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Dec 11, 2008 | 15:31 GMT

32 mins read

Mexican Drug Cartels: Government Progress and Growing Violence

To download a PDF of this piece Click here. Mexico's war against drug cartels continues. What began nearly two years ago with President Felipe Calderon's inauguration has since escalated in nearly every way possible. The past 12 months, in particular, have seen some significant developments as a result of Calderon's campaign. Weapons and drugs have been seized, key members of drug cartels have been arrested and greater cooperation has been established between Mexico and the United States. Despite the genuine hurdles presented by Mexico's bureaucratic infighting and rampant corruption, there is simply no denying that the government has disrupted the cartels' operations in meaningful ways. One result of these achievements has been greater volatility in the balance of power among the various drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. During at least the past five years, the criminal environment had been characterized by bipolar domination, with the Gulf cartel on one hand and the Sinaloa cartel on the other. Mexico's security forces' relentless focus on the Gulf cartel has damaged the organization's capabilities, leaving a vacuum of power that other cartels have sought to fill. It is still too early to determine which cartels will be left on top once the dust has settled, but what is clear is that this past year has been a year of flux for the cartels. The year has also seen a shift in the geography of drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, nearly all of which is attributable to the situation in Mexico. One of these shifts involves the increasing importance of Central America. After the Mexican government implemented greater monitoring and control of aircraft entering the country's airspace, airborne shipments of cocaine from Colombia decreased by an estimated 95 percent. Maritime trafficking has decreased more than 60 percent. Consequently, Mexican traffickers have expanded their presence in Central American countries as they have begun to rely increasingly on land-based shipping routes to deliver drugs from South American producers. In addition — and likely as a result of the more difficult operating environment — Mexican drug trafficking groups have also increased their operations in South America to begin providing drugs to markets there and in Europe. One apparent paradox for the Calderon administration has been that, even while the government has clearly succeeded in damaging the cartels, the country's security situation has continued to deteriorate at what appears to be an unstoppable rate. The total number of drug-related homicides has continued to increase while the violence has continued to escalate in several ways, including high-level assassinations, beheadings, use of a growing arsenal of cartel weapons and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. The deteriorating security situation certainly has the attention of the Calderon administration. The government is considering the implications of increasing casualties, not only among security forces but also among civilians. In addition, the initial strategy of relying on the military only over the short term appears increasingly unfeasible, as police reforms have proven far more difficult to achieve than the administration anticipated. Despite the costs, Calderon has shown no sign of letting up. Assistance from the United States will begin increasing as the Merida Initiative is implemented, but there is only so much that Washington can do given Mexico's reluctance to allow the United States to establish a stronger security presence on its territory.
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Cartel Membership and Organization

Gulf Cartel

As recently as a year ago, the Gulf cartel was considered the most powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico. After nearly two years of taking the brunt of the Mexican government's efforts, it is an open question at this point whether the cartel is even intact. The Gulf cartel's headquarters and main area of operation historically has been the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Through its use of Los Zetas, who operated for years as the cartel's notorious paramilitary enforcement arm, Gulf trafficked large quantities of narcotics across the Texas border into the United States. The group's symbolic leader is Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who led the cartel until his arrest in 2003. There are conflicting reports on who is presently in charge of the cartel. Some suggest it is Cardenas' brother, Antonio Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen. These reports conflict with our previous assessment that the cartel is likely led by Jorge "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez. In any case, both men are thought to play a major role in the organization, and they may be sharing leadership responsibilities. (Click image to enlarge) Los Zetas were the primary reason for Gulf's power. Following the extradition of Osiel Cardenas Guillen to the United States in 2007, rumors surfaced that Los Zetas were distancing themselves from Gulf. Reports of Zeta activity from this past year suggest that the split was complete by spring 2008. Though details on the current relationship between Los Zetas and Gulf are murky, it appears the two groups continue to work together, but that Los Zetas no longer take orders from Gulf.

