Calderon Fights Mexico's Gangs with Little Success

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has put an unprecedented number of soldiers and federal police on the streets to battle drug gangs. But the war isn't going well. Violence is soaring, the army is being accused of human rights abuses, and drugs shipments across the border continue unabated.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Mexico, there have recently been new battles, literally, in the drug war. One of Felipe Calderon's first move since becoming president in December was to send 30,000 federal police and soldiers out to fight Mexico's powerful drug cartels. But the narco-traffickers are striking back. Soldiers are being ambushed in daylight attacks and this week, gunmen fatally shot a top federal intelligence official in Mexico City. Violence nationwide is up, particularly in the state of Michoacan.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro first visited the state last year before troops were deployed. She returned again this month and she has this report.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last Monday, the town of Apatzingan in Michoacan rang with the sound of gunfire. Local reporter, Antonio Ramos was there. This is sound from his TV footage.

Mr. ANTONIO RAMOS (Reporter, Mexico): (Through translator) It began when the Mexican army tried to stop a vehicle which they considered suspicious. The car kept going until they reached the safe house where there was a shootout between the suspected hitmen and the army. It ended with four-suspected hitmen dead. It was a tremendous gun battle that lasted for at least 45 minutes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Apatzingan is in the very heart of what is called tierra caliente or the hot country. For years, the drug lords have held its way there. Bloody turf wars had meant that bodies regularly showed up dumped in ditches and gangs sent gruesome messages to their rivals using severed heads with notes attached.

(Soundbite of vehicles passing)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, soldiers with masks patrol the streets in dark green Humvees. There is a permanent garrison in Apatzingan. About 2,000 army and federal police are spread out across the whole state.

While the drug fight is countrywide, Michoacan is key. It's one of the most lawless areas in the country. Heroin and marijuana are grown here. Meth and cocaine are trafficked through as well. This is also Mexican President Felipe Calderon's home state, so symbolically important too. This is where he chose to kick off his war on drugs, sending in the first federal troops in mid-December. But all is not going well here.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I last visited Apatzingan in September when I met with the city coroner. At that time, he was horrified by the violence in this town. This year, though, he says the figure show things are worse. Ramon Avila takes out his book, which lists the dead.

Mr. RAMON AVILA (Coroner, Apatzingan, Michoacan, Mexico): Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, cinco, seis, sieteā€¦

GARCIA-NAVARRO: From January 1st until the beginning of May, 40 people in Apatzingan have died violent deaths. In the same period last year, which is the one of the worst on record, there were 25.

But he says, he's as worried by the drug gangs as he is by the presence of the military. He says the recent operations are causing fear in the populace.

Mr. AVILA: (Through translator) There is much exhaustion on the part of the people from Apatzingan. It has even affected me. This week I was working, the solders were doing all their patrols. I told my children not to leave the house. All you heard was gunfire. The soldiers were going house to house - obviously, the children were terrified to hear all the shooting. What we are seeing is a psychosis of panic in town.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Apatzingan, resident after resident told NPR that the initial relief of the presence of more security forces has turned into mistrust.

On the normally quiet street - where Monday's shootout took place - eight people were arrested including an asthmatic taxi dispatcher from a nearby stand, a partially blind diabetic retiree, a mother of 12. The son-in-law of a 38 year old lunch-counter worker, Dalia Sanches(ph), was also taken in.

Ms. DALIA SANCHES (Resident, Apatzingan, Michoacan, Mexico): (Through translator) A few minutes after the shooting, the army came in and told us to get out of the house. So we did, and that's when they grabbed my son-in-law.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she'd lived in this neighborhood for years and had no idea who the gunmen who took on the army were. She says her son-in-law was also in the house when the battle began. Even so, she had to go speak to the state human rights representative to find out what happened to him after he was taken. She also filed a complaint about what the army did in her house when they searched through it that day.

Ms. SANCHES: (Through translator) How can I trust the military? When they searched the house, they took $20 from my dresser. That was the only money I had to buy food.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the people who were arrested were released without charge later. The military said they had nothing to do with the incident.

Mr. ERIC GONZALES (Press Officer, Human Rights Commission, Apatzingan, Michoacan, Mexico): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eric Gonzales is the government human rights commission representative in Apatzingan. He says there had been a number of complaints regarding human rights violations here since the operations began in December.

Mr. GONZALES: (Through translator) There must be a just balance between counter-narcotics operations and human rights. One of the institutions with the most credibility in Mexico is the Mexican army. They've been able to question any federal state or local authority, but the Mexican army has always had a status of prestige and honor. But unfortunately, we have received a cascade of complaints against them and people are upset.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, the national human rights authority just released a report this week, which said that since the operations began, there had been accusations against the military nationwide of four sexual assaults made against four female minors, two cases of torture, as well as arbitrary detentions, complaints of break-ins and property damage, as well as illegal searches and robbery.

Controversy has also swirled around in alleged rape and murder by the military of an indigenous elderly woman in the state of Veracruz. And meanwhile, drug experts, like Maureen Meyer from the Washington Office on Latin America, say that there has been no indication that less drugs are being trafficked across the border. In fact, she says, prices have gone down recently in the U.S. - an indication that supply is rising.

So the army is being questioned, violence is up, drug trafficking is not down -what exactly is Calderon's war achieving?

At an upscale hotel in the capital of the state, Morelia, the head for narco-related intelligence for the attorney general's office sits down to talk. He only wants his first name used for security reasons. Right now, Gabriel(ph) says they're watching closely a new drug gang called La Familia, which was responsible for dumping severed heads in the dance floor of a discotech last year. They're believed to be wealthy money launderers - allied to the Gulf Cartel, which is fighting against the Sinaloa Cartel for control of the state.

GABRIEL (Officer, Narco-related Intelligence for the Attorney General's Office): (Through translator) They emerged about a year ago. They say they do social work. There are places in far away communities where there isn't a strong state presence. They give away toys and medicine and blankets.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As well as executing rivals. It's a sign of the complexity of the organizations that the armed forces are battling. Still, the government says there have been successes - more than a thousand gunmen had been detained nationwide. Traffickers are being extradited to the U.S. in greater numbers.

Gabriel says he feels like the state of Michoacan is in the eye of the hurricane. He knows it is a difficult fight, but one he says that must be undertaken.

GABRIEL: (Through translator) We have to try and minimize this. Eradicating the drug trade is impossible and very costly, but someone has to start to fight this - someone has to act. One of our advantages is that the president is from Michoacan. We think he loves his state, which is why he's placed a lot of resources here - but it is costing us dearly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Five soldiers were killed in an ambush in the town of Cuaracuaro, Michoacan this month. Two hundred forty seven people have died violent deaths statewide.

One newspaper that keeps a tally says that at least a thousand people have died violently so far this year all over the country as Calderon's drug war continues.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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