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Mexico's Drug Problem

A deadly battle against Mexico's drug cartels has overtaken illegal immigration and trade as the top issue between Mexico and the United States

By Randal C. Archibold in Mexico City

The small Mexican border town of Praxedis—long terrorized by drug cartels battling for control of smuggling routes—made headlines in October when it appointed a 20-year-old female criminology student as its police chief.

But after just five months on the job, Marisol Valles, now 21, fled with her family to the United States seeking asylum after receiving death threats. She had good reason to take them seriously: Her predecessor's head was found on the doorstep of the police station.

In a neighboring town, 28-year-old Érika Gándara became the police chief after no one else would take the job and every other officer on the force had quit or been killed. In December, armed men kidnapped her from her home, and she hasn't been seen since.

That kind of brutality has been the hallmark of a war in which the Mexican government has been battling drug cartels that are at the same time fighting each other for control of routes to the lucrative drug markets in the U.S.

When Mexico's President, Felipe Calderón, took office in late 2006, he made defeating the country's drug cartels a priority, committing the forces of both the federal police and the military to the fight. The result has been four years of escalating violence and more than 34,000 people killed, including 15,000 in the last year alone. (Many of those killed have been members of drug gangs, killed by rival gangs.)

"The country is under a security crisis, a crisis without precedent in the history of the country," says Mexican Senator Ricardo Monreal ávila.

U.S. Market for Drugs

The U.S. is not a bystander in Mexico's drug wars: The drugs, mainly marijuana and cocaine, are largely purchased and used by Americans, and many of the guns the drug cartels use are bought, either legally or illegally, in the U.S. and smuggled across the border.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that the problem isn't Mexico's alone.

"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," Clinton said on a trip to Mexico. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers, and civilians."

Illegal Immigration & Trade

Until a couple of years ago, the biggest issues between Mexico and the U.S. were economic development and illegal immigration. But now, the drug war—and the threat of violence spilling over the 2,000-mile-long border with the U.S.—is eclipsing other concerns.

"The fate of Mexico is intertwined with the fate of the U.S.," says Kevin Casas-Zamora, a Mexico expert at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "To the extent that violence careens out of control in Mexico, it will end up affecting the U.S. sooner or later."

That has already begun to happen. In February, two American teenagers were shot and killed while they shopped for a car in Juárez, Mexico. Carlos Mario Gonzalez Bermudez, 16, and Juan Carlos Echeverri, 15, were both students at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas. A week later, gunmen on a highway in northern Mexico killed a U.S. customs agent.

In fact, as a result of the rising violence in Juárez, so many Mexican parents have put their children in American schools in El Paso that border agents have opened up a special lane just for students going to school in the morning.

"It's just so much calmer and better over there," says Janet Burcia, 18, on her way from her home in Juárez to visit her grandmother in El Paso. "I go whenever I can."

Every day, 14,000 people cross back and forth between Juárez and El Paso. The two cities effectively function as one large metropolitan area, with many people passing back and forth to go shopping or to school.

It's just one of the many ways that the U.S. and Mexico have become intertwined. Mexico is the third-largest trading partner of the U.S. (after Canada and China). Since the passage in 1993 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened up trade between the U.S. and Mexico, Mexico's exports have soared—with 80 percent of those products going to the U.S. But many Americans blame NAFTA for U.S. factories relocating to Mexico, where labor and other costs are lower.

Mexicans also account for the largest portion of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.—about 6.7 million. With the unemployment rate in the U.S. at almost 9 percent, the issue of illegal immigrants competing for jobs has become even more contentious (see Debate).

Mexico's drug wars have only heightened concerns about who—and what—is passing across the border. The U.S. has given Mexico $1.4 billion specifically to help defeat the drug cartels. Secretary of State Clinton says the U.S. supports Calderón's crackdown on the cartels despite the spike in violence.

"Drug traffickers are not going to give up without a terrible fight, and when they do barbaric things like behead people, it is meant to intimidate," she said on a recent visit to Mexico City.

Exodus from Juárez

The drug cartels are a formidable enemy. They bring in billions of dollars, and they use that money to buy off judges, prison guards, and police officers. In fact, corruption is so rampant in some cities that the government has disbanded entire police forces and rebuilt them from scratch. In some areas, the cartels effectively operate as a state within a state, levying their own taxes, throwing up roadblocks, and enforcing their own codes of behavior.

Over the last four years, the Mexican government has made tens of thousands of arrests, including top drug traffickers and kingpins, and huge quantities of drugs and weapons have been seized. Mexican officials point out that more than half of the 37 most-wanted crime bosses have been captured or killed.

But the Mexican public does not seem to believe things are improving. A poll released in January found that more than 70 percent of Mexicans believe the country's security has worsened since 2009. For the first time in recent years, Mexicans are more worried about safety than the economy.

"There is a disconnect between what the government thinks it is achieving and what the public perceives as happening," says Denise Dresser, a political analyst in Mexico City. Because Calderón "made the war the center of gravity of his term, he is now being evaluated on whether he is winning it, and the public perception is he is not winning."

The effects of the drug war are clearly visible in Juárez, now known as the murder capital of the Western Hemisphere. Decades of growth—fueled largely by free trade and the many American factories that opened there—have been replaced by exodus. The city has lost nearly 20 percent of its population, about 230,000 people, in the past three years.

For those who have stayed, crime scenes have become part of daily life.

Worse Before It Gets Better?

Casas-Zamora, the Brookings expert, says the battle against the drug cartels is not a fight that can be won by soldiers or police in the streets. The underlying problem, he says, is that 98.5 percent of crimes in Mexico go unpunished. In other words, with a broken and corrupt judicial system, it doesn't matter how many arrests are made.

"My prognosis for Mexico is not very upbeat," Casas-Zamora says. "I think at the very least the problem will get much worse before it gets better. And it might not get better at all if they don't change their approach."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, April 4, 2011)