipated and is likely to require more 
American aid. U.S. and Mexican officials increasingly draw 
comparisons to Colombia, where from 2000 to 2006 the United States 
spent $6 billion to help neutralize the cartels that once dominated 
the drug trade. While violence is sharply down in Colombia, cocaine 
production is up.

Mexico, nearly twice Colombia's size, faces a more daunting 
challenge, many officials and analysts said, in part because it sits 
adjacent to the United States, the largest illegal drug market in the 
world. In addition, at least seven major cartels are able to recruit 
from Mexico's swelling ranks of impoverished youth and thousands of 
disenfranchised soldiers and police officers.

"The question is whether the country can withstand another three 
years of this, with violence that undermines the credibility of the 
government," said Carlos Flores, who has studied the drug war 
extensively for Mexico City's Center for Investigations and Advanced 
Studies in Social Anthropology. "I'd like to be more optimistic, but 
what I see is more of the same polarizing and failed strategy."

U.S. and Mexican government officials say the military strategy, 
while difficult, is working. Since Calderon took office in December 
2006, authorities have arrested 76,765 suspected drug traffickers at 
all levels and have extradited 187 cartel members to the United 
States. Calderon's security advisers said they have few options 
besides the army -- as they just begin to vet and retrain the police 
forces they say will ultimately take over the fight.

"No one has told us what alternative we have," said Interior Minister 
Fernando Gomez Mont, gently slapping his palm on a table during an 
interview. "We are committed to enduring this wave of violence. We 
are strengthening our ability to protect the innocent victims of this 
process, which is the most important thing. We will not look the other way."

Drug-related deaths during the 2 1/2 years of Calderon's 
administration passed 12,000 this month. Rather than shrinking or 
growing weaker, the Mexican cartels are using their wealth and 
increasing power to expand into Central America, cocaine-producing 
regions of the Andes and maritime trafficking routes in the eastern 
Pacific, according to law enforcement authorities.

In Mexico, neither high-profile arrests nor mass troop deployments 
have stopped the cartels from unleashing spectacular acts of 
violence. This month, the cartel called La Familia launched three 
days of coordinated attacks in eight cities in the western state of 
Michoacan. Responding to the arrest of one its leaders, La Familia 
abducted, tortured and killed a dozen federal agents; their corpses 
were found piled up beside a highway.

In Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Calderon 
flooded the city with 10,000 troops and federal police officers in 
February in an effort to stem runaway violence. After a two-month 
lull, drug-related homicides surged 307 percent, to nearly eight 
killings a day in June. On Wednesday, a man eating lunch at a Denny's 
restaurant across the street from the U.S. Consulate was shot six 
times in the head by a trio of gunmen.

Lawmakers in Chihuahua state, where Juarez is located, debated this 
month whether Calderon's surge was "a total failure." Antonio Andreu, 
president of the state legislature's commission on security, said it 
appears that drug gangs have infiltrated the military's intelligence 
networks and figured out how to circumvent the gauntlet of security 
forces in Juarez.

Hector Hawley Morelos, the state forensics chief for Juarez, said he 
expects this year to be bloodier than the last. He said the soldiers 
don't help solve crime cases and often get in the way of investigations.

But Calderon has no intention of changing course, according to senior 
Mexican officials. In some respects, the government has become more 
combative. After a La Familia leader called a television station and 
said the cartel was "open to dialogue," Gomez Mont vowed that the 
government would never strike a deal with the traffickers.

"We're waiting for you," he warned La Familia.

In the interview, Gomez Mont said that to ease up now would be to 
sanction criminal behavior and its corrupting influence on Mexican society.

"We have to do this while we are strong enough to do it," he said. 
"We know we are right. Do I have to accept corruption as a way of 
stabilizing our society? No. I have to act."

"This battle is a full frontal assault," Monte Alejandro Rubido, 
Calderon's senior adviser on drug policy on Mexico's National 
Security Council, said in an interview. "There are no alternatives."

Calderon is highly regarded in U.S. law enforcement circles for 
declaring war on the traffickers and increasing cooperation between 
the two governments. Asked whether he would make any changes to the 
Mexican president's strategy, Anthony Placido, chief of intelligence 
for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, replied: "None."

But Placido said he was concerned that Calderon was fighting not only 
well-entrenched criminal organizations. "He's also fighting the 
clock," Placido said. "Public support for this can't remain high 
forever. He's really got to deliver a death blow, or significant body 
blow, in the short term to keep the public engaged."

Calderon appears to be increasingly isolated in Mexico, weakened by 
his party's defeat in recent mid-term elections and by the relentless 
carnage. The cover of the influential news magazine Proceso this week 
featured a photo of the 12 federal agents, their bound and mutilated 
corpses in a pile, beneath the headline: "Calderon's War."

"The president feels alone, and he told me that personally," said 
Galindo, the senator, who belongs to Calderon's conservative National 
Action Party.

Galindo said he urged Calderon to change course. Instead of relying 
on the army to destroy the cartels, he said, the federal government 
should work to strengthen local communities that are most vulnerable 
to the traffickers.

"Every day that we delay making these communities more 
self-sufficient, it is going to become more difficult to find good 
people prepared to serve as mayor in any city -- no matter how large 
or small -- because it's like a death sentence," he said.

Dan Lund, president of the MUND Group polling organization, said 
public support for Calderon's strategy appears to be weakest in the 
places where the federal government needs it most. "In a series of 
national surveys, polls consistently have found a reasonable but 
cautious level of support for using the military in the front lines 
against the cartels," he said. "But in all the states where the 
military is actually deployed, the support goes down, sometimes dramatically."

The situation has been exacerbated by the global economic crisis, 
which has cast millions of Mexicans into poverty. Jose Luis Pineyro, 
a Mexican military analyst who maintains close ties with the armed 
forces, said rising unemployment and poverty "is creating what I call 
an 'army in reserve,' " for the traffickers.

In Michoacan, La Familia has used the media to try to align itself 
with the disenfranchised. After the recent attacks, one of its 
leaders, Servando Gomez, called a local television station and told 
viewers: "I want to say to all Michoacanans, we love them and respect them."

"Everyone here has known us since we were kids," said Gomez, who is 
known as "La Tuta." "We are with the people of Michoacan."

Carlos Heredia, a former Michoacan official who now works as an 
analyst at a Mexico City think tank, said the government's 
iron-fisted approach is a recipe for failure in regions where 
mistrust of the government is high.

"You don't have the hearts and minds of the local population," 
Heredia said. "And if the local drug lords play Robin Hood, then you 
are lost. Because the people are ultimately going to say, 'What do 
those officials in Mexico City care about us? They despise us. And 
these drug guys, at least they give us something.'"
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake