With Calderon, a New War on Mexico's Mighty Drug Cartels ; Mexico's New President Is Tackling Some of the Country's Toughest Problems, but What Will It Take to Succeed? Part 1 of Three

Article excerpt

They leapt off the helicopters in seconds: 35 Mexican soldiers, touching down softly on the soil and fanning out across a marijuana field.

As the men yanked out tidy rows of plants perched on a mountainside in the western state of Michoacan, other military choppers circled like hawks, ready to battle hiding snipers. Two hours later, the only hint of a narcotrafficking base was a smoldering fire.

It's a scene familiar in Colombia, but new here in Mexico. This small victory is part of President Felipe Calderon's massive military effort to crack down on one of Mexico's most entrenched problems: drug trafficking and organized crime. But as most of the helicopters pulled away, the sight of soldiers pulling up remaining plants one by one in this tiny field - one of 38 in this isolated region alone - underscored the enormity of targeting Mexico's vast illicit drug trade, which includes poppy fields, meth labs, and cash- flush criminals who control entire communities.

An escalating scourge

The number of drug cartel-related murders topped 2,100 last year, nearly double the average over the previous five years, and the problem is spilling over the border with the US, which asserts that 90 percent of drugs coming from Latin America enter through Mexico.

The more than 17,000 federal troops and police Calderon has deployed to the drug war's front lines so far are the stars of his mission to show that he's in control of the escalating scourge. He's lavished praise on soldiers - at one point even donning military fatigues to thank them. But it's not Calderon's willingness to deploy so many troops in a country wary of the military playing too prominent a public role that will determine success, say analysts. Real results, they say, depend on whether he can maintain a focus on the tougher, less visible fight to simultaneously root out corruption in local police forces and improve the court system.

"He is making decisions. But if you don't make reforms at all levels at the same time, it won't work," says Jorge Chabat, a drugs expert at Mexico City's Center for Economic Research and Teaching. "You can be very efficient capturing one criminal, and then he goes free because some judge was given some money. Or maybe you can capture the criminal, the judiciary works well, and then a drug lord escapes from a high security prison."

While the number of cartel-related murders across Mexico has increased from about 1,000 in 2001 to more than 2,100 last year, according to government figures, so, too, has the ferocity of the killings. Human heads were propped on a fence outside a government building in Acapulco. A mass grave was found. In the most gruesome incident, gunmen in September stormed a nightclub and hurled five heads onto a dance club in Uruapan, Michoacan.

Most of the bloodshed has been restricted to cartels, but police and journalists have also been targeted, and feuds have migrated from Mexico's northern border with the US to the entire Pacific corridor, as the dominating Gulf and Sinaloa cartels - as well as their subsidiaries - battle for billion-dollar routes and territory.

Time to send in the troops

Days after taking office Dec. 1, Calderon announced Operation Michoacan by sending 7,000 military and federal officers into his home state. "This is a very difficult battle,"said Army Gen. Manuel Garcia Ruiz, who heads Operation Michoacan, at the airfield of the Lazaro Cardenas Airport before a recent drug raid. "It will last as long as it is necessary."

Last month, a small group of journalists was invited to witness the raid in Michoacan, where choppers flew over mountains, cut with rocky ravines snaking through sparsely populated valleys. The marijuana field on which they landed was ringed with an irrigation system fed by a rushing creek and thousands of yards of tubing. Footpaths led to at least two other such fields and a recently abandoned shack, with half-eaten tamales littering wooden benches. …

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