Mexico's Drug War Takes to the Barricades

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Protesters taunt riot police in the northern industrial city of Monterrey, Mexico, on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

Masked teenagers lob bricks at police shields, middle-aged women wave banners and chant slogans against repression, while police tanks fire water cannons into rowdy crowds. These images may evoke anti-globalization protests at some high-powered economic summit, but in northern Mexico, they're the latest flash point in the nation's incessant drug war.

Daily demonstrations demanding that the army leave Mexico's streets have erupted in towns and cities along Mexico's border with Texas and down the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Protesters have blocked main avenues, slowed traffic across international bridges into the U.S. and clashed with federal police. The Mexican authorities blame this entire movement on the Gulf drug cartel and its bloody band of enforcers known as the Zetas. The demonstrators, says the government, are simply a rent-a-mob being deployed in desperation against a military-led crackdown on the cartels. (See pictures of Mexico's drug wars.)

The protesters are having none of it, saying they're on the streets because soldiers rape, rob and murder civilians and have not made the streets any safer from the wrath of gangsters. Whatever the true motive or motives behind the protests, however, the daily images of barricades and baton charges are raising fears that the drug war could combine with social unrest to further imperil Mexico's increasingly precarious security situation.

Protests have been most intense in the industrial city of Monterrey, 140 miles south of Laredo, Texas. Demonstrations there began on Monday, Feb. 9, and as they grew in intensity, they produced clashes between hundreds of protesters and police on Feb. 17. The local state governor, Jose Natividad Gonzalez, accuses the Gulf cartel of orchestrating the disruptions. The crime syndicate is mimicking Mexico's hard left, he says, busing in paid protesters from the barrios to run amok.

Gonzalez' accusations are backed up by the army and federal government. Soldiers stormed the house of Juan Antonio Beltran, whom they accused of being a protest organizer and Gulf cartel operative. In statements to the local press, the military claimed that Beltran confessed to paying the demonstrators $15 to $35 each to take to the streets. "We have to stop criminal groups trying to generate chaos through co-optation and threats," said Federal Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, the leading figure in President Felipe Calderón's campaign against crime. (See pictures of Mexico City's police fighting crime.)

But activist Jorge Hernandez, who has demonstrated against the military in Mexico's murder capital Ciudad Juarez, argues that the protests are a legitimate display of anger against the troops. "Soldiers are kidnapping people and robbing houses," claims Hernandez, a member of a leftist group called the National Front Against Repression. "There are people who have been taken away by the military and not seen for months. Complaints to the authorities go nowhere. So now their family members are taking to the streets." Hernandez says the protests have been staged by various social groups and community organizations that are voluntary and unpaid. He predicts they will grow larger amid discontent with repression, insecurity and the economic crisis. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

Calderón put the army on the front lines of the fight against cartels as soon he took office in December 2006. There are now some 50,000 troops deployed against the gangsters, both in the marijuana-growing mountains and in cities such as Juarez, Monterrey and Tijuana. That campaign has coincided with skyrocketing violence, as criminal gangs wage war on government forces and on one another, leaving more than 5,300 dead last year. Many citizens support the soldiers, whom they see as Mexico's only hope against thugs armed with high-powered rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Still, the National Human Rights Commission has documented hundreds of accusations of military abuses, including the killing of at least 13 unarmed civilians and the rape of four women.

Political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo suggests the protests are, indeed, the work of drug cartels, who he says are throwing everything they have into their fight against the government crackdown. But he argues that Calderón has made a mistake by keeping the soldiers on the streets throughout his first two years in office. "The army could be tolerated as an extreme measure. But now they have become the first level of enforcement against the cartels," he said. Crespo contends that this deployment has actually weakened the army's position. While criminals once viewed the troops as untouchable, they now target them on a daily basis. Since October, gunmen have killed 21 soldiers and officers, including a recently retired general who was assassinated in the resort of Cancún earlier this month. "The army used to be seen as the government's great deterrent," Crespo says. "But now what is the big stick that can be used against the cartels? Foreign intervention?"

See pictures of Culiacán, the home of Mexico's drug-trafficking industry.

See pictures of the fence between the United States and Mexico.