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A SPECIAL SECTION:  Haiti since the January 12, 2010 Earthquake
Posted September 25, 2010
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Mexican Drug Trafficking



Updated September 22, 2010      More Images 

By The New York Times

Although Mexico has been a producer and transit route for illegal drugs for generations, the country now finds itself in a pitched battle with powerful and well-financed drug cartels. Top police commanders have been assassinated and grenades thrown, in one case into the crowd at an Independence Day celebration.

The upsurge in drug-related violence is traced to the end of 2006 when President Felipe Calderón launched a frontal assault on the cartels by deploying tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to take them on. Mr. Calderon has successfully pushed the United States to acknowledge its own responsibility for the violence in Mexico since it is American drug consumers who fuel demand and American guns smuggled into Mexico that are used by the drug gangs.

Reflecting concern over drug trafficking, in June 2010 a Justice Department report described a "high and increasing" availability of methamphetamine mainly because of large-scale drug production in Mexico.

In August 2010, with the pace of killings rising, officials have backed off their effort to persuade Mexicans that the mounting death toll was proof that the government was succeeding in disrupting the cartels. Instead, Mr. Calderón set up series of high-level forums drawing Mexico's entire political establishment in an effort to show that the government was willing to engage its critics and listen to suggestions.

Altogether, more than 28,000 people have been killed in the nearly four years since President Felipe Calderón began his offensive against the nation’s drug organizations, with the gangs escalating fights over turf and dominance as the federal police and military try to stamp them out. Of those, over 2,000 were local, state or federal police officers, according to the Public Security Ministry.
Violence on the Border
To many Mexicans, the rising count of gruesome drug-related murders is evidence that the government's strategy has failed.

The struggle has strained relations with the United States as well. On March 13, 2010, gunmen believed to be linked to drug traffickers shot a pregnant American consulate worker and her husband to death in the violence-racked border town of Ciudad Juárez. The gunmen also killed the husband of another consular employee and wounded his two young children.

The killings followed threats against American diplomats along the Mexican border and complaints from consulate workers that drug-related violence was growing untenable, American officials said. Even before the shootings, the State Department had quietly made the decision to allow consulate workers to evacuate their families across the border to the United States.

Americans, from border state governors to military analysts in Washington, have begun to question whether the spillover violence presents a threat to their own national security and, to the outrage of many Mexicans, whether the state itself will crumble under the strain of the war.

In response to critics, Mr. Calderón has said his government was the first one to take on the drug trafficking organizations. But Mexicans wonder if they are paying too high a price and some have begun openly speaking of decriminalizing drugs to reduce the sizable profits the gangs receive.
Fighting 'Zones of Impunity'
While Mr. Calderon dismisses suggestions that Mexico is a failed state, he and his aides have spoken frankly of the cartels' attempts to set up a state within a state, levying taxes, throwing up roadblocks and enforcing their own perverse codes of behavior. The Mexican government has identified 233 "zones of impunity'' across the country, where crime is largely uncontrolled, a figure that is down from 2,204 zones a year ago.

Responding to a growing sense that Mexico's military-led fight against drug traffickers is not gaining ground, the United States and Mexico set their counternarcotics strategy on a new course in March 2010 by refocusing their efforts on strengthening civilian law enforcement institutions and rebuilding communities crippled by poverty and crime.

The $331 million plan was at the center of a visit to Mexico in March by several senior Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The revised strategy has many elements meant to expand on and improve programs already under way as part of the so-called Mérida Initiative that was started by the Bush administration including cooperation among American and Mexican intelligence agencies and American support for training Mexican police officers, judges, prosecutors and public defenders.

Under the new strategy, officials said, American and Mexican agencies would work together to refocus border enforcement efforts away from building a better wall to creating systems that would allow goods and people to be screened before they reach the crossing points. The plan would also provide support for Mexican programs intended to strengthen communities where socioeconomic hardships force many young people into crime.

The most striking difference between the old strategy and the new one is the shift away from military assistance. More than half of the $1.3 billion spent under Merida was used to buy aircraft, inspection equipment and information technology for the Mexican military and police. Next year's foreign aid budget provides for civilian police training, not equipment.

Military-to-military cooperation was expected to continue, officials said, despite reports by human rights groups of an increase in human rights violations by Mexican soldiers.

This revised strategy, officials said, would first go into effect in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, the largest cities on Mexico's border with the United States. Ciudad Juárez, a city of 1.7 million, has become a symbol of the Mexican government's failed attempts to rein in the drug gangs.

The Obama administration has been delaying the release of a critical report in an apparent effort to minimize diplomatic turbulence with the Mexican government. The report, obtained by The New York Times, is called the 2010 National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment by the National Drug Intelligence Center of the Justice Department. It portrays drug cartels as easily able to circumvent the Mexican government's restrictions on the importing of chemicals used to manufacture meth, which has reached its highest purity and lowest price in the United States since 2005.
Documenting the Turmoil
In Mexico’s drug wars, it is hard to pinpoint new lows as the atrocities and frustrations mount. But Ciudad Juárez belongs in its own category, with thousands killed each year, the exodus of tens of thousands of residents and the ever-present fear of random death. Many question whether anyone there will dare to continue documenting the turmoil in Ciudad Juárez, a smuggling crossroads across from El Paso that is battled over by at least two major criminal organizations.

On Sept. 19, 2010, the newspaper El Diario’s published an open letter to the city’s drug lords and the authorities it believes have failed to protect the public. It ran the day after the funeral of Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, a photography intern at the paper who was shot dead on Sept. 16, 2010, while leaving a shopping mall after lunch.

All along the border, news organizations have silenced themselves out of fear and intimidation from drug trafficking organizations, but El Diario had a reputation for carrying on — and paying a price. One of its reporters was gunned down two years ago.

While its editorial called for a truce between crime groups and the media — noting that “even in war there are rules” that “safeguard the integrity of the journalists who cover them” — the paper insisted that it would not back down.

Acts against news organizations in 2010 have included the kidnapping of four journalists, who were released after one station broadcast videos as demanded by that their abductors, and a car bomb detonating in August outside a regional office of Televisa, the leading national network.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Friday, September 10, 2010.
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