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The Mexican Drug War: A Nation Descends into Violence

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The Mexican government has been using the army to fight the nation's drug cartels for about four years. It isn't working. Some critics say the army is part of the problem, even if the occasional mission removes a kingpin. But President Felipe Calderón has no one else to trust.

Photo Gallery: Mexico at War Photos
Janet Jarman / DER SPIEGEL

Ivana García didn't flee when two headless bodies were found in front of the city hall, nor did she leave when a body without arms or legs was hanging above a downtown square.

But when fighting erupted on the street in front of her house, when mercenaries working for the drug cartels began firing their Kalashnikovs from armored vehicles, and when house-to-house skirmishes went on for hours, as if Ciudad Mier were a town in Afghanistan, not bordering the United States, she had no choice but to flee. In fact, almost the entire population, about 6,000 people, left Ciudad Mier. When they realized there was no one to protect them -- no government, no army -- they packed their belongings and left their homes.

Ciudad Mier used to be an inconspicuous Mexican municipality on the Rio Grande River, consisting of a colonial center and a few rectangular blocks of houses. Now it is known throughout the country as a ghost town -- one of those symbolic places that exist all over Mexico. Each of these towns can tell the story of a nation descending into violence.

Horrific, but Commonplace

One of them is Ciudad Juárez, where more than 3,000 murders were committed this year alone, making it the most violent city in the world. Criminals battle each other in broad daylight in the resort town of Acapulco. In the village of Praxedis, a 20-year-old woman became police chief because no one else dared to accept the job. On a ranch in northern Mexico, a 77-year-old man shot and killed four of the gunmen who had been sent to kill him, only to be murdered by the rest. He was celebrated as a hero.

Horrific news reports have become commonplace in Mexico. Some 29,000 people have died in drug wars within the past four years, and this year the number of killings doubled to about 12,000. An astonishing 98 percent of the crimes committed in Mexico remain unpunished.

It has been four years since President Felipe Calderón came to office promising to defeat the cartels, multibillion-dollar organizations that supply the United States, the world's largest drug market, with cocaine, crystal meth, heroin and marijuana.

Calderón mobilized 45,000 soldiers and federal police officers for his campaign. There was no one else he could trust, including local police forces and governors. The army is his only reliable tool.

There have certainly been many spectacular arrests. Famous drug kingpins were arrested or killed, including the leader of the "La Familia" cartel, who died earlier this month. But have these successes weakened the drug cartels? There are few indications that this is the case.

At first, many citizens saw the violent excesses as the beginning of a necessary evil. Recent opinion polls, however, show that a majority now opposes the government's strategy. The newspapers are filled with reports of kidnappings, blackmail and beheadings. There are blogs that specialize in publishing photos of severed limbs taken with mobile phones.

It is easy to picture the savagery with which this war is being waged. But it is more difficult to understand why the violence doesn't stop, what its causes are and what can be done about it.

Could the legalization of drugs be the answer, as some experts suggest? Or maybe more border controls? Would a new national police force and a reform of the government solve the problem? Or is it best to simply leave the cartels alone, which for years was the government's policy?

These are the questions that Mexico is asking itself in 2010, the 200th anniversary of the beginning of its war of independence. The filmmaker Luis Estrada has given his native country a bitter film for its anniversary: "El Infierno" (Hell). It is the portrait of a world consisting of nothing but narcos, whores and corruption.

"We have a national problem, and it's called impunity," says Estrada, a soft-spoken man with glasses and a gray beard. "People who break the law aren't punished. That's why many believe that honesty doesn't pay. We Mexicans are in hell, that's for sure. I just don't know which pit of hell it is at the moment."

A Ghost-Town Census

It is a hot day in late November, and Ivana García has screwed up the courage to return to Ciudad Mier for the first time since she left. She walks through the abandoned streets of the town that was once hers, a 34-year-old woman in jeans, wearing gold-plated earrings and carrying a plastic purse. The army has hired her to count the number of people still living in the town, but there are few left to count.

They offered her 700 pesos, or €42 ($55) a week. She was afraid to take the job, but she needed the money to pay the exorbitant rent for her apartment in Ciudad Alemán, the next town, where she now lives.

García and two other young women walk from house to house, knocking on doors that no one opens. The few people they encounter couldn't afford to leave or are very old. The questionnaires the women have brought along in clear plastic binders include questions about income and the remaining residents' opinions about safety. They represent the government's clumsy attempt to demonstrate that it still exists.

Two dozen soldiers follow the women, on foot and in pickup trucks armed with machine guns, securing the streets. Most of the houses they pass are riddled with bullet holes. Starving dogs slink across the dirt roads.

Some 400 people still live in a refugee camp in the next town. They have been there for more than four weeks, and most do not want to return to Ciudad Mier. They say that when the army withdraws, in a few weeks or months, the whole thing will start again.

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Graphic: Map of Mexico showing places mentioned in the article Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Map of Mexico showing places mentioned in the article



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