The alleged cartel hitmen were paraded before the media like captured soldiers of an enemy state. Dressed in white vests, jeans and casual shirts, the eight men stared straight ahead, chins held high in defiant poses as the photographers snapped away. Their captured hardware was piled up in neat rows in front, reinforcing the image of a military unit: 20 automatic rifles, 10 pistols, 12 M4 grenade launchers, 30 grenades, and more than 40 bullet-proof jackets bearing the legend FEDA Spanish acronym for Special Forces of Arturo Beltran, an alleged drug kingpin. The group's mission, law enforcement officials said, was to launch attacks on federal police and prosecutors.
One year into President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on drug cartels, police and soldiers are confronting heavily -armed commando-style units of gangsters on an almost daily basis. In the first weeks of January, the two sides clashed in deadly firefights in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Rio Bravo and Reynosa on the U.S. border, and even in quaint tourist towns in the heart of Mexico such as Valle del Bravo. The gangsters have also carried out a wave of ambushes and assassinations on security officials, slaying one Tijuana policeman in his home along with his wife and 9-year old daughter. In total, more than 20 police officers, a state judge, dozens of alleged traffickers and at least 10 civilians have been killed in the fighting since the New Year. The violence has also spilled into the U.S., with Mexican police this week arresting an alleged drug trafficker for using a Hummer to run over and kill a Border Patrol Agent in Arizona.
Anti-drug officials believe the uptick in clashes between the police and gunmen of the cartels is a sign that Mexico's long-running drug violence has entered a new phase. Until recently, most fighting had involved rival traffickers battling over turf, but today most of the violence is between the federal government and the gangsters. The year-long government crackdown has seriously rattled the cartels, the officials say, and they are making an orchestrated attempt to get the government to back off.
"When you see the killings, the cartels are trying to make a statement to the authorities not to interfere with their enterprises. And they are also trying to send a message to the public saying they are in control," said a U.S. anti-drug official, who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons. "It's a P.R. campaign. But it's not going to work. Because, quite frankly, this country has a new sheriff."?
A conservative, bespectacled lawyer, Calderon has made the crackdown his centerpiece policy. He has sent out more than 25,000 soldiers and police to the worst-hit cities, made record cocaine busts and arrested alleged smuggling kingpins, including Beltran's brother Alfredo. Proclaiming the fight against drugs a war, he has broken Mexican tradition by dressing up in army uniform. "There will be no truce and no quarter to the enemies of Mexico," Calderon told soldiers in a military base last year.
The president is also looking for rewards from north of the border for his clampdown. The U.S. Congress is currently debating a two-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid proposal for Mexico, including high-tech phone-tapping equipment and possibly Black Hawk helicopters. Calderon argues the U.S. government has a responsibility to help because it is U.S. drug consumers that effectively fund the cartels. But skeptics fear that U.S. equipment could fall into the wrong hands. The drug cartels have turned many former police and army officers. One entire unit of army special forces deserted in the late 1990s to form a paramilitary group called the Zetas, who worked as bloody enforcers to help the Gulf Cartel get the edge over its rivals. The Zetas' paramilitary tactics were imitated by the rival Sinaloa cartel, which trained thousands of up-and-coming thugs in weapons and communications. After years of mutual beheadings and massacres, the two cartels recently made a truce, deciding the bloodshed was bad for business, Mexican and U.S. law officials say. The wrath of both cartels is now turned on the government.
Some analysts say Calderon can win the war if he continues a sustained assault. "He can smash the big organizations in the same way the Colombians took down the Medellin Cartel," said Mexican drug expert Jorge Chabat. "The cartels cannot defeat the government militarily. Their strength is corruption."
Calderon claims he is cleaning out the narco-corruption in all levels of government. The army and federal police have taken took over police stations in several border cities this month, seizing the local force's guns while they root out corrupt officers.
But not everyone is a happy with Calderon's military-style approach to the drug problem. Mexican Human Rights Commissioner Jose Luis Soberanes told Congress this week that his office had collected evidence of widespread torture, rape and murder by police and soldiers in the course of missions against drug gangs. In one case, 19 soldiers face a court martial for shooting dead two women and three children in June at a roadblock in Sinaloa state. In another case, soldiers are accused of detaining and raping four girls in the mountainous state of Michoacan.
"Individuals belonging to the armed forces committed grave abuses," he said. "The use of the army to fight drug traffickers can only be a temporary solution."