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Briefing: How Mexico is waging war on drug cartels

Who are the most powerful cartels, what are the risks of using the military to confront them, and how much progress has Mexico made so far?

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The Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego analyzed the number of drug-related killings in the first six months of 2009, comparing it with the last six months of 2008, and found a 5 percent drop. "There has been an enormous expenditure, deployment of military forces, and to only have a 5 percent drop in record levels of violence doesn't really sound like success," says David Shirk, the director of the Trans-Border Institute. "There have been key traffickers taken down, big busts, major blows to different narco­trafficking organizations, but the net result has not changed."

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But violence is not the only measure used to gauge progress. Drug organizations have moved into new territory, such as extortion and kidnapping for ransom – a sign to many that it is harder to traffic drugs in Mexico today than three years ago.

"There are fewer drugs coming in and drugs are harder to get out, but you still have these large, powerful criminal organizations looking for ways to supplement their incomes," says Mr. Meiners.

Another way that success is measured is the price of cocaine. At the end of last year, the US noted a doubling of cocaine prices in two years, attributed in part to a decline in supply. The US State Department estimates that 90 percent of cocaine in the country enters through Mexico.

The Mexican government has also made record drug seizures and arrested more than 50,000 drug-trafficking suspects, including officials at the highest levels. It has maintained from the start it will never back down from fighting organized crime.

How have the US and Mexico cooperated in fighting trafficking?

Mexico has contended that its success in dismantling organized crime is hampered by a thriving US demand for drugs. Tension spiked this winter after a Pentagon report warned that Mexico could become a "failed state." While violence has alarmed many – prompting the governor of Texas to ask National Guard troops to bolster security for his state – there is no evidence that violence is significantly infiltrating US cities.

But Mexican and US officials say they are cooperating as never before: Authorities are working toward more intelligence sharing, the US is tracking gun flows, and Mexico is extraditing alleged traffickers to the US at a record pace (with 95 criminals sent to the US last year, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration).

The signature has been the 2007 Merida Initiative. The aid, which also benefits Central America, includes money for surveillance equipment and training. The $1.4 billion package, to be disbursed over three years, is controversial in the US, as some condemn Mexico for its faulty record on holding the military accountable for human rights violations.

Is Mexico a safe place to travel?

Tourism has been battered over the past year – largely by swine flu but also by drug violence. Some colleges urged students to skip spring breaks in Mexico. Violence is largely among rival traffickers, or targets journalists, police, or the military. But the State Department issued an alert in February warning of "large firefights in many towns and cities across Mexico." That sort of violence has largely been limited to the border, including Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez.•

Research: Sara Miller Llana, Adrian Mitescu, Leigh Montgomery.

Sources: Mexican Attorney General's Office, Congressional Research Service, Stratfor, Trans-Border Institute/University of San Diego.

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