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El Paso itself has been relatively unscathed by the drug wars, in part because the cartels don't want to jeopardize their trafficking corridors on the border's U.S. side. Still, cartel-associated violence is beginning to reach into U.S. cities from the Sun Belt to the Pacific Northwest. Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited Mexico City in April with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has called Mexico's drug savagery a "national security threat."
A long-term antidrug strategy doesn't need the sort of hysteria that has had some in Washington comparing Mexico to failing states like Pakistan. "Obama needs to throw a bucket of cold water on that kind of rhetoric," says Tony Payan, a Mexico expert at the University of Texas at El Paso. "He needs a Mexico approach for the next 20 years, not 20 days." Mexico is making some progress. Juárez saw violence spike last year when at least three cartels started a pitched battle for its valuable trafficking turf. (Most of the drugs from Mexico enter the U.S. through Juárez.) Spin-off crimes like kidnapping and extortion mushroomed as well. But the city has been safer since Reyes agreed in March to let 5,000 army troops and 2,000 federal cops take over police duties for the time being. Just before Holder and Napolitano arrived in Mexico, federal agents captured an alleged top boss of the Juárez Cartel, Vicente Carrillo Leyva. Juárez's murder rate dropped from a horrific 10 per day in the final months of 2008 to just five in March. The gangs are lying low for now, and the city's 1.5 million people are venturing back out to the streets. Waiters at the ornate Kentucky Club are thrilled to see visitors walk in again for the bar's famous Rio Grande margaritas. (See pictures of the fence between the United States and Mexico.)
The level of violence is still shocking. Close to the Kentucky Club, heavily armed police escort an ambulance ferrying a gang member with bullet wounds to a hospital and sit guard in case his rivals try to come in and finish him off. "You watch what's happening, and you burst into tears," says Vargas. "Your spirit lives in the gutter." Severed heads are often left on roadsides and at police stations; the bodies they were once attached to are sometimes hung from bridges and overpasses. A mass grave holding nine corpses was recently discovered outside the city, and in November students found seven bullet-torn bodies outside their elementary school. The next month, the narcos even began extorting Christmas-bonus money from teachers, warning they'd kidnap pupils unless they were paid.
It is not only obvious gang members who have died in the mayhem. More than 50 Juárez cops were murdered in 2008; in February the police chief resigned after the gangs made good on a threat to murder an officer every 48 hours until he stepped down. Among those killed was the director of police operations, assassinated by more than 100 heavy-caliber bullets. The sad reality, however, is that too many of Juárez's police die not in the noble line of duty but because they moonlight for gangs. Last month federal cops arrested a Juárez police captain for allegedly detaining people on the cartels' hit lists and then delivering them to their executions. And the rot goes even higher: in 2008, Calderón's former federal antidrug czar was arrested and charged with allegedly taking $450,000 to feed intelligence to the Sinaloa Cartel. (He denies it.)
Hitting a Hornet's Nest
Mexico's drug plague is a product of both its authoritarian past and its new democratic present. When it ruled Mexico as an elective dictatorship, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) accommodated but regulated the drug cartels. But after the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 and its quasi-control of the cartels broke down, those groups split into more vicious gangs like the Zetas, a band of former army commandos who now head the Gulf Cartel. Cities from Nuevo Laredo to Cancún were soon reeling from turf battles. The Juárez Cartel, once Mexico's most powerful, is better known today for its bloodthirsty enforcers, La Línea (The Line), believed responsible for a wave of murders of young women in Juárez since the 1990s.
When Calderón was sworn in as President in December 2006, the carnage had become too much to ignore. He began a military offensive against the gangs that now employs some 40,000 troops. Calderón's supporters insist the brutal counteroffensive by the gangs is a sign that they were rattled. Critics call the relentless violence proof that Calderón took a baseball bat to a hornet's nest but wasn't ready for the hornets and point out that the Mexican army is not particularly well trained for the urban-guerrilla nature of drug wars. Either way, by last year Washington had become alarmed at Mexico's slaughter: Congress approved $400 million in aid for Mexico's drug war, the first installment of what is supposed to be a three-year, $1.5 billion package known as the Mérida Initiative.