MEXICO CITY — The drug war in Mexico is at a crossroads. As the death toll climbs above 28,000, President Felipe Calderon confronts growing pressure to try a different strategy — perhaps radically different — to quell the violence unleashed by major drug syndicates.
Even an elder from his own party, former President Vicente Fox, is taking potshots at Calderon, telling him that his policy is seriously off-track.
Many Mexicans don't know whether their country is winning or losing the war against drug traffickers, but they know they're fatigued by the brutality that's sweeping parts of their nation.
Calderon urged his countrymen this week not to gauge the drug war by the relentless rise of the death toll. In early April, newspaper tallies put the toll at around 18,000, but legislators then leaked a higher official estimate: 22,700. Earlier this month, the nation's intelligence chief said that 28,000 people most likely had been killed since Calderon came to office in late 2006.
"The number of murders or the degree of violence isn't necessarily the best indicator of progress or retreat, or if the war . . . is won or lost," the president told opposition party chiefs at a meeting called to pull the nation behind his counter-drug strategy. "It is a sign of the severity of the problem."
Calderon had called the party bosses — along with academics and civic leaders — into public sessions on how to improve security and get the upper hand against the drug gangs, several of which are engaged in bloody warfare over smuggling routes.
"What I ask, simply, is for clear ideas and precise proposals on how to improve this strategy," the president said at one session.
What Calderon, a bespectacled economist with a professorial manner, got instead was a barrage of criticism. The government should send soldiers back to their barracks, he was told, and do more to attack money-laundering and to protect judges. Several politicians, including Fox, suggested that Calderon consider legalizing narcotics.
The near-daily brainstorming sessions were interrupted when Calderon flew to Colombia to attend the swearing-in last Saturday of President Juan Manuel Santos, and that nation's success in battling cocaine cartels has served as a reference point for the discussions.
So have several disclosures and news events that underscore the levels of corruption that are corroding law enforcement efforts. Among them:
- Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said last Friday that narcotics cartels paid around $100 million a month in bribes to municipal police officers across Mexico, ensuring that their activities went undisturbed.
- Some 250 federal police officers abducted a commander briefly last weekend in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, accusing him of being in cahoots with traffickers and forcing the police to extort citizens.
Calderon is seeking support for wholesale police reform in Mexico, where some 33,000 officers belong to a federal police force and another 430,000 belong to disparate state or municipal forces. He's pointed to Colombia's unified national police as an example of how to make headway against organized crime.
Calderon wants to abolish the 1,200 or so municipal police departments and strengthen 32 state police forces under some level of federal command.
As it is now, he said, "there is no possibility of setting directives on strategy, logistics or even discipline on this enormous body of police at the municipal level."
Municipal police earn miserable salaries and are notoriously corrupt in much of Mexico, where they're subject to a choice by drug gangs — "plomo" or "plata" — either take a "lead" bullet or accept a payoff in "silver" to look the other way.
During Calderon's government, criminal gangs have killed 915 municipal police officers, 698 state police and 463 federal agents, the Public Safety Secretariat said.
"Probably the most corrupt institutions in Mexico are those municipal police forces," said Scott Stewart, the vice president for tactical intelligence at Stratfor, a company based in Austin, Texas, that provides global analysis.
"The police officers are kind of seen as some sort of third-class citizens," Stewart said. "Basically, the privileged ... like the fact that they can offer somebody 20 or 50 bucks to get out of a speeding ticket. It's very convenient to have that level of corruption."
After coming to office, Calderon turned to the military for help in fighting at least seven drug cartels that hold sway over vast areas of Mexico, rapidly deploying some 45,000 troops.
The deployment coincided with intensified fighting between rival groups, most notably the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, known as Los Zetas. The Sinaloa Cartel, perhaps the strongest drug syndicate to emerge since the heyday of Colombian cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s, is battling a weaker cartel based in the border city of Juarez across from El Paso, Texas.
As public discussions about counter-drug strategy unfolded in the past week, a surprising source of some of the harshest criticism was former President Fox of Calderon's own National Action Party.
"We should consider legalizing the production, sale and distribution of drugs," Fox wrote on his blog last Saturday, making big newspaper headlines the next day. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked."
Fox wrote that legalization would "break the economic system that allows cartels to make huge profits, which in turn increases their power and capacity to corrupt." He also called on Calderon to send soldiers back to the barracks.
The broadside from Fox coincided with criticism from opposition party chiefs. Jesus Ortega, the head of the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party, backed Fox's calls for legalization and said prosecutors should examine the corrupt financial system. The money of the cartels "isn't stuffed under the mattresses of drug lords," he said.
Attorney General Arturo Chavez Chavez acknowledged that legal "stumbling blocks" hindered the confiscation of drug lords' assets, saying that the government soon would offer reforms.
However, Stewart, the Stratfor analyst, said that entrenched political and business interests would block any reform of law enforcement or money-laundering legislation.
"There are powerful interests in Mexico who benefit from the drug trade and the $40 billion, or whatever it is, that is pumped into the Mexican economy," Stewart said. "You're talking bankers. You're talking businesses that are laundering money, construction companies that are building resorts. People are becoming very rich off the flow of money."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010