Outgunned, outmanned, Mexican Army brings the fight to the cartels

CULIACAN, Mexico — Automatic weapons at the ready, the platoons of federal police officers descend from the transport planes and high-step as neatly as majorettes into the searing heat.

Gen. Rodolfo Cruz puts the officers through their paces as TV cameras record the event.

“Here we are, showing our faces,” said Cruz, 65, a career army officer who sprinkles conversations with English phrases. “I fight crime, I put on my uniform and show my face. I don’t go around hidden.”

Frustrated with the rising death toll from a resilient criminal insurgency, President Felipe Calderón seems ready to make a stand in this sprawling northern city that’s long been an incubator for Mexico’s drug gangs.

With freshly arrived units, nearly 3,000 soldiers and militarized federal police now patrol here and in nearby communities in Sinaloa state, trying to bring rival gangs to heel.

Similar surgical efforts have been tried over the years in Sinaloa and elsewhere in Mexico. All have won remission, but ultimately failed. The current attempt meets with frustrated shrugs.

“The federal forces are insufficient to stop organized crime,” said an editorial in El Debate, a leading newspaper here. “One can’t live in Culiacan now. Insecurity is pervasive.”

Eight federal policemen were killed in the past week after they attempted to raid a gangster safe house in a middle-class Culiacan neighborhood. More than 330 people have been killed gangland-style in Sinaloa this year, included 36 local, state and federal police.

Mexico’s narcotics industry started in Sinaloa when mountain communities began producing heroin early in the 20th century for U.S. consumers. Poppy production led to marijuana farming. Then South American cocaine started moving through the area in the 1980s.

The trade has always enjoyed the protection of local and federal officials, says Luis Astorga, a Culiacan-born sociologist who is one of Mexico’s leading experts on the drug gangs. The government has launched frequent campaigns since the 1950s to eradicate narcotics, he adds.

But, as he wrote in a report for the United Nations, “Tougher measures in one place created trafficking problems in another.”

Federal Troops patrol the borderwidth=Most people in this city of nearly 1 million are law-abiding and abhor the narcotics trade. Culiacan anchors thriving agricultural production of tomatoes and other vegetables for Mexico’s tables and those in the United States each winter.

Many people seem scandalized by the violence and the drug trade; they want it to stop.

But not all of them. Narco-culture has deep roots here.

New “narco-corridos” — gushing ballads about the gangsters — hit the streets almost as soon as one of them dies, is jailed or scores a victory against a rival or the government.

No one writes songs about the police or the soldiers.

Soldiers and federal police, fingers on rifle triggers, patrol like an occupying army. Military and police convoys snarl traffic, often running red lights — stopping might present a tempting target.

Several hundred troops camp at an outdoor sports complex in one of Culiacan’s rougher neighborhoods, their armored personnel carriers positioned at the corners of the fields, machine guns pointed at the surrounding cinder-block houses.

People stare indifferently from doorways or sidewalks as the military vehicles roll through neighborhoods. No one is overtly hostile. But few seem particularly friendly either.

Homes in the neighborhoods are packed tight, their walls and rusting roofs touching one another. The gunmen hide there.

“Everyone knows who everyone is,” said Gen. Jose Antonio Guzman, commanding the federal police patrols. “Where do you think they buy their supplies? Who washes their clothes and performs other services for them?”

Cruz, the general, who commands federal police operations across Mexico, has few illusions. To truly lock down the drug trade here, “we would need 50,000 or 60,000 men to be permanently in the streets,” he said.