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Mexico drug war death toll up 60 percent in 2010. Why?

The government on Wednesday announced that 15,273 people died in the Mexico drug war in 2010.

By Staff Writer / January 13, 2011

Mexican soldiers walk in the hills in Tzitzio, January 10. The soldiers went back to patrol the area where they had clashed with La Familia's gunmen on Monday. La Familia is one of several Mexican drug cartels.

Leovigildo Gonzalez/Reuters

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Mexico City

Four years after taking on Mexico’s drug traffickers by deploying some 50,000 military and federal forces, President Felipe Calderón is touting successes, including taking down top drug traffickers and dismantling their networks. He is also faced with a grim number: 15,273.

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That’s the drug war’s death toll in 2010, the government announced Wednesday, up from an estimated 9,600 in 2009 and 5,400 in 2008. Over four years the toll has reached a total of 34,612, federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire told reporters, which included 30,913 execution-style killings, 3,153 deaths in gang shootouts, and 546 deaths involving attacks on authorities.

By any definition, ‘winning’ the war appears far off. And – as was underscored by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to the violence-racked Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez in March – what happens south of the border is more than just Mexico’s problem.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

Why has violence increased so much in Mexico over the past year?

One reason for the startling attacks over the past year in Mexico is the progress that President Calderón has made in the war against drug trafficking organizations. These DTOs have seen high-profile losses – in terms of leadership and "product" – that have created much turmoil among the groups that control wide areas of Mexico.

The global security group STRATFOR, which published an analysis of the drug war in December, called the cartel landscape "fluid and volatile" and said that as long as it remains in flux, violence is likely to continue.

Increasingly, civilians have become victims. But most analysts agree that, for now, DTOs are not aiming to cause mass casualties. They are instead trying to shut out competitors and may kill public officials who get in their way or whom they perceive are siding with rivals.

The death toll in 2010 was by far the highest since Calderón took office in December 2006. The year also saw new extremes in violence, including mass graves found in various parts of the country, the assassination of a leading gubernatorial candidate, and the massacre of 72 Central and South American migrants who were kidnapped and killed en masse in August.

Observers also point to a car bomb – the first improvised explosive device known to have been used in Mexico's drug war – that exploded in Ciudad Juárez in July and killed three, as a low point.

Even though drug violence is on the rise and making headlines, is all of Mexico dangerous?

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