Los Zetas

During the past 12 months, Los Zetas have remained a power to be reckoned with throughout Mexico. They operate under the command of leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano. Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales is believed to be the organization's No. 2. Trevino reportedly oversees much of the Zetas' operations in the southern portions of the country. Daniel "El Cachetes" Perez Rojas, who was arrested this past year in Guatemala, was responsible for the group's activities in Central America and reportedly answered directly to Lazcano. The November arrest of Jaime "El Hummer" Gonzalez Duran, the organization's third-in-command, was another significant blow to the organization, as Gonzalez was believed responsible for Zeta operations in nine states. It is unclear at the moment who has replaced Perez and Gonzalez in the Zeta hierarchy. (Click image to enlarge) Since their split with Gulf, Los Zetas have contracted themselves to a variety of drug trafficking organizations throughout the country, most notably the Beltran Leyva organization. Los Zetas also control large swaths of territory in southern Mexico, much of which formerly belonged to the Gulf cartel, and they have a presence in the interior states of Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. Zetas are also present in disputed territories such as Durango, Sonora, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Guerrero and Michoacan due to their alliance with the Beltran Leyva organization, though these areas are not considered to be under their control. Following the government's crackdowns, Los Zetas have expanded from strictly drug trafficking to other criminal activities, including extortion, kidnapping for ransom and human smuggling. Los Zetas' human smuggling operations are based out of Quintana Roo and Yucatan states, where mostly Cuban and Central American immigrants enter Mexico on their way to the United States. Los Zetas maintain a vast network of safe-houses and access to counterfeit immigration documents — which facilitate the illegal movement of drugs or people. At an average cost of $10,000 per person, human smuggling has become a lucrative business for the organization.

Beltran Leyva Organization

The Beltran Leyva family has a long history in the narcotics business. Until this past year, the organization was part of the Sinaloa Federation, for which it controlled access to the U.S. border in Sonora state (among other responsibilities). By the time Alfredo Beltran Leyva was arrested in January, however, the Beltran Leyva organization's alliance with Sinaloa was over. (It is rumored his arrest resulted from a Sinaloa betrayal.) (Click image to enlarge) Before this year, the Beltran Leyva brothers served as high-ranking members of the organization with many people under their command and plenty of infrastructure to branch out on their own. Under the leadership of Arturo Beltran Leyva, the organization moved quickly to secure strategic narcotics transport routes in the states of Sinaloa, Durango, Sonora, Jalisco, Michoacan, Guerrero and Morelos. This attempt to conquer territory from their former Sinaloa partners sparked a wave of violence. The Beltran Leyva brothers' Colombian cocaine supplier, Ever Villafane Martinez, was arrested in Morelos state in August. Since then, however, the organization has pursued a relationship with Victor and Dario Espinoza Valencia of Colombia's Norte del Valle cartel, though the details of this relationship are unclear. The Beltran Leyva organization has quickly become one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. Not only have they shown themselves capable of trafficking drugs and going toe-to-toe with the Sinaloa cartel, they also have demonstrated a willingness to order targeted assassinations of high-ranking government officials. The most notable of these was the May 9 assassination of acting federal police director Edgar Millan Gomez. The Beltran Leyva organization also occasionally has secured the cooperation of other drug trafficking organizations such as Los Zetas, Gulf, the Juarez cartel and a faction of the Arellano Felix organization (AFO) in Tijuana. However, these alliances are tentative at best and appear to have been forged mainly to counter the powerful influence of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera's Sinaloa cartel.

