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Jeffrey Simpson

In Mexico, violent death is now just part of daily life Add to ...

A major drug kingpin and a few of his associates were killed in a gun battle with authorities last week, a minor victory for the Mexican government in its grisly war against the country's drug cartels.

Scarcely a day passes without news from the drug war making it onto the front pages of Mexico's national newspapers. This war is the defining issue for contemporary Mexico. Win it, and the country might enjoy the elixir of prolonged security and economic growth; lose it, and Mexico will be written off as a violent, drug-infested place at the margins of North America.

More than 25,000 people have already died in the war; 50 people are now dying every day. At this rate, this year's toll will exceed 18,000. The total number of deaths during President Felipe Calderon's six-year term (which ends in 2012) might be around 60,000 - or more than 10 times the number of Americans killed to date in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not all of Mexico is convulsed by this war. Eighty per cent of the deaths occur in five of the country's 32 states, and 50 per cent in three near the U.S. border.

Mr. Calderon declared war on the cartels when he took office at the end of 2006. He sent the army and navy against them, along with the country's fractured, ill-trained and often corrupt police. For a while, it wasn't a fair fight. The cartels were better organized, deeply entrenched and had paid informers throughout the police and local governments.

Drug trafficking had always been part of the Mexican scene, since the country sits beside the world's largest drug market, the United States. Covert political deals were made between the cartels and previous Mexican governments in pre-democracy days. The cartels would be left to do their transshipping; police and government officials got paid off; and violence was rare.

But these arrangements began to break apart in the mid-1990s, and today's drug war is the result.

Mexico threw off authoritarian rule and become vibrantly democratic. In the process, it also decentralized authority to the states whose police were generally inept. The country didn't even have a national police force, except for enforcing the highway laws. Simultaneously, the U.S. succeeded in squeezing the drug-trafficking routes in south Florida and the Caribbean, forcing the traffickers to find another path to America.

The volume of drugs going through Mexico grew. The cartels, not content with just transshipping, developed drug markets inside Mexico. They began to fight each other for control of territory, with weapons easily purchased in the United States, where, as Mr. Calderon likes to say, there are eight gun shops for every Wal-Mart store.

Mexican officials believe that 60,000 to 70,000 assault weapons are now in Mexico, as well as imported grenade launchers, car bombs and other explosive devices used by the cartels - almost all smuggled in from the U.S.

A lot of the violence in Mexico is cartel against cartel, or even within cartels. Kill a kingpin, or extradite one to the U.S., and a fight for succession begins. Last week's killing of a kingpin was reported to have been aided by U.S. intelligence, which is finally co-operating with Mexican authorities.

While fighting each other, and the government, for control of more drugs and territory, the cartels are also seeking control of all aspects of organized crime. They have adopted the tactics of terrorism to frighten or co-opt local officials, or to enlist local citizens to give information about army and police activities.

This change accounts for car bombings, indiscriminate killings, targeted killings of politicians and police officers, beheadings with heads thrown into city squares or barroom floors, and bodies hung from bridges and lampposts. As one senior law-enforcement officer said, "The biggest problem today is not corruption but fear. They want to make sure that institutions are paralyzed."

Six year ago, Mexico had 4,000 national police officers; today, that figure is 34,000. Officials reckon the country needs to train and deploy 150,000, an illustration of how long this war will be.

It took 20 years to turn Colombia from a country of violence to one of tranquillity, and eight years to break a drug cartel's grip on Tijuana. A hard, long, violent struggle, therefore, lies ahead before this internal Mexican war comes even close to being won.

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