Deaths in Mexico drug war pass 22,000, but who's counting?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 29, 2010 

MEXICO CITY — As the death toll has climbed from drug-related violence in Mexico, it's fallen largely to newspapers to keep the count.

Two weeks ago, a government report that legislators leaked spoke of 22,700 deaths over little more than a three-year period, a far higher body count than the 18,000 or so given by El Universal, a leading newspaper.

President Felipe Calderon's aides won't confirm the report, and some political analysts have seized on the lack of transparency as an element in the Mexican leader's difficulties in rallying the nation in the campaign against heavily armed narcotics syndicates.

"It was not their intention to share this information," said Elena Azaola, an investigator at the Center for Advanced Studies and Research in Social Anthropology in the capital, adding that it was symptomatic of tight handling of crucial data.

"There is a vacuum of important official information in very many areas," she said. "And there's also a lack of credibility. People speak as if there were censorship, a covering up of information."

That might seem like an odd allegation, given that displays of more than two dozen different daily and weekly papers cover newspaper kiosks in the capital, but Azaola isn't alone in criticizing the government's tight hold on information. Other analysts said that suppressing the data hindered Mexicans' ability to evaluate the Calderon administration.

"It asks for an act of faith from the public that its secret policies are correct," said Edna Jaime, a political scientist at a policy institute, Mexico Evalua.

Immediately after Calderon came to office in late 2006, he deployed up to 50,000 troops in a frontal battle with narcotics cartels, a move that drew widespread praise for its courage. More than three years later, the pace of killings is soaring and public security worries are beginning to affect the tourism industry, which employs nearly one out of eight Mexicans.

Calderon has earned high praise in Washington, where he'll travel May 19-20 in a visit that will include an address to a joint session of Congress and a state dinner at the White House, only the second one that President Barack Obama has hosted.

Mistrust of government is deeply entrenched in Mexico, and it hampers Calderon, who came to office with less than a 1 percent margin of victory.

"President Calderon is never going to have the approval of most Mexicans in the war on drugs," said Tony Payan, an expert on Mexico at the University of Texas in El Paso. "Mexicans are very skeptical and very cynical of the government."

Earlier in April, Calderon made several gaffes, political analysts said, coming off as insensitive to deaths of innocent civilians and out of sync with the fears of ordinary Mexicans, mistakes that he sought to amend this week.

Calderon said repeatedly in mid-April that 90 percent of the victims of violence were drug traffickers or gunmen linked to them. Of the rest, about 5 percent are soldiers and police, and the remainder innocent bystanders, he said.

The veracity of the assertion hasn't been questioned, although it's hard to judge without an official death tally. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which keeps tabs on public security, said the estimate of 22,700 deaths came in "a confidential report." The spokesman, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists, would say nothing further about it.

That secrecy has cost Calderon public support.

"Civil society stopped believing in him," said Ghaleb Krame, a security consultant and scholar at Alliant International University's Mexico City branch. "He has surrounded himself with loyal people but not the best people. They are covering up the real magnitude of this war."

There are several cases in which soldiers shot and killed innocent people, at first claiming that they were part of drug gangs. Two notorious cases occurred in northeast Mexico:

_ Soldiers shot and killed two graduate students at the prestigious Tecnologico de Monterrey on March 19, later claiming that the victims were cartel gunmen.

-- Soldiers opened fire on a vehicle that was taking a family for an Easter outing to the beach in Matamoros, killing Bryan and Martin Almanza Salazar, 5 and 9 years old.

Calderon visited Monterrey, the industrial hub in the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon, on Wednesday and offered an apology of sorts for civilian deaths. He said, however, that it would be a perilous error to pull the army from the fight against narcotics cartels.

"I am aware that one of the events that has most infuriated and affected Nuevo Leon and all of Mexico . . . has been the lamentable loss of innocent civilian life," he said.

He promised to "amend many errors."

One of Mexico's more prominent civilian activists, Maria Elena Morera, said soldiers hadn't been properly trained for their role in combating cartel gunmen, especially as the battles moved into cities.

"They shoot at cars passing through roadblocks," she said. Many soldiers don't know that "you shoot at the tires of the car, not at the people inside."

Jaime, the political scientist, said Calderon's aggressive campaign against the cartels hadn't brought results that were tangible to most Mexicans.

"There's starting to be a lot of concern. We're seeing innocent victims and human rights violations and we're not seeing an improvement in public security," she said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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