In Mexico, Drug Wars Spread to Cities

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Last month, a U.S. consulate worker and her husband were killed in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez. The gunfire sent scores of journalists scrambling across the bridge from El Paso and prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pledge more than $300 million to help border cities like Juárez recover from the blight of drug violence.

But the spotlight on Juárez masks a broader trend in Mexico: since President Felipe Calderón launched a crackdown on cartels in 2007, the violence has spread south from the border, emptying tourist destinations and shaking the country's largest cities. New cartels have sprung up in once-quiet states and veteran cartels have grown more violent. Calderón has succeeded in capturing and killing key cartel leaders, or jefes, but his drug war has left the entire country dangerously in disarray.

"It's obvious that the drug cartels also operate here in the capital," said security expert José Luís Piñeyro, speaking from Mexico City. "We have a major international airport through which they receive drugs from Colombia, weapons from the United States and methamphetamines or pre-cursor chemicals" from all over the world. Earlier this week, Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard admitted that narcos "come and go" as they please in the capital of 20 million. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials privately admit that cartel leaders live in the city's lush suburbs--"they just happen to be smarter about who they kill and when" than in other parts of the country.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the cartels' Mexico City presence came in December when a protected witness was assassinated in a Starbucks. Less than two weeks earlier, another protected witness--Jesus Zambada, the nephew of drug lord Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada--had been found dead in his Mexico City home. Even La Familia, a particularly brutal cartel founded in the 1990s in the mountainous western state of Michoacán, is now rumored to operate in the capital's sprawling suburbs.

Monterrey, Mexico's third largest metropolis, has also become a battleground for drug wars. A once-quiet city three hours from the border, Monterrey has been nearly shut down in recent weeks as traffickers have blocked roads with burning buses and cars. Meanwhile, a feud between the Gulf cartel and its former hitmen, the Zetas, threatens to tear the city apart. Two graduate students were killed in Monterrey in March when a shootout between cartel hitmen and government soldiers engulfed their university campus, and just last Sunday another confrontation outside the city left five sicarios dead.

Even smaller, coastal cities have been sucked into the fray, driving away droves of foreign visitors and crippling Mexico's already wounded tourism industry. In Acapulco, shootouts last month claimed 35 people in a single weekend. And unlike Juárez or Tijuana, where thousands of troops impose wide curfews, Mexico's most famous resort town has only enough security forces to guard a narrow strip of beach. "The gringos are scared of coming here. That's why all the soldiers, police and marines are protecting the tourist zone," said José, an attendant at a gas station where a recent shootout claimed ten lives, including nine cartel members.

"Violence is getting worse all the time. People are afraid of going to work, of going out on the streets at night, because innocent people can get hurt by stray bullets," said Héctor, an Acapulco street vendor, as he pointed to the spot where a passerby had been killed in the crossfire. A few days before, drug dealers had put up a narcomanta, or poster, on a nearby overpass, warning civilians not to go out after 10 p.m. because they wouldn't be able to "guarantee their safety."

Like the chaos in Monterrey, Acapulco's bloody spring can be traced to the president's tactic of targeting drug lords. Calderón had hoped the cartels would wither without their leaders; instead, the violence is branching out as a less organized "third generation" of drug cartels springs up across the country. In December, when Mexican marines killed drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva, his death set off a three-way struggle for control of Acapulco among Leyva's cartel, his former partners, and the rapidly expanding La Familia. And just last week, the Mexican newspaper Excelsior reported that members of Leyva's organization have formed a new cartel, called Southern Pacific, near Mexico City. Already, the cartel has been linked to 15 killings.

In recent months, more and more of this unrest has occurred away from the border. By breaking up the biggest cartels, Calderón has made direct access to South American cocaine more difficult; in response, newer, smaller cartels are seeking out different drug routes and fighting over marijuana and opium production in the southerly states of Sinaloa and Guerrero, where Acapulco is located. "This would seem to be a good sign from the point of view of what the Mexican government is trying to achieve, which is the breakdown of these organizations into smaller, more manageable pieces," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. "But I don't think we have any indication that smaller is necessarily more manageable."

So far, this year is shaping up to be anything but manageable for the Calderón administration. With nearly 2,000 people killed in drug-related violence in the first ten weeks of 2010, the country is on course to eclipse last year's record of 7,000 deaths. After holding steady for three years, President Calderón's poll numbers have begun to drop. Some Mexicans, it seems, are starting to wonder if the drug war is just making things worse. "From the ordinary Mexican's point of view," said Shirk, "if there is still bloodshed, if drugs are still being sold and trafficked in similar quantities--is that really winning?"

Not if you ask the narcos themselves. In an interview published Sunday in the Mexican magazine Proceso, drug lord Ismael Zambada said killing him wouldn't hurt his Sinaloa cartel. "As for the bosses, locked up, dead, or extradited, their replacements are already standing by," Zambada said. "The problem with the narco business is that it involves millions. How do you dominate that?"

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Michael E. Miller

Michael Miller is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. His reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek, The New York Daily News, and The Brooklyn Rail.

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