The bullet holes in the safe-house door tell you who's winning Mexico's drug war. The armor-piercing ammunition, fired from the inside by drug traffickers, shredded the 20-gauge steel like small cannonballs; the rounds fired from the outside, by federal police, merely punctured the metal like so much bird shot. After that midnight firefight on May 27--the result of a botched police raid in the desert city of Culiacán in northwestern Mexico--seven cops lay dead. Only one narco gunman died; the rest, at least half a dozen, escaped. For neighbors, the carnage carried an unambiguous message. "I realized," says Victor Rodríguez, a fishmonger and family man, "that the power of the narcos has surpassed the power of my government."
People across the country are coming to the same depressing conclusion. There have been 2,000 drug-related murders in Mexico this year, including scores of ghastly beheadings, putting 2008 well on pace to break last year's record of 2,500 killings. Hundreds of victims are police, including the chief of the federal police, who was killed in May. While inaugurating a federal-police post in Mexico City in June, President Felipe Calderón insisted that the "state is stronger than any criminal organization." But in a poll released a couple of weeks earlier by the Mexico City daily Reforma, 53% said the narcos were winning the drug war. Even Washington, famous for ignoring crises south of the border, is alarmed. To back up Calderón--and keep the mayhem from spilling into the U.S.--Congress recently approved $400 million for Mexico in 2009 as part of his and President George W. Bush's Mérida Initiative, a three-year aid package for beleaguered drug-interdiction forces.
But is Washington making the smartest use of the Mérida money? More than two-thirds of it will buy tools like helicopters and surveillance technology. Events like the May shoot-out demonstrate the importance of improved hardware, yet Mexico, the hemisphere's fourth largest economy, already has a $7 billion federal-security budget and can acquire those tools by itself. What Mexico needs more of from the U.S., say security experts, is financial and technical help in recasting its dysfunctional police and judiciary--more professional training, infrastructure and especially pay. Too many of the nation's police, many of whom earn a measly $5,000 a year, moonlight for the drug gangs. That's why Calderón deployed 25,000 army troops last year to take on the narcos. The military may have dealt some telling blows, like larger cocaine seizures and more arrests, but armies tend to be lousy at long-term drug interdiction and are prone to human-rights abuses when they play sheriff. It's honest cops that Mexico needs. Unless the country develops modern police forces--investigative bodies that can attack not only the cartels but also the political and business interests that protect them and launder their money--efforts like Mérida will be largely symbolic. Says Arturo Alvarado, a security expert at Mexico City's Autonomous Technological Institute: "The Mérida plan is just a reproduction of the failed antidrug strategies we've been using for the past 20 years."
While they're glad to have more money to fight the narcos, Mexican officials also say the U.S. could do much more--like policing its own side of the border more effectively. The gangs owe their wealth to U.S. consumers (Americans still snort half the world's cocaine) and their firepower to the deluge of pistols, semiautomatic rifles and grenades smuggled in from the U.S. "The effort and lives the Mexican people are giving to this fight," Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora tells TIME, are "much larger than their share of responsibility for the problem." As if to concede that point, Congress inserted $74 million into the Mérida plan to combat the gunrunning.
Heart of Darkness
Gun smugglers do a brisk business in Culiacán and surrounding Sinaloa state, where gangland-style murders--more than 600 this year--have made the region a byword for lawlessness. After the seven feds were killed in the May 27 shoot-out, Calderón sent 2,000 additional troops into Sinaloa. They have rattled the narcos, impeding some trafficking routes and increasing weapons seizures. But such success has prompted a criminal insurgency against the government, led by two powerful drug groups: the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín (Chapo, or "Shorty") Guzmán, and its foe, the Gulf Cartel, dominated by the Zetas, an ultraviolent group of former military commandos.
When we visited the city this summer, there were a slew of narco murders each day: a 22-year-old man riddled with bullets from AK-47 assault rifles, known in Mexico as cuernos de chivo (goat's horns) for their curved magazines; a wealthy tortilla merchant shot 74 times in his stylish pickup truck at a busy intersection; two police officers massacred on a residential street by more than 100 rounds each; another man decapitated and his head brazenly displayed on a roadside pike. "These days [narcos] think nothing of killing us for no reason other than marking their territory," says a Sinaloa-state police commander who quit after seeing fellow cops murdered and concluding that police reform was hopeless. The gangs are likely to keep upping the ante: last month, there were two botched car-bomb attempts in Culiacán.
Sinaloa is the sweltering cradle of Mexico's $25 billion--a--year drug-trafficking industry, the birthplace of most major Mexican druglords, and many Culichis, as Culiacán residents are known, seem to take perverse pride in it. "This is a tough people who conquered the desert," says Elmer Mendoza, a popular Culiacán crime novelist. "Unfortunately, they admire people, like the narcos, who go in search of extremes." The state's patron saint, with his own downtown Culiacán chapel, is a 19th century bandit hero, Jesús Malverde. The local hit parade consists of narcocorridos, ballads in praise of druglords; fashion is set by narcos--including orange ostrich-skin cowboy boots (only an armed gangster could get away with wearing them) and gold jewelry in the shape of cuernos de chivo; and the Humaya cemetery is a garish shrine to countless young Sinaloa men cut down by cartel bullets. César Jacobo, a songwriter for the narcocorrido group Cartel de Sinaloa, has had numerous friends perish that way. "They still figure it's best to live large for a few years," he says, "than to live poor for life."