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.
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.
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?
Although drug-related violence has moved away from the US-Mexican border, it is still contained in hot spots. Across the border from El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juárez logged one-quarter of all drug-war casualties in 2010. Violence also flared along the central west coast, but most of the country, including the capital and almost all tourist spots, remain relatively unaffected.
Security spokesman Alejandro Poire said in August that 80 percent of drug-related homicides have occurred in just 162 municipalities, out of more than 2,400 nationwide. The overall murder figures are also lower than in many other countries in the region, including El Salvador and Honduras.
Who are the major players that are fighting against federal forces in Mexico's drug war?
The Sinaloa Federation – whose head, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains the most wanted man in Mexico – is still considered the nation's most powerful group. Its power extends from the central west coast all the way up to the center north of the country. Its battle with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (also known as the Juárez cartel) over smuggling routes into the US precipitates the violence in Ciudad Juárez.
The Zetas, former Army special forces and once the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, officially broke off from the Gulf group in January last year, though the two have been feuding for years. The Zetas continue to wreak havoc in wide swaths of the country as they battle their former allies. They are known to be increasingly involved in illicit activities beyond narcotics, including kidnapping and extortion. They were blamed for the killing of the 72 migrants this summer. They also have deep ties in Latin America and beyond.
According to STRATFOR, this year saw the emergence of an alignment called the New Federation, a group comprised of the Gulf Cartel, La Familia Michoacána, and the Sinaloa Federation, in an effort to overrun the Zetas.
Because of various setbacks in each of the factions, however, the Zetas appear unaffected for now.
La Familia, in Michoacán, has lost key figures and even reportedly sought a truce with the federal government, which many analysts interpret as a sign of their weakened position a year after being called Mexico's most dangerous organization.
The Beltran Leyva Organization faced rapid decline this year amid an internal power struggle between Hector Beltran Leyva and Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal. That conflict dissipated with La Barbie's arrest in August.
Four years after Calderón took office, do Mexicans support his strategy?
Mexicans are weary of the drug war. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed in a November poll by the consultancy Mitosfsky said the Calderón strategy was failing – a plurality seen for the first time. In various parts of the country, certain sectors have made their disapproval clear. Doctors in Juárez, for example, went on strike in December to protest the government's failure to keep them safe. Also that month, a coalition of 33 civic and business organizations took out a full-page advertisement in newspapers in Mexico saying: "We Mexicans see, with great frustration, that this year the authorities were not able, once again, to put the welfare of the country and safety of families above their political interests."
What's more, the Mexican military, the main force in the government's fight, is increasingly accused of human rights abuses.
What are signs of success and possible ways of quelling the violence in the year ahead?
It has been an incredibly successful year for Calderón in terms of main drug traffickers taken out of business – either killed in gunfire or arrested. Those arrested include “La Barbie,” Eduardo Teodoro García Simental (“El Teo”) of the Tijuana Cartel, and Sergio Enrique Villareal Barragán (“El Grande”) of the Beltran Leyva Organization. Those killed include Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén (“Tony Tormenta”) from the Gulf Cartel, Nazario Moreno González (“El Chayo”) of La Familia, and Ignacio Coronel Villareal (“Nacho Coronel”) of the Sinaloa group.
Overall, the government reported that it made more than 27,000 arrests related to the drug war in 2010. It also said it freed 1,184 victims of kidnappings last year. It has confiscated 2,172 tons of marijuana and 12.6 tons of methamphetamines. The most dramatic seizure, the largest confiscation of marijuana in a single operation, included 148 tons in Tijuana in October.
Calderón has attempted to end some of his reliance on the military, including handing over power to the federal police in places like Juárez. He is also pushing for a unified police command that puts local forces into the hands of each state. A primary goal is to continue replacing local police, largely seen as corrupt entities, with a new corps of well-trained and better compensated officers who can resist lucrative bribes and the drug organizations' powerful sway.
Mr. Poire, the federal security spokesman, said Wednesday the rate of killings began to decline in the last quarter of the year. At the same time, however, Calderón noted yesterday that "I do not rule out that it could go back up, but ... I think it is important."