Mexico touts progress in drug war, but death toll rises to 30,197

A Mexican mother protesting for justice in her daughter's unsolved death was killed last night, adding to what was already the deadliest year in Mexico's drug war.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
A man walks up a street as the day ends in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Dec. 14. Violence has been particularly brutal along the US-Mexico border. Ciudad Juárez saw record violence this year: Its death toll surpassed 3,000.

Gunmen on Thursday killed a Mexican mother who was protesting in front of a governor's office for justice in her daughter's unsolved death, adding yet another reason why 2010 was the deadliest year in Mexico's four-year drug war.

Mexico released figures this week showing that 30,196 people have been killed in drug-related violence over the past four years, with a record 12,456 killed from January through November, compared to 9,600 deaths in 2009 and 5,400 in 2008.

The killing last night of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz in Chihuahua city brings the total death count to at least 30,197.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

The Associated Press reported today that investigators suspect one of the gunmen was Sergio Barraza, the main suspect in the August 2008 killing of Ms. Escobedo's 17-year-old daughter. A judge dismissed the case against Mr. Barraza in April, and three days ago Escobedo began her sit-down protest outside the governor's office despite death threats.

Government touts progress

The death toll from the drug war has surged each year since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office and began dispatching the military to fight organized crime. Violence has been particularly brutal along the US-Mexico border. Ciudad Juárez also saw record violence this year: Its death toll surpassed 3,000.

Nevertheless, the Mexican government continues to tout its successes in fighting the drug war, especially its capture of major drug traffickers in the past year. High-profile arrests have included Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez and Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal, alongside the killings of Arturo Beltran last December and Antonio Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas in November. Last week a leader of La Familia in Michoacán, Nazario "El Chayo" Moreno, was also killed in a shootout, according to the government.

"What is very clear is that there is an important weakening of criminal structures," attorney general Arturo Chávez Chávez said Thursday. "There is no criminal organization that can be even remotely superior to the force of the state."

Criticism of government's upbeat assessment

Aldo Muñoz, a political scientist at Mexico State's Autonomous University, is critical of the government's upbeat assessment of the drug war. While the number of top leaders taken down is one indicator of success, he says, so is the mounting death toll and the number of drug consumers in the country.

“Maybe our concept of ‘winning’ is different [from that of the government],” he adds.

Moreover, what if the government itself is part of the problem? Police, judiciary, and elected officials throughout Mexico are alleged to have ties to drug traffickers. A case in point: Julio César Godoy Toscano.

Parliament takes action against lawmaker linked to drugs

Mr. Godoy Toscano in 2009 was both elected to parliament and also accused of ties to La Familia, the drug trafficking organization from Michoacán. A warrant was issued for his arrest, which he avoided for 15 months before sneaking past police outside the legislative chamber and being sworn in – effectively awarding him immunity from prosecution, as lawmakers are granted in Mexico.

But this week, congressional members overwhelmingly voted to strip him of his protection, weeks after a radio station broadcast a phone call between Godoy Toscano and an alleged member of La Familia. He has declared his innocence but now is on the lam again.

Many in Mexico hailed the congressional decision, as it sends a message to the political class that accusations of collusion will be taken seriously. Mexico’s attorney general even said the country is enlisting the help of Interpol to track down Godoy Toscano.

“It sets limits for politicians,” says Professor Muñoz. “They will have to take more care with who they have relationships with.”

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to climb amid gruesome events like last night's killing. As the year closes, he says, “it is very difficult to characterize [the results] as positive or negative.”

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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