Mexican cartels feeling the pressure

PFP officers pay tribute to Officer Miguel Zedillo, killed in Tijuana Little more than a year after President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels, the gangsters seem willing and able to strike back with a vengeance.The arrests last week in Mexico City of 11 heavily armed men, whom authorities say were assassins for the Sinaloa Cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, suggest the crackdown is having an impact, officials say.

Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a top anti-narcotics official in the federal attorney general’s office, told Mexican interviewers that he had been the target of at least two assassination attempts in the past month.

“They plan to generate violence to force a retreat by authorities,” Genaro Garcia Luna, Calderon’s secretary of public security and one of Mexico’s top cops, said last week.

But, Garcia vowed, “There will be no retreat. We are not going to take a step back. The fight against crime is going to to be permanent, systematic.”

Departure from the norm

If both sustained and successful, such resolve may well mark a dramatic departure from the norm in Mexico’s decades-long dance with its criminal empires.Since the country became a major transshipment point for South American cocaine headed for U.S. consumers in the 1980s, Mexico’s politicians and security forces tended to treat the crime of drug trafficking as a nuisance — and too frequently as a source of illicit gain.

Over the years, some gangsters, including cartel bosses, were jailed or killed, and some police officers and soldiers were also slain on anti-narcotics operations.

But the leaders of the cartels rarely targeted senior officials or challenged the state — as they did in Colombia — because high-level government officials never really presented much of a threat to their smuggling business.

The old style might have been best defined in the 1990s when Mexico’s drug czar, an army general praised by U.S. agents for his crackdown on Mexico’s leading trafficking gang, was convicted of working for a rival group.

But if that were once the way of things, some American and Mexican officials insist it’s not anymore. Since taking office 13 months ago, Calderon has made the crackdown on drug cartels the anchor of his administration.

“Our intention is to make it so complicated for them to come through Mexico that they will seek to smuggle through somewhere else,” a senior Mexican official said, speaking on condition he not be identified.

U.S. partnership

More than 40 tons of cocaine have been seized since the crackdown began in December 2006. Top crime bosses have been extradited to face U.S. courts.Soldiers and police have battled cartel gunmen on the streets of border cities. Intelligence-gathering has been enhanced, and more importantly, acted on.

“People who have come here, who have talked to the Mexican government, who have engaged, really see a distinction here, a real expression of political will,” said David Johnson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement, who was in Mexico City last week for talks with Mexican officials.

Johnson is helping shepherd the Bush administration’s proposal to give Calderon’s government $1.4 billion worth of law enforcement technology and training in the coming years to aid in the fight.

The plan faces concerns in the U.S. Congress, which is expected to vote on it by this summer.

“We think it’s appropriate that America be a partner to try to work with the (Calderon) administration, to try to push this process forward,” Johnson said.

Daunting challenge

Mexican security forces and senior officials “must be capable of confronting all the costs, all the risks … including in lives offered to achieve the Mexico we desire,” Calderon said Friday in an offhand comment to the Mexico City newspaper El Universal.But even with such unwavering will, and with the proposed U.S. aid, the challenge facing Calderon seems daunting.

With annual earnings estimated at $10 billion, Mexico’s drug gangs are deeply embedded in the country’s economy. That’s especially true along the key cocaine smuggling routes and in areas where marijuana and heroin poppies are grown and where crystal methamphetamine is manufactured.

Cartels have upper hand

Drug gangsters control complete towns and wield influence in wide swaths of entire states. Some local and state police forces, despite periodic purges of personnel, effectively remain in the gangs’ employ.Supplied with weapons smuggled from the United States and elsewhere, the cartel’s foot soldiers are often better armed than the security forces.

Although leading traffickers like Guzman make the headlines, scores, even hundreds of smuggling gangs operated across the country. With such a lucrative return, gang bosses who are jailed or killed are quickly replaced by their ambitious lieutenants.

Mexico’s smugglers grew more powerful and wealthy this decade as Colombia’s cartels splintered into smaller organizations under the weight of that country’s anti-narcotics efforts.

‘Superior’ capabilities

At the same time, the fall of Mexico’s one-party government at the ballot box, accompanied by the growing political power of state and local governments, made it easier for gangsters to gain more political influence here, said John Bailey, a Mexico expert at Georgetown University.”Decentralization and inter-party competition complicates this whole thing,” Bailey said. “The state and local fellows don’t have the firepower or intelligence network to take on these guys. ”

Still, Calderon’s senior officials insist they’ll prevail.

“The great challenge in this effort is to prevent them from taking root,” Garcia, the public security minister, said.

“Their logic of trying to generate violence to intimidate authorities is not going to work,” he said. “The capabilities of the Mexican government are superior.”