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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to Mexico this week, and very high on her agenda is the drug war that has destabilized much of Mexico and threatens to spill across the border into the United States. More than 6,000 people died in Mexico's drug war last year, with drug lords battling each other and Mexico's security forces battling the drug lords. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico in the first of a series on the influence of Mexican drug cartels on both sides of the border.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Zihuatanejo markets itself as a tropical paradise on Mexico's west coast. Five-star hotels line a crescent-moon-shaped cove. Lean coconut trees sway over clean, soft sand. The currents of the Pacific keep the bay pleasantly warm, attracting Canadians and New Yorkers throughout North America's coldest winter months.

But this small resort also has a dark side. It sits on one of Mexico's primary cocaine-trafficking corridors.

In the last month, heavily armed commandos have attacked the local police with assault rifles and grenades. Five officers have been killed.

After repeated attacks, the entire police force went out on strike.

HERMAN RAMIREZ VASILLO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Herman Ramirez Vasillo, who's been with the force for 11 years, says the killings of his co-workers were frightening. And he says a lot of officers quit.

RAMIREZ VASILLO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Roughly 20 officers left, he says, out of fear for their lives.

Now the Zihuatanejo police station looks like a military garrison in a war zone. The complex is surrounded with sandbags, and officers with high-caliber rifles are stationed in pillboxes out front.

What's happening in Zihuatanejo is also unfolding all across the country. In December of 2006, when President Felipe Calderon took office, he sent tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to confront Mexico's powerful drug cartels.

The cartels responded brutally. A few months ago, the heads of eight soldiers and a former police chief were found in plastic bags just north of here. Major gun battles, at times lasting for hours, have erupted from the Guatemalan border to the interior highlands to the Chihuahua desert.

Jorge Chabat, a security expert at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City, says President Calderon's strategy is to try to pulverize the Mexican drug cartels.

JORGE CHABAT: To transform these four or five big organizations, criminal organizations, into dozens of small cartels - something similar to what happened in Colombia.

BEAUBIEN: The Mexican cartels have come to dominate global cocaine trafficking and are major suppliers of methamphetamines, heroine and marijuana to the United States. Estimates of the revenue generated by the Mexican drug gangs range from $18 to $40 billion a year. They use their cash to bribe local public officials and purchase arsenals of military-style weapons. They fund minor league baseball teams and church construction projects.

Chabat says shutting down the drug trafficking business entirely is impossible.

CHABAT: You are trying to fight the invisible hand of the market with the long arm of the law. And, historically, the invisible hand wins though.

BEAUBIEN: He says the best President Calderon can hope for is to diminish the immense power of the nation's largest cartels.

Here's a question. What do these people all have in common: Mexico's top representative to Interpol, the police chief of Cancun, Miss Sinaloa, the mayor of Ixtapaluca and President Calderon's former drug czar? They've all been arrested recently on suspicion of ties to organized crime. Calderon's ex-drug czar is accused of being on a $450,000-a-month retainer to pass information to the Sinaloan cartel.

In Mexico, the drug war is viewed as a problem caused by the United States.

CARLOS RICO: (Spanish Spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Carlos Rico, the head of North American affairs at the Mexican Foreign Ministry, says Mexico cannot resolve the problem of drug trafficking when such a huge demand exists for these drugs in the United States. The best we can do, he says, is to try to make the passage through Mexico difficult for these criminal groups.

In addition, Mexican officials complain that the cartel's weapons come primarily from the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BEAUBIEN: As two of the nation's most powerful gangs, the Juarez and the Sinaloa cartels, battled in Juarez, the local police lost control of the border city. Over the course of last year, crime mushroomed.

Miguel Navar runs a small convenience store in downtown Juarez.

MIGUEL NAVAR: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We were closing the door, and these individuals arrived with guns drawn, Navar says. They hit me and my wife and took all our money.

This shop has been in Navar's family all his life. He said in the past, they'd never been robbed. Then last year, they were robbed four times at gunpoint in six months.

Last month, when the drug cartels ordered the Juarez police chief to quit, the federal government sent in the army to take over control of Juarez.

Eventually, more than 8,000 soldiers and federal police will patrol the city's streets. But Navar says some of the soldiers are as bad as the criminals.

NAVAR: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: There are some who are extorting money from merchants, Navar says. In a place where they're supposed to be giving protection, they're bringing more fear.

Recently, Navar installed thick metal bars across his front counter. He jokes that now he's living in a cage, while all the delinquents are running around free.

But the arrival of the first wave of soldiers has reduced the number of drug- related killings in Juarez. In February, the city was averaging roughly 10 assassinations a day.

TONY PAYAN: Most Juarenses today are simply happy.

BEAUBIEN: Tony Payan is an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. He also teaches at the university in Juarez. He says most people in Juarez are desperate for the government to find a way to control the bad guys.

PAYAN: They're saying, look, take them away. Give us our city back. The situation had gotten out of control, and we don't care what happens to these guys. If they die, if you disappear them, if you throw them out in the desert, we don't care, as long as we recover law and order.

BEAUBIEN: President Calderon has found himself on the political defensive. With more than 6,000 people killed last year in drug-related violence and no end to the war in sight, the president has been in the odd position of having to publicly justify why he's battling organized crime.

President Calderon says the surge of violence is a sign that his forces are seriously disrupting the workings of the cartels. Last year alone, Mexico seized thousands of tons of marijuana, 200,000 kilos of cocaine, hundreds of weapons. Several key leaders from several cartels were arrested. They've seized trucks, cars and jets used by the drug runners.

In July, the Mexican marines even snagged a submarine puttering off the Pacific Coast carrying more than five tons of coke.

What Calderon's administration has been unable to do is bring an end to the drug violence across Mexico.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Zihuatanejo.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, NPR's John Burnett reports on why young men become foot soldiers for Mexico's drug cartels. And for more on this series, go to npr.org.

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