Second of two parts
Mexicans select a new president on July 1, and they want a leader who can reduce the rampant violence in their country. Warring drug cartels have killed more than 50,000 people in the past 5 1/2 years, while thousands have disappeared and some cities have been turned into lawless zones.
The candidate who leads in the polls, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has said that if elected, he will change the current unpopular strategy of an all-out war against the cartels and focus on reducing violent crimes against Mexicans.
Whoever it is, the next president of Mexico faces a huge challenge in cities like Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. The hemisphere's busiest trade crossing is one of the latest battlegrounds between Mexico's two supercartels: the Zetas and the Sinaloans.
Last month, authorities discovered nine tortured bodies hanging from an overpass, and 14 human heads left in a jumbo ice chest in front of Nuevo Laredo City Hall.
"All of this destroys an image of a city," says Abraham de Anda, a well-groomed waiter passing a balmy morning on a park bench not far from where the grisly cooler was found. "It's frightening the people, frightening the children. What happens when a child sees this? What kind of future do they imagine? A future filled with blood, terror, danger, massacres."
Need For Change In Strategy
And the violence doesn't end there.
In the past month in Nuevo Laredo, narcos machine-gunned a local university and the leading newspaper, and car-bombed the hotel where the military is billeted. Military police patrol Nuevo Laredo these days, after the corrupt police force was disbanded last summer. Shops are closing and residents who can afford to are fleeing to Texas.
"We hope the new government finds a way to stop this," de Anda says, "stop the narco-trafficking, stop the kidnapping, stop the extortion. The primary function of a government is to protect its people."
Pena Nieto, the presidential front-runner, says he'll do just that if he wins. But the popular former governor of the state of Mexico says he would change the focus of the current security strategy. He told The Associated Press his central theme would be to reduce homicide, kidnapping and extortion — crimes that vex Mexicans much more than drug trafficking.
Pena Nieto has not provided many specifics beyond proposing the creation of a national police force to replace local corrupt departments, such as Nuevo Laredo's. He said in a debate last month he would leave in place the 45,000 military troops current President Felipe Calderon deployed to violence-plagued states and not return them to their barracks until security conditions improved.
Pena Nieto's strategy — targeting criminal violence over pursuing and arresting capos — would be more popular than the current approach.
"People don't care about the drugs; people don't care about the narcos. It's the violence associated with the drugs," says Carlos Seoane, vice president for the security firm Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations in Mexico. There's a name for this strategy, he says — crime management.
"So what has to be the message?" Seoane continues. "If you go over this line we will fight you until we eliminate you. We can do business as long as there are no killings, no shootings, everything quiet like it was in the past."
Calderon, of the Party of National Action — PAN — declared war on organized crime when he took office in December 2006. Since then, his security forces have captured or killed an impressive number of most-wanted traffickers.
But every time he tries to destroy a cartel, underlings scramble for power, the multiheaded hydra survives, and the violence seems to get worse.
"I became convinced that his security strategy was wrong," says Mexican author and historian Enrique Krauze. "It was like the charge of an army, like 'Shock and Awe.' Look what has happened."
Distrust Of Mexican Authorities
Last month, in its annual human-rights report, the U.S. State Department listed instances of unlawful killings, disappearances and torture at the hands of Mexican security forces, as well as the narcos.
Also last month, the Mexican government arrested three high-ranking army generals under suspicion of using their positions to aid and abet drug trafficking. One of them was the former second in command at the Defense Ministry.
Despite these missteps, Washington remains a big supporter of Calderon's hit-'em-hard strategy. The State Department has sent Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars in aircraft, training and law enforcement equipment.
"It will be very important that [the next president] understands there has to be a continued effort to attack the supply side of these drug cartels," says David Gaddis, former chief of enforcement for the Drug Enforcement Administration, who has deep experience in Latin America. He now runs Global Protection Solutions, an international security consulting firm.
"[The] unfortunate byproduct being violence has been viewed as a huge negative by the Mexican people, and that's understandable," Gaddis says. "Yet, I think if we look in general terms the success of the administration has been that the drug cartels today are much weaker today than they were five to six years ago."
Jorge Carrasco, who covers national security and justice for the respected weekly newsmagazine Proceso, argues that Calderon's strategy of taking down kingpins has helped the DEA more than it has helped Mexico.
"Something has to be done against the narco-traffickers, without a doubt," he says from the magazine's editorial office in Mexico City. "But you don't put out a fire by throwing gasoline on it, and that's what has happened with Felipe Calderon. Six years later, the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas continue to exist. La Familia Michoacana changed names. Narco-trafficking in Mexico enjoys absolute good health."
'Good Old Days' Of Drug Trafficking?
There is a popular perception in Mexico that when Pena Nieto's party, the PRI, was in power for seven decades it kept the drug lords in line and took a cut of the action.
"The corrupt system of the PRI got along very well with the underworld," says Krauze, the historian. "Some people say the system of the PRI was corrupt. No, it was corruption itself."
Despite the party's denial, word on the street in Mexico City is that if the PRI comes to power again, it will negotiate with the narcos.
"If the PRI wins, they'll give free rein again to the narcos. They're pure bandits in the PRI, pure shameless rats," says Israel Quiroz, a 36-year-old heavy equipment operator taking a break in the shade beside the capital's Monument to the Revolution.
One thing is certain: When the new president takes office on Dec. 1, Mexicans exhausted and dispirited by the cartel free-for-all will want change, and they will want it fast.