A Fighting Chance: As Mexico Steps Up Its War against the Brutal Cartels That Supply the United States' Drug Habit, Leaders on Both Sides of the Border Face Tough Questions about How to Combat a Problem That Threatens the Very Fabric of Mexico's Democracy

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NEWSPAPER HEADLINES AND TABLOID PICTURES TELL the story: headless corpses, blood--soaked vehicles, and a growing array of victims-drug traffickers, cops, politicians, journalists, and, increasingly, civilians. The lazy, tranquil Mexico I grew up in is engulfed in the bloodiest drug violence anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Nine years after an opposition party came to power-an event that was supposed to solidify the democracy that had been little more than a word in Mexico during several decades of oligarchic rule-Mexico's rule &law is withering before it takes root. Since 2006 more than 10,000 people have been killed in drug--related violence-1,000 of them in the first 45 days of this year alone. Last year, more Mexicans died in Mexico's drug war than Americans have died in Iraq since 2003.

To be sure, the Mexican government has scored important victories, though these successes, expressed in numbers, also suggest the scope of the problem More than 57,000 cartel kingpins, couriers, hit men, and lookouts-known as falcons-have been arrested since 2006. In the last two years, as many as 77 tons of cocaine, 585 kilos of heroin, and thousands of tons of marijuana have been seized. Authorities have impounded more than 33,000 firearms and some 4.5 million rounds of ammunition tied to trafficking.

Many U.S. and Mexican officials say that a crime problem--albeit a grave one-is being overblown. They scoff at a year-end Pentagon report calling Mexico and Pakistan the two countries most at risk of becoming failed states. "Failed states do not have functioning executive, legislative, and judicial branches; says Tony Garza, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. "They do not boast the world's 12th--largest economy, nor do they trade with the United States at a pace of more than $1 billion a day."

Mexico's attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News that Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, had to make fighting cartels the country's top priority upon taking office, but he dismissed the notion that Mexico is on the verge of collapse. "Mexico has never been a weak state, he said "It is not today. It will not be in the future. We do have a critical problem that needs very bold, determined action by the government, which is taking place"

Calderon's administration insists that much of the country remains immune to the ongoing violence. Federal officials stress that more than 60 percent of the killings are confined to three of Mexico's 31 states: Baja California, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua And they say that 90 percent of the victims are people tied to drug traffickers, though this number invites skepticism, as so few crimes are ever solved.

Since the 1930s, cartels have been a fact of life in Mexico. Sinaloa, a state on the Gulf of California that today is known as the country's narco-capital, was home to the first cartel, established by a single family. Over the years, other regions with gateways to the United States gave rise to their own organizations. These include Baja California's Tijuana cartel, controlled by the Arellano family; the Juarez cartel, controlled by the Carrillo Fuentes family; and the Gulf cartel, with the paramilitary group known as Los Zetas serving as its armed enforcers and eventually spawning their own criminal organizations.

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Accommodation between cartels and political leaders was common, as it has been in other Latin American countries, including Colombia. Ultimately, however, such an arrangement cannot hold. Greed takes over. In 1986, Colombian president Vugilio Barco described the three stages of narco-power that had gripped his country: "The first phase was the amusement. It was the period of the grand orgy with the drug dealers, when everybody was in bed with them and nobody paid any attention.... The second phase was the discovery period, when drug bosses no longer could depend on that more-or-less peaceful coexistence, and violence erupted. …