Mexico has an image problem. It has long been internal – with newspaper headlines and nightly news broadcasting the menacing notes, severed heads, and bullet-riddled bodies that are the byproducts of a deadly drug war raging across the country.
But now Mexico's vicious reputation has gone international.
In the past week, international newscasts have focused on protests along the US-Mexican border against soldiers battling drug gangs, which officials say were organized by drug gangs themselves. Then a chilling note left for the police chief of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico's most violent city, made headlines around the globe: Step down, it stated, or one police officer will be killed every two days.
Hours later, Roberto Orduna resigned after a police officer and jail guard were murdered and left with signs on their bodies that said more people would be killed until he stepped down.
Now the US State Department has issued a new travel advisory, warning of "large firefights" across the country.
"Recent Mexican Army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades," it reads.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón has sent more than 40,000 troops across the country to fight drug traffickers battling each other for lucrative drug routes into the US since he took office in December 2006. His popularity surged when he launched his first offensive in his home state, Michoacan.
According to a recent report by the United Nations, Mexico spent $25 billion in 2007 to fight drug cartels, representing a 24 percent increase from 2006. But drug cartels have responded with "unprecedented violence," that report reads.
Now, critics are increasingly questioning whether Mr. Calderón's strategy is the right one. Some 6,000 have been killed since last year, double the number from the previous year, with 78 soldiers and 500 police among the victims. Violence last week points to a similar trend for 2009.
On Saturday, two grenades were hurled at a police station in Zihuatenejo, on Mexico's Pacific coast, wounding one officer and four civilians. That followed a grenade assault earlier in the week on a police patrol in western Michoacán State that wounded five civilians and an officer.
The drug gangs have seemed impervious to government offensives. They instead have gotten bolder.
Last week, hundreds of residents blocked bridges in border cities in protest of abuses waged by soldiers – blockades that officials say were spurred by drug traffickers.
Calderón vowed to "continue fighting organized crime, without pause or mercy," he said last week during a speech on Mexico's Army Day. "Mexico faces a historic challenge in converting itself into a safe country, a country of true law and order."
The violence has been worst at the border. Ciudad Juárez is at the center of the battles, registering a third of all drug-related homicides in the country last year, as well as more than 17,000 car thefts and 1,650 carjackings in 2008.