Sinaloa Cartel

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera is the most wanted drug lord in Mexico. Despite the turbulence it has experienced this past year, his Sinaloa cartel is perhaps the most capable drug trafficking organization in Mexico. This turbulence involved the loss of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization in Ciudad Juarez as well as the split with the Beltran Leyva organization. Guzman has maintained his long-standing alliances with his high-ranking lieutenants, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia and Ignacio "El Nacho" Coronel Villareal. These two have continued to work with Guzman, even as he has come under attack from nearly every other cartel in Mexico. (Click image to enlarge) The Sinaloa cartel also has come under increasing attack this past year from the Mexican government, which has deployed several thousand troops to Sinaloa state. The increased security presence has so far been too limited to significantly affect the Sinaloa cartel's operations, though some of its money laundering operations and other parts of its infrastructure have been shut down. (Click image to enlarge) The Sinaloa cartel's loss of partners in Mexico does not appear to have impacted its ability to smuggle drugs from South America to the United States. On the contrary, based on seizure reports, the Sinaloa cartel appears to be the most active smuggler of cocaine. It has also demonstrated the ability to establish operations in previously unknown areas, such as Central America and South America, even as far south as Peru, Paraguay and Argentina. It also appears to be most active in diversifying its export markets; rather than relying solely on U.S. consumers, it has made an effort to supply distributors of drugs in Latin American and European countries.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization/Juarez Cartel

The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization, also known as the Juarez cartel, is based out of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, across the border from El Paso, Texas. It also has a presence in much of northern Chihuahua state and parts of Nuevo Leon and Sonora states. The cartel is led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, brother of original leader Amado Carrillo. Believed to be second-in-command is his nephew, Vicente Carrillo Leyva. The Juarez cartel has had a long-standing alliance with the Beltran Leyva brothers, based on family and business ties. This past year, however, Carrillo Fuentes has turned to Los Zetas to aid in the defense of Juarez. Over the past year, the Juarez cartel has been locked in a vicious battle with its former partner, the Sinaloa cartel, for control of Juarez. The fighting between them has left more than 2,000 dead in Chihuahua state so far this year. The Juarez cartel relies on two enforcement arms to exercise control over both sides of the border: La Linea, a group of current and former Chihuahua police officers, is prevalent on the Mexican side, while the large street gang Barrio Azteca operates in Texas, in cities such as El Paso, Dallas and Austin.

Arellano Felix Organization/Tijuana Cartel

The AFO, also known as the Tijuana cartel, has been weakened almost beyond recognition over the past year due to the efforts of both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement to capture several high-ranking leaders. The most symbolic was the October arrest of Eduardo "El Doctor" Arellano Felix, the only original Arellano Felix brother who had evaded capture. (Click image to enlarge) Fighting among the various factions of the cartel itself has led to hundreds of deaths in the Tijuana area over the past 12 months and resulted in the splitting of the cartel into two factions. One is led by Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Zamora, a nephew of the original Arellano Felix brothers. Eduardo Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Sementa, who served as an enforcer under the Arellano Felix brothers, controls the rival faction. Disagreements over authority reportedly led to much of the violence between the two factions in the first half of 2008. The violence peaked on April 26 when three separate and prolonged gunbattles erupted on the streets of Tijuana, leaving 13 people dead and five wounded. The most recent wave of violence, which claimed more than 100 lives over a two-week period in October, was again attributed to fighting between the two factions. In this case, however, El Teo's offensive received the support of the Sinaloa cartel, which would benefit greatly from the access to the United States that control of Tijuana would provide.

