Mexico's Drug Wars: Finally Going After Number One

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Alejandro Acosta / Reuters

Mexican soldiers stand guard on a street in Guadalajara City, Mexico July 29, 2010. Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a major Mexican drug trafficker, was killed during an army operation in Zapopan.

The operation was swift and deadly. Mexican military intelligence — without any aid from police forces or American agents — zeroed in on a safe house of Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel a.k.a. "The King of Ice," one of the continent's most wanted drug traffickers. After clearance from high command, the troops went in on Thursday, July 29. Three helicopters covered from the air while 200 paratroppers rushed on the target in a plush suburb of Guadalajara. The operation commander was the first through the door — and was shot dead with a pistol by a startled Coronel. The next soldier through fired two shots into the drug lord's chest, killing him instantly. A bodyguard rapidly surrendered. The reign of the King of Ice was over.

A triumphant looking President Felipe Calderón appeared in the same city of Guadalajara less than four hours later to speak at a scheduled meeting with business leaders. Looking his most upbeat in several months, he assured the executives that he will succeed in bringing down the drug cartels that seem to have brought Mexico to the brink of the abyss. "We will firmly carry on the combat of crime that affects our society and community," he said to cheers. "We are going to deepen this effort, not only in the combat of organized crime in its most violent expression but in the combat of all law breaking."

After months of bad news on the drug war — including massacres, car bombs and prison breakouts — the conservative Calderón has some reason for celebration. Coronel, 56, was one of the biggest players in the drug industry on the planet, estimated to smuggle tons of cocaine and crystal meth into the United States every month. The FBI had a $5 million dollar reward for his capture. But more pertinently, Coronel was one of the key figures in Mexico's oldest and most powerful trafficking organization: the Sinaloa Cartel. For years Calderón's forces have picked away at the other six crime groups, leading to a flurry of accusations that they were somehow protecting the Sinaloans. Now Calderón can deflect this criticism and argue he is going after public enemy No. 1.

Located 265 miles south of the U.S. border at Arizona, the Pacific state of Sinaloa has produced narcotics since Washington first made them illegal. Peasant farmers grew opium poppies for heroin at the dawn of the 20th century and the crime family they developed then branched into marijuana, cocaine and more recently crystal meth. Working with this omnipotent mafia since he was teenager, Coronel rose to be No. 3 in the organization. The co-leaders of Sinaloa are Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman — whose worth Forbes magazine values at a billion dollars — and Ismael "The Mayo Indian" Zambada. Calderón's government will have to bring down one of these bosses to show it is really tearing up the cartel.

However, critics point to a fundamental problem facing Calderón in his war on the drug cartels. Whenever you shoot or arrest one capo, you simply get more bloodbaths as rivals fight to take their place. After the slaying of kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva, a.k.a. "The Beard," in December, his two lieutenants began a particularly vicious war in his old turf in central Mexico. One of them, the blond Edgar Valdez, alias "The Barbie," is accused by police of being the mastermind of killings that left behind 56 bodies and four severed heads, all found in an abandoned mine shaft.

The Sinaloa Cartel's chief rivals are the ultra-violent Zetas, led by army special forces defectors. On the same day that soldiers killed Coronel, the Zetas dumped 15 bodies on a road in northern Mexico with the letter Z drawn on their clothes. In total, there have been 26,000 drug related killings since Calderón took power in December 2006 and launched his frontal attack on the traffickers.

"The logic is that the death of Coronel will also cause more violence," says José Reveles, who wrote a recent book on the Sinaloa cartel. "Information is that the Zetas are trying to move into his territory in Guadalajara. But his death could also have repercussions in a number of other states, because the networks of these criminal organizations spiral right across the country."

Reveles argues that social programs aimed at stopping young people from falling into drugs and crime would be more effective in reducing the violence. But while Calderón has promised such schemes, he has not put his money where his mouth is, says Reveles. "In the United States, spending on drug law enforcement compared to prevention is two to one. In Mexico it is 99 to one," he says. "If we don't change the social fabric that is turning young men into paid assassins we are going to keep on having this problem."