The War Next Door

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Over the past decade, however, that relatively stable structure has erupted into full-scale war — largely as the result of the unintended consequences of U.S. drug policy. When the Drug Enforcement Administration blocked cocaine shipments through the Caribbean during the 1980s, the trade simply migrated to overland routes through Mexico. Likewise, the DEA's success against the Cali and Medellín cartels in Colombia has only emboldened Mexico's narcos, driving the drug traffic ever closer to home. Newcomers on the Gulf Coast eager to break into the industry are challenging the rule of the existing cartels, sparking a bloody battle over territory and supply routes. And the Mexican government — under pressure from the United States to curb the flow of drugs — is waging an all-out campaign to destroy the cartels.

Indeed, much of the current bloodshed can be traced to the special forces that Mexico trained to find and arrest drug traffickers, receiving instruction from the U.S. military on tactics, intelligence-gathering, air assault and advanced weaponry. In the late 1990s, one of the new Gulf cartels began recruiting these American-trained soldiers to work as hired guns against the Sinaloan cartels, offering vastly higher wages than the government. Known as "Los Zetas" — the Mexican police's term for a high-ranking official — these mercenaries are now the most violent force in Mexico, moving massive amounts of drugs into the U.S. while murdering journalists and police and politicians who challenge their authority. Led by Heriberto "the Executioner" Lazcano, the Zeta paramilitaries are far more sophisticated in their weaponry and combat skills than the hapless and corruption-addled policía. It is as if the Navy SEALs or an FBI SWAT team went to work for the Russian mob.

Through the early part of the decade, the war steadily increased in intensity, but it was only with the inauguration of President Felipe Calderón in December 2006 that true chaos enveloped the nation. A conservative elected by a narrow margin, Calderón has made going after the drug traffickers a central part of his administration. He has deployed more than 40,000 federal soldiers across the country and imprisoned thousands of narcos, from lowly street dealers to drug lords and money launderers. But the result of Calderón's war has been catastrophe. In reply, the traffickers have directly attacked the legitimacy of the government, targeting politicians and senior law-enforcement officials. Ten days after Calderón took office, in what was seen as a message from the cartels, a cousin of his wife was killed and stuffed into the trunk of a car in Mexico City. In May, the chief of the federal police was gunned down in the capital. That same month, a village in the state of Chihuahua was overrun by 70 gunmen; the police chief and two officers were killed, the rest of the force quit in fear. In August, 12 decapitated bodies were left on the outskirts of Mérida on the Gulf Coast, the letter "Z" tattooed on their bodies, the calling card of Los Zetas. On September 15th — during a celebration of Mexican Independence Day — two fragmentation grenades exploded in the square of President Calderón's hometown of Morelia, killing eight civilians and wounding more than 100. The government's war on drugs has sparked a war on the government itself.

The war has now spread to America's own border. In three days in August, 43 people were killed in drug-related murders in and around Juárez, just across the river from El Paso. Experts agree that the violence could soon pose a threat to national security in America, with the already porous border turning into a floodgate for Mexican refugees and gangs. "I worry that the country's political class won't truly act until a major figure is assassinated," says Luis Astorga, a sociologist at the Institute of Social Research in Mexico City. "But right now it's not very clear what the 'war' means. No one is sure who is fighting who. It best resembles a circular firing squad."

The day I arrive in Culiacán, the front page of the local newspaper reads WORSE THAN IRAQ. Only days before, in broad daylight, a gang of gunmen had pulled up in front of the Mega 2000, an auto shop in the center of the city, and opened fire with high-caliber assault weapons — AK-47s and AR-15s. Within moments, nine were dead. As the assailants fled along Zapata Boulevard, they gunned down two police officers. Panic swept across the city as the streets echoed with the tinny pop-pop-pop of automatic-weapons fire. Businesses rolled down their steel doors, trapping customers inside. On Insurgentes Avenue, the killers opened fire on federal soldiers stationed outside a judiciary building. There was no pursuit and no arrests. It was reported that the gunmen were after a narcotraficante known as "Alligator," but even the simplest facts of the attack — as well as the attackers themselves — disappeared into the fog of war. "There are many versions of events," a local official told reporters. "But no one wants to talk."

The front line of the drug war is here in Sinaloa, a small state on the Pacific coast across from the Baja Peninsula. Bordered to the east by the Sierra Madres, a line of remote and impenetrable mountains that stretches to the Arizona border, Sinaloa is part of Mexico's Golden Triangle — bandit country patrolled by sicarios (hit men), corrupt sheriffs and trigger-happy Mexican federales. The capital, Culiacán, is a drug-industry town the way Los Angeles is an entertainment town. Every business is connected, directly or indirectly, with illegal drugs. There are narco discos and narco restaurants. In the upscale malls scattered around town, high-end jewelers sell the gaudy and expensive necklaces favored by narco wives and girlfriends and hookers. Narco chic is Valentino and Moschino pants, ostrich-skin boots, a black belt with a narco nickname engraved in it and a Versace handbag big enough to hold a stash of drugs and the cash needed to pay off police.

There are, on average, three drug-related murders a day in Sinaloa. Simply to walk the deserted streets of Culiacán at night is to feel the weight of fear that has descended on the city. The drug cartels have stored caches of weapons in "safe houses" scattered across town, from the poorest barrios to the most upscale neighborhoods, and thousands of federal troops garrisoned in the local baseball stadium patrol the streets day and night. But the soldiers have little or no intelligence about the drug traffickers they have been sent to stop, and the military checkpoints set up around the city have done nothing to stem the violence. A few days before I arrive, assailants killed a man driving a car in front of a mall, then doubled back through traffic to shoot his wife — a pregnant woman — in the head at point-blank range.

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