Calderon's Success Story

Since taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has undertaken extraordinary measures in pursuit of the country's powerful drug trafficking organizations. The policies enacted by Calderon saw some progress during his first year in office, although it has only been during the past year that the continued implementation of these policies has produced meaningful results in the fight against the cartels. One important result has been the large quantities of illegal drugs and weapons seized by federal authorities. In November 2007, customs officials in Manzanillo, Colima state, seized 26 tons of cocaine from a Hong Kong-flagged ship that had sailed from Colombia. The seizure was the largest in Mexican history, more than double the previous record of 11 tons recovered that October in Tamaulipas state. In July 2007, the Mexican navy captured a self-propelled, semisubmersible vessel loaded with nearly 5 tons of cocaine off the coast of Oaxaca state, the first such capture by Mexican authorities. Also in July, federal police near Guadalajara, Jalisco state, uncovered the largest synthetic drug production facility ever found in the country, recovering some 8,000 barrels of ephedrine and acetone, two key ingredients in the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine. The Mexican government also has pursued the cartels' leadership successfully. Important members of nearly all the country's drug trafficking organizations have been arrested over the last 12 months, although the highest-ranking kingpins continue to evade capture. Perhaps most symbolic was the October arrest of Eduardo Arellano Felix, considered the last original member of Tijuana's Arellano Felix crime family. The arrest of several key Arellano Felix lieutenants — including Ricardo Estrada Perez in October, Jose Filiberto Parras Ramas in July and Gustavo Rivera Martinez in March — has resulted in fractures in the organization. Arrests also played a role in damaging the Sinaloa cartel, particularly the parts controlled by the Beltran Leyva family, as Alfredo Beltran Leyva was captured in January. Los Zetas have also suffered losses, including the commander of Central American Zeta operations, Daniel "El Cachetes" Perez Rojas. Even more significant, however, was the November arrest of Jaime "El Hummer" Gonzalez, who was captured during a raid in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. As mentioned, Gonzalez is believed to rank third in the Zeta chain of command. Calderon's administration has also made important progress in working with the United States. Given Mexico's historical wariness of Washington, this relationship represents a careful balancing act for Calderon, who must consider the domestic political cost of allowing greater American influence in Mexico while relying on the United States for resources, training and intelligence sharing. During his first months in office, Calderon moved quickly to grant a request from Washington to expand the number of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offices in Mexico and to acquire new forensic technology from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to better track gun purchases. One major triumph of his administration during the past year has been securing the Merida Initiative, a U.S. counternarcotics assistance plan that is projected to give Mexico some $900 million over two years in the form of equipment and training. The sharing of intelligence between Washington and Mexico City has played a key role in many of Mexico's successes, including the Mexican navy's interdiction of the semisubmersible. Another important piece of the relationship with Washington has been the tremendous increase in extraditions of drug trafficking suspects to the United States. Since taking office, Calderon has granted more than 150 extradition requests, more than double the rate when he took office. This approach makes it far more difficult for drug traffickers to continue operating their businesses from behind bars. One measure of the impact of the Mexican government's successes would be a decline in the flow of drugs coming into the United States. It is, of course, impossible to know the true amount of illegal drugs entering the country, but one indicator is the street price of these substances, especially cocaine. The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy reported in November 2007 that the average price of powder cocaine in many American cities increased nearly 50 percent over the year. This suggests that a decreased supply through Mexico has driven the price up. Another indication that it is becoming increasingly difficult to traffic drugs in and out of Mexico is the revelation that many drug traffickers have turned to other illegal activities to supplement their incomes. For example, over the last 12 months, many members of Los Zetas — once the most powerful and experienced drug trafficking operators in Mexico — have become increasingly involved in extortion and kidnapping for ransom in states such as Oaxaca, Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche. In Oaxaca, for example, several Zetas were arrested this past year for forcing local businesses to pay protection fees to avoid theft or attacks, a development that business owners said was fairly recent. In Veracruz, a group of Zetas has sought to exert its influence over local criminal groups by demanding that they provide a portion of their proceeds to the Zetas, a development that sparked a slight increase in violence over the past year. This does not mean that the Zetas have left the drug trade, but rather that a more difficult operating environment has led them to pursue additional revenue sources.

