Mexico's Next War: Against the Narcos?

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The bodies of some of the 72 migrants killed in a ranch in Mexico lie at an abandoned warehouse in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas on Aug. 25, 2010

The Ecuadorean government couldn't get its citizen out of Mexico fast enough. The young man had been making his way to the U.S. last week when he and 72 fellow Latin American migrants, he told authorities, were abducted by one of Mexico's most vicious drug cartels, the Zetas, in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas. When the migrants refused to pay ransom, the narcos shot each of them in the head at a remote ranch house, leaving their corpses in heaps inside a grain barn. Only the Ecuadorean, who was shot in the neck but played dead, survived. He was put under Mexican military protection.

But Ecuadorean officials whisked him back home early Monday morning — and who can blame them? A day after last week's Tamaulipas massacre, believed to be the worst drug-related crime ever in Mexico, a state investigator probing the atrocity, Roberto Suárez, and a police officer accompanying him went missing. The only thing more troubling is how little a surprise that was: Mexican cops, detectives and judges are often murdered while working narco cases, as are witnesses supposedly under government protection. After a top drug lord was killed in a shoot-out with federal agents late last year, officials in the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón were even clueless enough to trumpet the identity of a Mexican marine who died in the operation — and narcos then murdered his unprotected mother and sister in retaliation.

Drug-related killings have claimed more than 28,000 lives in Mexico since Calderón began his offensive against the narcocartels three and a half years ago. The vast majority of those homicides are unsolved. But the migrant massacre and its aftermath have left Mexicans with the most sinking feeling yet that their government is impotent to shield them from the bloodshed. In two weeks, Mexico will mark its bicentennial, yet most people there say they see little to celebrate if 200 years of nationhood is culminating in a narcorepublic that can act with nightmarish impunity. "The country lives in a state of perpetual and increasing violence," says pollster and political analyst Federico Berrueto. "Everything and everybody is paralyzed."

As if to stoke Mexicans' dread that the narcos plan to turn the bicentennial into a bullet fest, the cartels have upped the ante in recent weeks. Aside from murdering numerous politicians in northern Mexico — including the most recent victim, Marco Antonio Leal, mayor of the Tamaulipas town of Hidalgo, whose 10-year-old daughter was shot in the leg during the Sunday ambush but survived — they've unleashed explosives. Two car bombs went off simultaneously in the Tamaulipas capital of Ciudad Victoria last Friday, one at a television studio and another outside a police station. No one was hurt, but on Saturday grenade explosions in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa reportedly killed one person and injured 20, while another bomb planted at police headquarters in Tampico farther south wounded two.

Calderón decried Leal's "cowardly" murder and the "reprehensible violent acts" plaguing Tamaulipas, where the Zetas and their erstwhile partner, the Gulf cartel, are currently fighting for turf control. He insisted that he would "strengthen the commitment of the Mexican government to continue fighting the criminal gangs that intimidate" Mexico — and which increasingly spook Washington as well. But in recent forums with politicos, security experts, business leaders and grass-roots citizens, Calderón and his administration have betrayed an unsettling uncertainty as to what to do next. His strategy of throwing the Mexican army at the cartels has had limited success at best — although he scored a victory on Monday when federales captured Edgar Valdez, alias "La Barbie," a chief of the Beltrán-Leyva cartel — and his critics charge that it has only exacerbated the crisis.

Besides the insatiable U.S. appetite for drugs, Mexico's key problem remains — and will remain, no matter how many Black Hawk helicopters and other politically flashy hardware the U.S. sends south of the border under a $1.5 billion antinarco aid plan for Mexico — its corrupt and incompetent police. Any doubts about that fact should have been erased earlier this month when two large units of federal cops rioted in the border city of Juárez, the Mexican town worst hit by the narcocarnage, accusing each other of being in the cartels' pockets. "The Mexican security process is utterly deformed," says Arturo Alvarado, a security expert at the Colegio de México in Mexico City. "That's why the violence, and the state's incapacity to confront it, keeps deteriorating and will continue to deteriorate until we see the political will to change this."

Reforming the Mexican constabulary could take a generation. (The federal police commissioner said Monday that he has purged a tenth of his force for failing lie-detector and other tests.) But Calderón last week showed that he recognizes what promises to be more effective against the cartels than soldiers — namely, the kinds of laws that can sap the narcos of the billions of dollars they use to buy not only guns (most smuggled from the U.S.), but also cops and officials, and which businesses are all too happy to launder for them. The bill he sent to Mexico's Congress last Thursday would more seriously crack down on money-laundering operations, mainly by regulating channels like currency-exchange houses and jewelers and by improving financial intelligence-gathering. Bank and other cash transactions over 100,000 pesos ($7,700) would finally set off the kind of alarm bells, for example, that they do in the U.S. and other countries.

That won't ease Mexican anxieties in the short run, of course — and probably won't raise national spirits enough to turn the Sept. 15 grito, or the cry of independence, into a more cheerful occasion. But it's the kind of step that could make Mexico's tricentennial, or even its 250th or 225th anniversary, a lot more to celebrate than its bicentennial.