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Pervasive insecurity in Mexico: If this isn't 'terror,' what is?

President Calderon called it "terror;" Hilary Clinton called it "insurgency." But still, after 40,000 drug war deaths, the insecurity in Mexico doesn't meet the world standard for "terror."

By Whitney EulichCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 2011

Police patrolled the streets of Veracruz last month after violence reached a peak there in September. This article is part of the cover story project for the Dec. 5 issue of the weekly Christian Science Monitor magazine. President Calderon called the insecurity in Mexico "terror;" Hilary Clinton called it "insurgency." But still, after 40,000 drug war deaths, it doesn't meet the world standard for "terror."

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

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Across the country bombs packed with unsophisticated explosives have gone off, killing bystanders and targets alike; gory videos documenting the torture and beheadings of countless people are disseminated on the Internet; dismembered bodies are disposed of in public spaces with threatening messages penned as warnings to others.

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This may sound like a description of Afghanistan, a stronghold for targets of the US "war on terror." But in fact, it's Mexico. And despite the similarities in the tactics of violence and intimidation used, in Afghanistan it's called terrorism; in Mexico it's not.

There's no dispute that the violence – which has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 2007 – is escalating. Yet there is no consensus about what to label the troubling state of affairs. It's variously called a criminal insurgency, narcoterrorism, simply war, and – less frequently – terrorism. Mexicans, in everyday language, call it la inseguridad (insecurity).

But does it matter what it's called?

Politically and legally it does.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2010 warned that Mexican drug trafficking organizations may be morphing into "what we would consider an insurgency." She was instantly criticized by both Mexicans and Americans, and President Obama stepped in to issue an apology. (An insurgency, in security parlance, is often thought of as a step beyond terrorism, more of a mass movement of violence and crime.)

But Mexican President Felipe Calderón used the "terror" label in response to the casino attack in Monterrey that killed 52 people in August: He tweeted it, his spokesman repeated it, and then in a televised speech, he said it again. It was the first such official use of the term, and there was no domestic political backlash.

Going beyond rhetoric, US Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas proposed legislation earlier this year that would label six Mexican drug cartels foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). "Calderón said it's an attempt to replace the state," says Mr. McCaul, "and he's right." He says the cartels fall under the US federal statute of terrorism.

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