A Year of Flux

One result of these unprecedented achievements has been greater volatility in the balance of power among the various drug trafficking organizations. The capture of key cartel members and the downfall of cartels themselves have made 2008 a year of flux for the drug traffickers. During at least the last five years, the Mexican drug trade had been characterized by a bipolar domination, with the Gulf cartel on one hand and the Sinaloa federation on the other. The turf battles between these two rivals were one of the primary causes of the increasing violence in 2006 and 2007. When Calderon began deploying large numbers of military troops and federal police in pursuit of the cartels, the first big target was Gulf and Los Zetas. The national strategy appeared to be to target only one cartel at a time. The armed forces, then, descended in 2007 on Gulf strongholds in Tamaulipas state, while the Sinaloa cartel's base of operations went relatively untouched. The result of this relentless scrutiny on Gulf produced some early results that have continued this past year. Not only has Gulf suffered the capture of several high-ranking lieutenants in Mexico but its smuggling and distribution networks in the United States were dealt a severe blow with the culmination in September of "Project Reckoning." During this operation, conducted by multiple law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions, some 175 members and associates of the Gulf cartel in the United States were arrested. The damage done to Gulf has presented opportunities to other criminal groups over the past 12 months, leading to even greater turf battles and power struggles. Unlike in previous years, however, this violence has not been confined to Gulf and Sinaloa. Instead, there have been two main causes of the battles: splits within these organizations and a resurgence of previously obsolete cartels. Fractures inside the Sinaloa cartel have been perhaps the most noteworthy new dimension in the cartel war. Until this year, Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera had maintained an alliance with the Beltran Leyva crime family. By the end of 2007, the relationship had become strained. It is unclear what exactly caused the split, but some reports indicate that the two sides so bitterly oppose each other that Guzman provided information to the authorities that led to the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva in January. In retaliation, the Beltran Leyva organization killed Guzman's son four months later. This past year, the Sinaloa cartel also lost its long-standing alliance with the Carrillo Fuentes organization — also known as the Juarez cartel — leaving Sinaloa's once-large federation in shambles. The Carrillo Fuentes organization was considered the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico during much of the 1990s. However, ever since the death of cartel leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes in 1997, the cartel became relatively obsolete. After its break with Sinaloa this past year, however, there were indications that the Carrillo Fuentes organization was once again a force to be reckoned with. This resurgence likely accounts for the extraordinary spike in violence that began during the summer of 2008 in Ciudad Juarez and the rest of Chihuahua state. Similarly, the AFO showed renewed activities this past year after being essentially dormant since its peak in the late 1990s. However, several waves of violence in the Tijuana area among various AFO factions, combined with the arrest of several key cartel lieutenants, suggest that AFO is on its last legs. The Gulf cartel has also struggled to remain intact this past year, as a large number of reports surfaced that its enforcement arm, Los Zetas, had severed ties with the Gulf leadership and begun operating autonomously. Similar reports had sporadically arisen during 2007 and before, though the most recent reports suggest that the distance between Los Zetas and Gulf has increased over the past year. As a result, Los Zetas have reportedly been working with a wide range of drug trafficking organizations, including the Beltran Leyva organization and the Juarez cartel. The increased turbulence in intercartel relations has produced unprecedented levels of violence that show no sign of abating. Thus, it is premature to predict which cartels will remain on top once the dust has settled. Historically, the Mexican drug trade has been controlled by two large and competing drug cartels, each of which has had a base of operations in a Mexican city along the U.S. border. A similar situation is certainly possible, though changes in the country's security environment and shifting areas of cartel operations might add new dimensions to the country's criminal landscape.

