Can Mexico's Drug Terror Be Stopped?

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Gregory Bull / AP

Mexican Federal Police salute three officers recently killed during a ceremony honoring them in Mexico City, May 9, 2008.

Mexicans are accustomed to tales of crooked cops abetting drug-related killings. So this week's announcement that a federal officer is among those charged with conspiracy in a drug-mafia hit on the nation's acting police chief Edgar Millan caused little surprise south of the border. Mexican officials say the May 8 assassination was ordered by the Sinaloa drug cartel, and if convicted, the accused officer, Jose Montes, will join a long and infamous line of cops — including one of Mexico's former anti-drug czars — who have moonlighted for the cartels.

Still, last week's murder of Millan, one of the the highest-ranking police officials ever to be gunned down in Mexico, set a new benchmark in the Colombia-style drug carnage that continues to rage from Tijuana to Cancun. Mexico has already logged almost 1,200 drug-related killings this year — putting it well on track to break last year's record of almost 2,500 — as an increasingly chaotic array of drug gangs fight one another for trafficking turf, and against any officials who dare to confront them.

The Millan assassination appears to have sparked new urgency on Capitol Hill to pass President Bush's $1.4 billion, three-year plan to help Mexico combat narco-terror. Yet, while the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the measure on Wednesday — even raising the funding to $1.6 billion — its fate on the House floor, and in the Senate, remains uncertain.

The Democratic-led Senate appears poised to trim the first year funding allocation in light of competing foreign-aid priorities. And many Senators suspect that the kind of police dysfunction that may have been involved in Millan's demise won't be easily fixed by a three-year plan. Some cite "concerns that [the plan] will not do enough to address the institutional weaknesses that allow violence and impunity to flourish" in Mexico, says Tim Rieser, an aide to Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. "The problems are deeply rooted and there needs to be a broader, sustainable approach."

Professionalizing Mexico's police and judiciary is certainly the challenge of a generation rather than of an election cycle. But Mexico's security forces, whose firepower pales in comparison to the high-powered arsenals of the drug cartels, are in dire need of just the kind of short-term aid envisioned in the plan, dubbed the "Merida Initiative" for the Yucatan city where it was announced last year by Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

While most of the aid package goes to equip Mexico with Black Hawk helicopters and more sophisticated surveillance equipment, it also includes funds for more credible training of police, prosecutors and judges — in other words, to start the long-term institutional overhaul advocated by Leahy and others. Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar suggested this month that trimming the Merida Initiative would set back efforts to transform Mexican law enforcement, and would "harm U.S.-Mexico relations and broader U.S. interests." Still, Leahy and other Senators may attach conditions on the Merida aid, such as demanding more concrete evidence that Mexico's security forces are being purged of corrupt cops and human-rights abusers. Such demands would surely raise the hackles of Mexican nationalists, who bridle against the sort of gringo-dictated conditions that they see in Plan Colombia, a similar anti-drug aid crusade in South America — and who blame Mexico's crisis on the appetite for cocaine in the U.S. and on the rampant smuggling of U.S. guns south of the border.

As Congress debates the best way to fix the problem, Mexico is fast spiraling in the direction of the narco-terror that gripped Colombia in the 1980s and the early 1990s. Mexico's cartels, including the Sinaloa gang's main rival, the Gulf Cartel, have in recent years raised the scale of the bloodletting by introducing such weapons as grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and bazookas, as well as ghastly methods like mass beheadings.

In February, a Sinaloa operative was killed and another injured during a botched attempt to detonate a bomb outside a Mexico City police headquarters — a portent that the mafias may be poised to unleash the kind of frontal guerrilla assault on law enforcement seen in Colombia two decades ago. "Each year, the violence takes on distinct new dimensions," says Victor Clark Alfaro, a security expert at the Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana. "It's like fighting guerrillas — it often defies understanding."

Shortly after taking office last year, President Calderon turned to the military to fight the cartels, deploying 25,000 troops throughout the country to harass the narcos and obstruct their trafficking routes. The strategy has resulted in the arrest of numerous cartel bosses and triggermen, and forced the syndicates to make costly detours on their trafficking routes. But it has also sparked a backlash: The cartels have retaliated with a new level of savagery, aided by the country's legions of bent cops, that has left a trail of hundreds of murdered police, prosecutors, politicians and civilians. The cartels "respond like this because they know we're hitting their criminal structures," Calderon insisted after Millan's killing.

But the cost of success appears to have been too much for several local Mexican police chiefs, who, according to U.S. officials, have recently shown up at U.S. border checkpoints requesting political asylum in the U.S. And they clearly have reason to be fearful: Already, 10 of the 17 police officers named on a list nailed by narcos to the door of the town hall in the border town of Juarez in January have been murdered.

Millan appears to have been targeted in retaliation for the federal police jailing such top cartel figures as Sinaloa honcho Arturo Beltran. The accused gunman, Alejandro Ramirez, was waiting inside the police chief's Mexico City apartment early last Thursday morning when Millan, 41, returned home. Ramirez allegedly shot Millan nine times as Millan turned on the lights. Millan's bodyguard was also shot, but managed to subdue Ramirez, who was arrested along with Montes and five other alleged conspirators. Mexican authorities say Montes, the federal police officer, was collared with incriminating documents, including the license plate numbers of senior federal police and logs of cocaine shipments in and out of Mexican airports.

This week, in response to the Millan killing, Calderon sent 2,700 federal police and soldiers into Culiacan, the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, for new operations against the cartel there. (Over the weekend, the grown son of the Sinaloa Cartel's chief, Juan "Chapo" Guzman, was gunned down by narco rivals in a Culiacan mall.) Perhaps in response, 40 men dressed in black, riding in 10 pickup trucks and armed with automatic rifles, attacked the state police station in Guamuchil, Sinaloa, reportedly leaving a civilian dead and a police officer seriously wounded. Mexico's violence may defy understanding, but there is one thing Washington may now begin to appreciate: just when you think it can't get any worse, it does.

With reporting by Ioan Grillo/Mexico City