Mexico's Drug Wars Heat Up

A government crackdown has cartel violence spreading to cities that have never seen it before

In the once-chic beach resort of Acapulco, the severed heads of two police officers who had been clamping down on drug traffickers were found a few months ago with a note attached: "So that you learn to respect." The grisly method soon caught on. In August alone, four more heads accompanied by threatening notes appeared in the central Mexican state of Michoacán.

In Mexico City, gunmen strode into an upscale restaurant on Aug. 16 and shot a businessman in the head. A few miles away, two federal judges were gunned down in the past few weeks, one of them days after he limited the visitation rights of a notorious jailed drug kingpin.

For years, Mexico's drug cartels have shot it out among themselves, usually in rough cities along the U.S. border or on the Pacific coast, where most of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine consumed by Americans enters the U.S. But a bloody turf war among traffickers is spreading the violence to cities that have rarely seen it before.

Now they are targeting police and judges in response to the government crackdown. "The Mexican government is engaged in an unprecedented, all-out fight against drug traffickers," Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca told reporters on Aug. 23. "The decapitations are a sign of the violence that these groups are showing because we have them cornered." Cornered, perhaps, but far from being vanquished.

As President Vicente Fox's six-year term in office draws to a close this year, American officials say they've enjoyed unprecedented cooperation from Mexican officials. Under Fox, Mexico has targeted the major cartels, nabbing or killing 15 top traffickers, including Osiel Cárdenas, a powerful kingpin now languishing in prison.

Record amounts of drugs have been seized, and more intelligence is being shared by drug-enforcement officials from both sides. That cooperation resulted in the Aug. 14 arrest by U.S. officials of Francisco Javier Arellano Félix, a key member of the so-called Tijuana cartel, as he cruised on a yacht in international waters near San Diego.

The crackdown has sparked a bloody competition among remaining traffickers for the country's lucrative drug routes. Over the past year around 1,000 people have died in drug-related killings nationwide.

The border city of Nuevo Laredo, just south of Laredo, Tex., has been hard hit: Last year the city's police chief was killed just eight hours after being sworn in, and his replacement lasted just a few months before throwing in the towel. Today, the city has no police chief (see, 8/1/05, "The Mean Streets of Nuevo Laredo").


  Some worry that Mexico is looking more and more like Colombia, where drug traffickers in the 1980s infiltrated law enforcement, blocked extraditions, and kidnapped and killed scores of judges and journalists. But Bruce Bagley, an expert on the drug trade at the University of Miami, says that Mexico's institutions are still relatively unscathed, despite the recent spike in violence.

True, local Mexican police forces show troubling signs of corruption—it's hard for a cop earning $400 a month to resist. But federal law enforcement agencies are being reinforced with better-paid, better-educated recruits who are undergoing intense training. The army has so far largely remained untainted even though its troops have been assigned to carry out many drug seizures. And the government has pledged to provide protection for judges who handle drug cases.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) says that while most of the cocaine entering the U.S. still originates in Colombia, Mexican groups that once served as mere conduits for the Colombian cartels today are the dominant traffickers and control most of the distribution points in major American cities. Mexico also has become a major producer of heroin and marijuana, and more recently has become a big supplier of methamphetamine, which is processed in clandestine laboratories throughout the country.

The Fox administration, eager to establish closer relations with the U.S. and to reduce drug consumption within Mexico, since 2000 has seized more than 10,000 tons of marijuana, 140 tons of cocaine, 1,850 kilos of opium paste, nearly 1,700 kilos of heroin, and more than four tons of methamphetamine. That's an impressive haul, although it represents a small fraction of the $6 billion to $10 billion in drugs that slip each year across the busy border, or through tunnels underneath it.


  Fox also promised to extradite top cartel leaders, but the country's slow judicial system has so far frustrated that initiative, which may help explain why it was U.S. law enforcement officers who nabbed the Tijuana cartel figure in late August even though his yacht was near Mexican territorial waters.

In American prisons, traffickers cannot operate with impunity the way they still can in many Mexican jails, where mobile phones are frequently confiscated from kingpins. To help Mexican law enforcement agencies tighten their grip on the cartels, Washington is providing them with computers, training, and surveillance helicopters.

Although Mexico has made heroic efforts in recent years to crack down on the entrenched drug trade, there's little chance it will ever choke off the flow of narcotics. "As soon as one cartel leader is captured or killed, another steps up to take his place," says Jesús Blancornelas, a muckraking Tijuana journalist who narrowly survived a 1997 machine-gun attack by hit men from the Arellano Félix cartel.

The 70-year-old founding editor of the Zeta weekly newspaper, which over the years has published numerous investigative stories about the drug trade, lost two of his fellow editors to the cartel's hired guns, including one who was slain in front of his two small children in 2004.

When he goes out, Blancornelas rides in a bulletproof vehicle, guarded by a dozen army troops in two chase cars. "Our unfortunate experiences have made other journalists afraid to write about drug trafficking," he says.

Indeed, at least four and possibly as many as 10 Mexican journalists covering crime and drugs have been killed in the past five years, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. That means that even as Mexico's violent drug wars heat up, the country's journalists may deem it too dangerous to delve deeply into one of the biggest threats facing the young democracy's institutions.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.