A Changing Geography

This past year has seen a unique shift in the geography of the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere, nearly all of which can be attributed to the situation in Mexico. The United States remains the primary destination of drugs produced in South American countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, and Mexico continues to serve as the primary transshipment route. However, the path between South America and Mexico is shifting. At the beginning of 2007, the two main trafficking platforms for South American drugs bound for Mexico were clandestine aircraft and ships. Land-based trafficking through Central America was minimal. A combination of poor roads, a large number of border crossing checkpoints and unpredictable criminal groups made such shipments slow and vulnerable. By the beginning of 2008, however, there were indications that Mexican drug trafficking groups had moved to establish a presence in Guatemala and Honduras and that Central America was becoming of greater strategic interest to the northward movement of narcotics. Several months later, it has become more clear just how important Central America is for drug smuggling. There are several reasons for this shift. The main cause appears to be the greater difficulty of airborne shipment. In early 2007, the Mexican government reduced the number of airports in the Yucatan Peninsula that would be allowed to receive flights from South and Central America. At the same time, several new radars were installed that gave authorities a much better awareness of unauthorized aircraft entering Mexican airspace. The result has been a more than 90 percent decrease in aerial trafficking of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, according to estimates by Colombian officials. Greater information sharing with the United States has also made maritime drug shipments more susceptible to capture. Consequently, maritime drug shipments have declined 65 percent over two years, according to estimates by the Mexican navy. Drug trafficking organizations have used a variety of strategies to make up for the greater scrutiny. Customs officials at the Mexico City International Airport, for example, have cited an increase in seizures of cocaine being smuggled on commercial flights. Colombian drug traffickers continue to build semisubmersible vessels to bring multiton shipments of cocaine to Mexico's shores. The most noteworthy shift, however, has been the presence of Mexican drug traffickers in Central America. A bloody firefight in March in Guatemala's Zacapa province involving several Mexican drug traffickers was the first sign that Mexican cartels were stepping up their battles for control of turf outside Mexico. Reports later surfaced that high-ranking members of the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels might be hiding in Guatemala or Honduras. These suspicions were confirmed when Guatemalan authorities announced the arrest of Daniel "El Cachetes" Perez Rojas, who was considered at the time the second-highest-ranking member of Los Zetas. Several months later, authorities in Panama arrested several Mexican citizens who were believed to be recruiting local criminal organizations to assist the Sinaloa cartel in managing large shipments of cocaine. The fact that the spike in violence in Guatemala was short-lived suggests that it did not take long for the turf wars to become settled and the business of drug trafficking to begin. The modus operandi for Central American drug smuggling is varied. In August, authorities in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua uncovered a network of safe-houses operated by the Sinaloa cartel, which moved large quantities of cocaine via trucks, boats and horses across rivers, lakes, rugged terrain and highways. Other smugglers in Costa Rica have relied on so-called go-fast boats to move drugs in short trips along the country's Caribbean coast, stashing the shipments at various locations along the journey. In October, Nicaraguan authorities arrested several members and associates of the Sinaloa cartel and identified a network of safe-houses and staging points used for smuggling drugs. The safe-houses were all located along highways that connect the country's southern and northern border, suggesting that overland smuggling remains a popular platform. Mexican drug traffickers have also expanded their presence in South America over the past year. Perhaps most notable has been the discovery of a network of Mexican synthetic drug producers in Argentina and their murky relationship with a Sinaloa cartel representative in Paraguay. The details are still unclear, but it appears that restrictions on the sale of ephedrine in Mexico drove a group of methamphetamine producers to Argentina, where precursor chemicals are easier to acquire. Some of the drugs produced are sold in Argentina while others are shipped to Mexico via Paraguay for eventual distribution in the United States. In another case, a group of Mexican and Peruvian drug traffickers working for the Sinaloa cartel were arrested in Lima while preparing to send a multiton shipment of cocaine to Holland. (Click image to enlarge) The presence of Mexican cartels in Central and South America illustrates two important points. First, there is no question that it is now Mexican groups that are the central figures in the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere. Up until a decade ago, Colombia-based cartels were clearly the most powerful members involved in the drug trade. The closure of the Caribbean smuggling corridor, however, has led to Mexican drug traffickers exercising a monopoly on the drug trade, as nearly all U.S.-bound cocaine enters through Mexico. Nothing demonstrates this better than that how it is the Mexican traffickers — not the Colombian producers — who are conquering new turf and even expanding to other markets. The second point is that the drug trade does not necessarily have to revolve around U.S. consumers. The United States, of course, remains the world's largest consumer of cocaine. However, expanding markets in Latin America and Europe could produce a more profound shift in drug trafficking routes. There is currently no evidence that this is occurring, but Mexican drug traffickers have demonstrated a willingness to pursue other markets when faced with a more difficult operating environment.

