Monday, March 30, 2009

mexico fighting cartel and itself

NYTimes | The war analogy is not a stretch for parts of Mexico. Soldiers, more than 40,000 of them, are confronting heavily armed paramilitary groups on city streets. The military-grade weapons being used, antitank rockets and armor-piercing munitions, for example, are the same ones found on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The country’s challenge, though, may be tougher than that of a conventional war. The enemy is more nebulous and the battlefield is everywhere — in border towns like Tijuana, regional capitals like Culiacán and in the metropolis of Mexico City, where Mr. Calderón gathers with his national security staff every morning in his wooded compound ringed by soldiers to strategize and count the previous day’s dead. The presidential protective detail got a thorough review after one of its members was found to have received money from a cartel.

The brutality and brazenness — the fact that drug assassins are chopping off heads, dissolving bodies in acid and posting notes on mutilated corpses taunting the authorities — has prompted more and more second guessing of Mr. Calderón’s approach.

“Calderón took a stick and whacked the beehive,” Javier Valdez, a Sinaloa journalist who covers the drug trade, said in an oft-heard critique of Mexico’s drug war.

The Mexican president is faulted for starting a head-on assault on the heavily armed cartels without first gathering intelligence on them, without first preparing a trustworthy police force to take them on, without preparing the country for how rough it would turn out to be.

He is taken to task for not aggressively pursuing the politicians collaborating with the cartels. He is criticized for failing to put a significant dent in the drug profits that fuel the cartels’ operations.

An effort is under way to change laws to make it easier to seize businesses that are linked to traffickers, but it has been bogged down by fierce political infighting. “We keep hearing we’re going to win,” Víctor Hugo Círigo Vásquez, the speaker of the Mexico City Assembly, said to a reporter recently. “That’s what the U.S. president said in Vietnam.”

There are calls for a completely new approach. One of Mr. Calderón’s predecessors, Mr. Zedillo, recently joined two other former heads of state from Latin America in pushing for a complete rethinking of the drug war, including the legalization of marijuana, which is considered the top revenue generator for Mexican drug cartels.

Mexico is nowhere near such a transformative step as legalizing drugs, which would cut drug profits but also might cause use to soar. Still, there are initiatives on the horizon.

Three years ago, the Mexican Congress passed a plan to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of cocaine and other drugs, but Vicente Fox, then the president, killed the bill after American officials raised an alarm. Mr. Calderón made a similar proposal last fall, albeit lowering the amounts still further, and this time American officials did not utter a peep.