A woman walks with children near a military checkpoint in Tijuana, Mexico, last month. The government stepped up its fight against drug cartels, sending hundreds of soldiers to the border city, where violence has risen
Crime 'has become defiant,' president says, as police and politicians are forced to face 'the bribe or the bullet'
The drug cartels of Mexico have grown into such a massive criminal enterprise that they have supplanted the government in whole regions and threaten to turn the country into a narco-state like 1990s-era Colombia, say law enforcement and criminal experts.
Attempts by the United States and Mexico's federal government have failed to stem the power of the cartels, which economists say employ as much as one-fifth of the people in some Mexican states.
"We are approaching that red zone," said Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on organized crime at the Autonomous Technological University of Mexico. "There are pockets of ungovernability in the country, and they will expand."
For the past decade, large parts of Mexico have been sliding toward the lawlessness Colombia experienced in which drug traffickers in league with left-wing rebels controlled small towns and large parts of the interior through drug-funded bribery and gun-barrel intimidation, Buscaglia and others say.
Even President Felipe Calderón, who a year ago angrily rebutted suggestions that Mexico was becoming a "failed state," is now describing his crackdown as a fight for territory and "the very authority of the state."
"The crime has stopped being a low-profile activity and has become defiant. ... Plainly visible and based on co-opting or intimidating the authorities," he told a group of Mexican ambassadors last month. "It's the law of 'the bribe or the bullet.' "
In places such as Tancitaro, the battle may already be lost.
In the past year, gunmen in this western town of 26,000 had killed seven police, murdered a town administrator and kidnapped others, said Martin Urbina, a city official. Drug traffickers were apparently demanding the removal of certain officers, he said.
When the traffickers kidnapped the two officials' fathers on Nov. 30, it was the last straw.
"If someone comes and puts a pistol to your head, what are you going to do?" said Gustavo Sánchez, who was appointed by the Michoacán state governor as interim mayor after the mass resignation.
In other instances:
• In Vicente Guerrero in northern Mexico,34 of 38 police resigned after the police chief and four officers were kidnapped. They haven't been found.
• In the border town of Puerto Palomas, the police chief fled to the U.S. and asked for asylum in March, saying Mexican officials could not protect him.
• In the northern town of Namiquipa, traffickers killed the mayor and two top town officials last year. Police there are woefully outgunned, Police Chief Jesus Hinojosa said. There are only 15 weapons for 39 police officers.
• In Ojocaliente, Zacatecas, more than half of the town's 47 police officers fled after gunmen attacked federal police in 2008. The force no longer patrols after 9 p.m., said Juan Manuel Rodríguez, a town administrator.
Often the cartels target city officials they believe are cooperating with federal authorities, said Juan Manuel Bautista, the City Council secretary in the western town of Novolato, where traffickers have killed 25 police officers, two city councilmen and a town administrator in the past two years.
"If they want to take revenge on you, it's easy," he said.
Faced with the choice of plata o plomo— the bribe or the bullet — many police and politicians are on the cartels' payrolls, Buscaglia said. In May, Mexican federal police arrested 10 mayors in Michoacán state, on the Pacific coast west of Mexico City, on charges of protecting smugglers.
Banks, stables, hotels
The attempt to dismantle the cartels has revealed that they are in control of many legal commercial activities in Mexico, said Joel Kurtzman, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.
Bank loans are expensive and hard to get, so traffickers have stepped in to provide small-business loans.
"What people did not recognize in Mexico was how deeply ingrained in both the economy and society the drug trade was," Kurtzman said. "So it's not as if the drug traders are unpopular — they're looked at in many cities like Robin Hoods."
Since 2006, the number of Mexican citizens and companies on the U.S. Treasury's blacklist of suspected drug smugglers has nearly doubled, from 188 to 362. The businesses are as varied as a day care center in Culiacán, a gym in Hermosillo and an electronics company in Tijuana. There are meatpacking plants, horse stables, dairies, hotels, a mining company and gas stations on the blacklist.
Cartel leader Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán has been included in Forbes' list of the world's billionaires with a net worth of $1 billion.
Guillermo Ibarra, an economist, said Guzmán's cartel and others in Sinaloa state along the northern Pacific coast near Baja employ about 520,000 of the state's 2.6 million people, either directly or indirectly.
"It trickles down to construction, to car sales, you name it," Ibarra said. "Drug money ends up everywhere."
To offset tighter border security, traffickers are setting up marijuana farms on public lands in California, Washington and Oregon, a U.S. Department of Justice report said in July. The number of marijuana plants seized in the U.S. soared from 3.2 million in 2004 to 8 million in 2008.
The cartels are expanding their empires outside of Mexico.
Since 2008, Mexican drug smugglers have been arrested in Australia, New Zealand, Sierra Leone and Togo. U.S. prosecutors say the Gulf Cartel has struck deals with the New York Mob and Italy's Ndrangheta Mafia to smuggle cocaine into Europe.
'Powerful and lethal'
As they have gained strength, traffickers have been taking on the weaponry to maintain it. Cartel weapons are "increasingly more powerful and lethal," the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a June report.
Five rocket launchers, 271 grenades, 2,932 assault rifles, a submarine loaded with cocaine, and an anti-aircraft gun were all seized by Mexican authorities between March 2008 and August 2009.
On July 11 and July 12, La Familia launched 15 attacks in eight cities on police stations and a police bus, killing 14 officers. On Nov. 21, the same group attacked five prosecutors' offices and two police stations in Guanajuato state.
Calderón and the Obama administration insist that the Mexican government has the upper hand.
"We have a serious problem, but the good news is that we're confronting it, and better yet, we're making progress," Calderón told the ambassadors last month. But doubts are growing.
A report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command warned in January 2009 that Mexico was ripe for a "rapid and sudden collapse" because of the drug cartels. In a report to the West Point military academy, former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey said the cartels could "overwhelm the institutions of the state and establish de facto control over broad regions of northern Mexico" within eight years.
In Colombia, the government re-established control in rural areas with a sustained military campaign and spraying coca fields with pesticides.
Mexico needs to make it safe for law enforcement to bring the cartels to justice, Buscaglia said.
Of the more than 53,000 arrests since the crackdown began, only 941 are in Sinaloa, even though the state is in the heart of one of the biggest smuggling empires, Buscaglia said.
"The problem that Calderón has in winning this war will be that he can't offer the citizens courts, mayors and policemen that are safe and honest," Kurtzman said. "As a result, this is likely to remain a stalemate with a lot of killing on both sides for a long time."