Two years after its launch, Mexicans question President Calderón's drug war

Drug-trafficking deaths have skyrocketed by more than 117 percent in 2008.

ON THE LOOKOUT: Mexican military helicopters patrolled the skies last month near Apatzingan, Mexico, an area plagued by drug trafficking and violence.

Five thousand, three hundred, and seventy-six people have been killed in Mexico's drug war so far this year, double the number from last year and more than all the US troops killed in Iraq.

Is this what victory looks like?

That's the question Mexico is grappling with two years after President Felipe Calderón took office announcing a massive military effort to dismantle drug trafficking organizations.

Thursday marks two years since Mr. Calderón announced "Operation Michoacán," the first of a sustained series of high-profile deployments of soldiers across the country.

Since then, federal authorities have disarmed scores of police departments, boasted of bundles of cash and caches of weapons confiscated, and heralded arrests of some of the highest-profile traffickers as proof of success.

But the effort's first year, 2007, also turned out to be the nation's deadliest in modern history; and the death toll for 2008 has, as of Dec. 2, far exceeded that, spiking by 117 percent, according to Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. Authorities at the highest ranks have been arrested for colluding with traffickers, and a strategy that has been a political boon could turn into a liability for Calderón in next year's mid-term elections.

"The major gains are not what Calderon has gotten, but what he has avoided," says Jorge Chabat, an expert in drug trafficking in Mexico City. Police stations and small towns, for example, are no longer in the hands of drug traffickers, but he says that has come at a high price.

"The major failure is the unintended consequences, which is high levels of violence," says Mr. Chabat. "Calderón probably never imagined that he would have such a response."

The government insists that its strategy is the right one, and many analysts agree.

Today's staggering violence, they say, is the result of Calderón's get-tough approach, which has caused drug trafficking groups to collapse and splinter.

The US, which released a report earlier this year saying that Mexican drug organizations have infiltrated every region of the US and nearly 200 cities, also agrees.

John Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week that crackdowns in both Colombia and Mexico have caused a doubling of US cocaine prices in the past two years, one measure used to gauge success.

And collaboration between the US and Mexico is at an all-time high.

Suspects have been extradited to the US at a record pace this year, and the US just formally released $197 million of a $400 million aid package of equipment and training to Mexican authorities combating drug violence.

Opinion polls show consistent support for the approach, but also a lack of faith that the government is winning. That could prove a challenge in July's mid-term elections.

Polls indicate that the Institutional Revolutionary Party – which ruled the country for 71 years during a time when corruption, and trafficking, was more tolerated – is favored.

The reasons are diverse, but analysts say that violence could be one factor for weary Mexicans who long for the "good old days" of "peace and corruption," says Chabat.

Before then, there is little hope that the violence will ebb, as economic woes put more pressure on the state, says Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. "The security crisis will be complicated by the intermixing of organized crime with crimes of emergency, of a social origin that come from unemployment and need," he says.

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