Mexico City - For months, the leaders of Tancitaro had held firm against the drug lords battling for control of this central Mexican town.
Then one morning, after months of threats and violence from the traffickers, they finally surrendered.
Before dawn, gunmen kidnapped the elderly fathers of the town administrator and the secretary of the City Council. Within hours, both officials resigned along with the mayor, the entire seven-member City Council, two department heads, the police chief and all 60 police officers. Tancitaro had fallen to the enemy.
Across Mexico, the continuing ability of traffickers to topple governments like Tancitaro’s, intimidate police and keep drug shipments flowing is raising doubts about the Mexican government’s 3-year-old, U.S.-backed war on the drug cartels.
Far from eliminating the gangs, the battle has exposed criminal networks more ingrained than most Americans could imagine: Hidden economies that employ up to one-fifth of the people in some Mexican states. Business empires that include holdings as everyday as gyms and a day-care center.
And the death toll continues to mount: Mexico saw 6,587 drug-related murders in 2009, up from 5,207 in 2008 and 2,275 in 2007, according to an unofficial tally by the respected newspaper Reforma.
Cartels have multiplied, improved their armament and are perfecting simultaneous, terrorist-style attacks.
Some analysts are warning that Mexico is on the verge of becoming a “narco-state” like 1990s-era Colombia.
“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.”