A Deteriorating Security Situation

One apparent paradox for the Calderon administration has been that even while the government has clearly succeeded in damaging the cartels, the country's security situation continues to deteriorate at what appears to be an unstoppable rate. The most obvious sign of this deteriorating security situation is that the total number of drug-related homicides continues to climb dramatically. The nearly 2,700 killings that occurred in 2007 made it the deadliest year up to that point in the country's drug war. However, 2007 has paled in comparison to 2008, when the 2007 total was surpassed in the first seven months. The death toll currently sits at more than 5,000. At this rate, the country may well finish 2008 with twice the number registered in 2007. In addition to the rise in the number of killings, the violence has escalated in other important ways that are more difficult to measure. First, Mexican drug violence is just as brutal as ever. Beheadings have now become a regular occurrence, with the most noteworthy incident from this past year being the 12 decapitated bodies of alleged drug dealers found outside Merida, Yucatan state. In the past, most beheadings took place after the victim had been killed. Increasingly, however, authorities report that victims are beheaded alive. A second way that the violence has escalated this past year is through the use of intimidation and fear. The discovery of hit lists with the names of police officers has become increasingly common in many Mexican cities along the U.S. border. It also is all too common for the officers named on those lists to be gunned down one by one. In addition, drug trafficking organizations have now begun displaying large banners over highways in cities around the country. Many of the banners make threats against rivals, or accuse a particular criminal group of being supported by local and federal government officials. In several cases, purported recruiting banners appeared in northern Mexico offering higher pay and better equipment to soldiers and police officers who defect to Los Zetas. While it is possible that these banners were a genuine recruiting attempt, it seems more likely that they were intended to intimidate government officials by causing them to question the their forces' loyalty. Third, the past year has seen an increase in the number of attacks on security forces. Some of the deaths have been the result of targeted assassinations against officers caught off duty or off guard. Other times, unlucky police patrols have stumbled across convoys of drug traffickers who, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, easily overpower the police. In other cases, however, cartel members have deliberately ambushed police and military convoys to assassinate a specific target or free a fellow cartel member. While the total percentage of police officers and soldiers killed is relatively low — approximately 7 percent of all 2007 homicides — the trend has had a broad impact. A fourth way violence has intensified is through the assassinations of high-ranking government officials, several of whom have been killed during the past year. The targeted killing in Mexico City in May 2007 of Jose Nemesio Lugo Felix, the general coordinator of information at the National Center for Planning and Analysis to Combat Organized Crime, represented the first such high-profile assassination. Several others followed. Perhaps the most high-profile hit thus far has been that of Edgar Millan Gomez, the country's highest-ranking federal police officer, who died when a lone gunman shot him several times in the lobby of his apartment building. The assailant allegedly was part of a professional assassination gang that had been contracted to kill Millan by members of the Beltran Leyva drug trafficking organization. While government officials have never been immune to Mexico's drug violence, the incidents demonstrate that Mexican drug trafficking organizations consider high-ranking officials to be legitimate targets. Another way that the country's drug violence has escalated involves an expansion of the cartels' arsenals. For example, authorities in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, discovered in July that explosive-actuated improvised incendiary devices had destroyed several cars near a cartel safe-house after a firefight. Such devices would be useful to target a specific person or, as in this case, to kill ambushers as they approached a perimeter. Another example involved a failed assassination attempt with an improvised explosive device (IED) in Mexico City in February. In that case, the device detonated prematurely as the bomber was transporting it to the target, who was a Mexico City police official. Finally, this past year witnessed the first clear case of the indiscriminate killing of civilians. The attack occurred when at least one man threw a fragmentation grenade into a crowd at the culmination of the Independence Day celebration in Morelia, Michoacan state. Several minutes later, a second grenade detonated at a plaza several blocks away. Overall, eight people died and up to 100 were wounded as a result of the blasts. Up until this point, Mexico's drug war had primarily affected security forces, government officials and those involved in the drug trade. Although collateral damage occasionally caused casualties among civilian bystanders, the general civilian population was essentially insulated from the violence. Needless to say, this attack represented a significant development in the country's drug war. Mexico's deteriorating security situation also has an ongoing impact on the United States as the violence continues to cross the border. No one incident better demonstrates this fact than the June home invasion and assassination of a drug dealer in Phoenix by cartel hit men with assault rifles and wearing Phoenix Police Department raid shirts. The assault had all the makings of a Mexican cartel hit — especially the attackers' willingness to engage police officers if necessary.

