RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The drug war in Mexico has turned massacres into commonplace events. It's led to the kidnapping and killing of top politicians and recently, a car bombing, like you might expect to see in Baghdad. It's a war with a death toll that's now reached 25,000, and this year is on track to become the deadliest yet.

It was four years ago that President Felipe Calderon launched an attack on the drug cartels. NPR's Jason Beaubien begins a week-long series with a look at the social impact of a war that has no end in sight.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The town of Taxco is a major tourist destination in the western state of Guerrero. It's known for its silver mines and fine jewelry. Taxco's narrow cobblestone streets wind amidst jewelry shops, restaurants and small hotels.

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BEAUBIEN: But in June, a gun battle between the Mexican army and alleged drug cartel members in Taxco left 15 people dead. The shooting against the backdrop of picturesque colonial architecture went on for almost 40 minutes in the middle of the day, and was captured by a local TV cameraman.

A few weeks earlier, authorities had pulled 55 bodies out of one of Taxco's abandoned silver mines. A local drug gang had been dumping their rivals -sometimes alive - down the 500-foot ventilation shaft.

Early on in this drug war, President Calderon said that most of the dead were cartel members. The implication was that the violence is only eliminating the bad people. But as the war has spread, so have the casualties.

In May, a former presidential candidate from Calderon's own party, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, was kidnapped and is still missing. In June, the leading gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas was assassinated just days before the election.

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Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

BEAUBIEN: Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, is a small city of about 300,000 people. Its markets overflow with vegetables. Vendors sell mango and melon drinks from thick, glass vats perched on pushcarts. Music blares from a CD stand. Old men in straw cowboy hats sit in the shade on the city square.

At first glance, Ciudad Victoria looks peaceful. But the local Catholic bishop, Antonio Gonzalez Sanchez, says people here are terrified.

Bishop ANTONIO GONZALEZ SANCHEZ (Catholic Bishop, Ciudad Victoria): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Now the violence has invaded nearly all of the states, the bishop says. We don't have hardly anywhere where there isn't violence, where there aren't killings, kidnappings. Unfortunately, it's nearly everywhere.

Bishop Gonzalez says the assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the leading candidate for governor, sent a powerful message that no one in Tamaulipas is safe.

Bishop GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The people feel, and I think with good reason, Gonzalez says, that when the government says that they're going to overcome the violence, it's a lie, no?

And the violence stretches from the Gulf to the Pacific, from the Guatemalan border up to Tijuana. In Nayarit, just north of Puerto Vallarta, the governor shut the public schools three weeks before the summer break after a series of bloody, midday firefights. In the industrial city of Monterrey, schoolchildren are being trained in how to hit the ground if there's a shootout.

Along the U.S. border, local news reports indicate that hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence-plagued cities all along the frontier.

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BEAUBIEN: In Ciudad Juarez last month, workers at a blanket shop picked through the remnants of their shattered plate-glass windows after a car bomb exploded up the street. The Juarez cartel claimed responsibility for the blast that killed three people.

In a conflict in which bodies regularly get strung up from highway overpasses, and severed human heads are used to send less-than-subtle warnings, the July 15th car bomb represented an escalation of the violence. Politicians and the press debated narco-terrorism and the Colombianization of Mexico.

Mayor JOSE REYES FERRIZ (Mayor, Juarez, Mexico): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: After the car bombing, the mayor of Juarez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, said, we have to be on alert. He ordered all the municipal police to take their flak jackets and weapons home with them at the end of their shifts.

Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, has been particularly hard hit by the drug war. The fighting intensified in 2008 as the Sinaloan cartel invaded the Juarez cartel's turf. Since then, more than 6,000 people have been killed in this city alone. Extortion and kidnappings have flourished.

In early 2009, the Mexican military took control of security in Juarez. Thousands of soldiers patrolled the streets. When that didn't work, the federal police took over, but the violence just continues to get worse.

(Soundbite of cell door closing)

BEAUBIEN: At the Juarez prison, inmates are housed in separate wings according to their gang affiliation. The Aztecas live in open cellblocks that are immaculately clean, and look nicer than some of Mexico's housing projects. The Aztecas are clearly wealthier than any of the other gangs in the institution.

The Aztecas are aligned with the Juarez cartel and have been fighting to try to drive the Sinaloans out of the city.

Francisco Garcia, a gunrunner for the Aztecas, says the violence isn't going to stop.

Mr. FRANCISCO GARCIA (Gunrunner, Aztecas): There's a war going on. Nobody could go in and say, hey, that's it. We can't do that, 'cause they already killed so many people with us and them.

BEAUBIEN: Garcia is a U.S. citizen. He was born in El Paso, but he says the Aztecas in Juarez are his people. His hair is shaved close to his scalp and a green, tattooed tear drips from the corner of his left eye.

Mr. GARCIA: I came over here, and I got caught on the bridge with two guns.

BEAUBIEN: The 24-year-old says that that was his job on the outside - shuttling weapons from Texas into Mexico.

Mr. GARCIA: Any kind of guns, any kind of weapons that we could use, I was bringing them from over there.

BEAUBIEN: Garcia says the Aztecas had a well-organized system in the U.S. Other people obtained the guns and brought them to him in El Paso. His task was to move them across the border, and deliver them to a contact in Juarez.

The Aztecas have a well-organized system inside the prison, too. In their portion of the compound, they have vegetable gardens, an automotive workshop, art studios. There's even an ice cream shop and their own pizza place they call Domino's.

While the Juarez prison feels calm during this visit, prison riots in Mexico between rival gangs have killed scores of inmates over the last two years.

Garcia says as soon as he finishes his four-year prison term, he plans to go right back to working for the Aztecas on the outside.

Mr. GARCIA: This is my life. This is what I chose to be, and I can't just walk out.

BEAUBIEN: Garcia grew up poor in El Paso. As a kid, he says his family lacked a lot of things. The Aztecas, on the other hand, offered him fast money. He says he expects to either die young with the Aztecas, or spend most of his life in prison. And he says he's OK with that.

In Mexico, more than 4 million people live in what the government terms extreme poverty. For the cartels, this huge pool of the poor serves as a recruiting ground for foot soldiers in a war that's growing more deadly every month.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: They say truth is the first casualty of war. Tomorrow, journalists in some parts of Mexico have stopped reporting on the drug trade, as their colleagues have been kidnapped and killed by cartels.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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