No End In Sight For Mexico's Deadly Drug War The Mexican government says it is making progress in the battle against the country's drug cartels. But despite some gains, drug-related killings continue at an alarming rate in parts of Mexico. Some critics say President Felipe Calderon's war is misguided, mismanaged and unwinnable.

No End In Sight For Mexico's Deadly Drug War

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Mexico, the government claims it is making progress in its war on violent drug cartels. But for many Mexicans, life feels just as dangerous and the fight against the cartels seems to be making only small gains. Killings related to drugs continue at an alarming pace.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The statistics are impressive. Over the last two and a half years, Mexican authorities have seized more than 4,000 tons of marijuana and almost 80 tons of cocaine. They've confiscated more than 30,000 weapons and grabbed hundreds of millions of dollars in alleged cartel cash.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Almost every day, the evening news announces that another set of accused narcotics traffickers have either been killed or arrested.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BEAUBIEN: And yet, the cartels continue to flex their muscle. A shootout in the Pacific beach resort of Acapulco earlier this month left 18 people dead. Further north in Zacatecas, the Zetas busted 53 of their members out of prison. And near the border in Sonora, drug hitmen left 11 bodies, most without hands or feet, stacked in the back of an SUV with the engine still running.

Mr. ADRIAN FRANCO ZEVADA (International Affairs Coordinator, Attorney General Office, Mexico City): The level of violence is a reflection of the success of the strategy.

BEAUBIEN: Adrian Franco Zevada is the coordinator of international affairs for the Mexican attorney general's office in Mexico City.

Mr. ZEVADA: We are now at a point in the curve where we expect the levels of deaths and violence to start coming down.

BEAUBIEN: More than 10,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderon launched this fight in December of 2006. Franco, at the attorney general's office, says people are being killed because the government's attack on the cartels has left the criminal groups in turmoil. He says Mexico had no choice but to take on the gangs. The narcotics traffickers had grown so strong, he says, they'd come to dominate some parts of the country.

Mr. ZEVADA: The state will not tolerate that. We are using every single force that we have as a state to attack these individuals and these organizations.

BEAUBIEN: And what happens if that isn't enough? The Mexican drug cartels are heavily armed with military-style weapons. They have access to jets, helicopters and even submarines. And they control the multibillion-dollar-a-year narcotics market in the U.S.

In March, in its most aggressive move yet against the cartels, the Mexican army took over the police department in Juarez. Ten thousand soldiers and federal police are now deployed just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

(Soundbite of sirens)

BEAUBIEN: On this afternoon, Army Lieutenant Jesus Guadalupe Reyna de Ramirez is leading a dozen soldiers in three pickup trucks on a routine patrol. They've just pulled over a small red car. The soldiers, rifles in hand, leap from the trucks. In seconds, the three young men who were inside are spread-eagle up against the trunk of the car. Their mother, who's gotten out, too, is watching with a look of shock and disbelief. These guys make your heart stop, she says.

(Soundbite of laughing)

BEAUBIEN: The soldiers don't find anything and send the family on its way. Lieutenant Guadalupe says these routine, random traffic stops are an important part of what the army is doing in Juarez.

Lieutenant JESUS GUADALUPE REYNA DE RAMIREZ (Mexican Army): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Here it's very normal for people to carry pistols, Lieutenant Guadalupe says. Now, they aren't carrying the large weapons like they were before we arrived.

(Soundbite of tires screeching)

BEAUBIEN: During one traffic stop, a black Honda Civic hatchback parked in front of the car they're searching, races away. In the time it takes all the soldiers to get back into the trucks, the little black car is gone.

The patrols cruise both main streets and deeply pitted dirt roads in some of Juarez's toughest colonias. The only people they put into handcuffs on this afternoon are men who've been drinking in public.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Lieutenant Guadalupe says rounding up drunks and pulling over speeders is part of reestablishing order in Mexico's deadliest city.

Lt. RAMIREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: These aren't the functions of the army, he says, but we are here to help, support and carry out the functions of the municipal police.

Initially in March, when the army took over the police department in Juarez, the killings dropped dramatically. But last month, the murder rate shot back up. Despite the army presence, 124 people were killed in Juarez in May - a 67 percent jump from the year before.

Manuel Arroyo Galvan, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez was gunned down on May 29th. At a memorial for Arroyo on the university campus, his colleagues and students denounced the culture of impunity that continues in Juarez.

Mr. EMILIO NANA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: It's a sensation of vulnerability to know that your life isn't even worth a peanut, says Emilio Nana who was a classmate of Arroyo's and now also works at the university.

Mr. NANA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: At any moment, you could be kidnapped, he says, and absolutely nothing would happen. Nana says the drug war is a failure. If the country sends in the army and still you're not safe, he says, the strategy is not working. Officials close to President Calderon say no strategy is going to work, so long as there's such a huge demand for drugs just north of Mexico's border.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And there is an interactive map of the territory that Mexican drug cartels control at

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