Looking to the Future

The threat that drug-related violence in Mexico poses to the United States is an important concern, but the implications of Mexico's war on the cartels are certainly greater south of the border. Indeed, the security situation is a dire concern for the Calderon administration. The government is considering the implications of increasing casualties, not only of security forces but also of civilians. The army and federal police have shown themselves to be capable of inflicting damaging blows on the various cartels, but they have been much less successful at curbing the growing violence. One reason for this lack of effectiveness involves the increasing responsibilities of the Mexican armed forces, perhaps the most versatile tool Calderon has relied on in the cartel war. In addition to their traditional roles in maritime drug interdiction, marijuana and poppy crop eradication and technical intelligence operations, the armed forces have now been deployed on the ground in nearly every state in the country (with concentrations on the periphery). One key mission for the military has been general public safety operations. In January, when drug gang violence erupted in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, some 3,000 troops were deployed to investigate cartel members and help curb the violence. Juarez is an interesting case study of what happens when too few troops are deployed to such a large metropolitan area. In previous deployments to cities such as Reynosa, sufficient troops were available to secure the roads and disarm the local police and investigate them for links to organized crime. Such military deployments nearly always resulted in an immediate decrease in violence. In Juarez, however, the number of troops deployed was too few to disarm local law enforcement personnel. Consequently, the police remained on duty while they were investigated by the same military personnel with whom they were being asked to cooperate on counternarcotics operations. The result was heightened tensions, poor cooperation and even a few firefights between the frustrated military and the disgruntled police. Because the military is far more effective and less corrupt than federal and local police, it was inevitable that its role in the counternarcotics mission would evolve and expand. The result has been a classic case of mission creep. As more and more duties were assigned to the armed forces, the troops were stretched too thin to be effective. Estimates of the current number of deployed soldiers are notoriously hard to come by, but 35,000 appears to be the maximum number that Calderon can muster in the field at any one time. In any case, investigating local police forces and assuming law enforcement duties are not missions for which Mexico's military was designed or trained. To be sure, Calderon has stated that the military solution is only temporary and that the ultimate goal is to reform the federal police so that they can take the lead in pursuing the country's drug cartels. These reforms, though, have been hampered by bureaucratic turf battles between the federal attorney general's office and the public security secretariat. It is unclear how long Calderon originally thought it would take to implement the reforms, but some reports suggest the administration now estimates it will be at least 2012 before the federal police are prepared to take over. Reports also suggest the Calderon administration is planning to field up to 45,000 soldiers at a time until 2012 — a significant increase in military deployments. Of course, an unexpected drop in violence could make such an escalation unnecessary. There is currently no indication that the violence will soon taper off, but it is also premature to assume that the violence will continue to escalate in the way it has so far. For example, the February IED incident sparked concerns that additional and larger IEDs would soon become regular parts of the cartel arsenal. However, eight months later, it remains an isolated incident. Similarly, it is not at all clear that drug trafficking organizations will continue to indiscriminately kill civilians, especially given the public backlash that occurred following the Sept. 15 attack. Despite this caveat, the danger, of course, is that the cartels have shown themselves to be remarkably innovative and resilient when backed into a corner. Given their powerful arsenals and deep penetration of the country's security forces, a further escalation in attacks against security forces and government officials seem all but inevitable.

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