A kingpin’s death has set off a cartel battle in a city long seen as a haven. President Calderon’s rhetoric needs to change to recognize the fear now gripping ordinary citizens there and elsewhere.
Cuernavaca made it onto the country's narco map in December when Mexican marines killed kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva in a shootout at a fancy downtown apartment.
The subsequent battle for control of his cartel has left about 50 people dead in the area, a tally that includes six corpses with signs of torture found on the highway to Acapulco last week, though not the undetermined number in three bags of body parts tossed on a busy street in the city.
This is the cartel-on-cartel violence that President Felipe Calderon says accounts for 90% of the casualties in the drug war. What has unnerved residents of Cuernavaca, however, was an e-mail purportedly from a drug gang that circulated Friday admonishing them to stay indoors after 8 p.m. or risk being mistaken for "our enemies."
The warning served as a curfew. Offices and schools closed early, bars and restaurants shut their doors. Friday night, Cuernavaca itself was dead.
This is not a new tactic, but it is new to Cuernavaca, which not so long ago seemed far from the front in the country's drug war. The fear and violence in central Mexico underscore how Calderon missed the point in a series of tone-deaf comments that have cost him support for his war.
A government report leaked last week put the number of dead nationwide at 22,700 since Calderon launched his crackdown on the cartels in December 2006. He noted a little too dismissively that most of those were narcos and their associates.
He also has pointed out that Mexico's homicide rate is lower than that of Jamaica and Brazil, Washington and New Orleans, yet they're not branded as danger zones and losing tourists. Mexico has an "image problem," he said at a recent tourism conference. "We have to work on the perception and image of Mexico."
No, actually, this isn't an image problem. It's a real problem to residents of Cuernavaca, Ciudad Juarez and a growing list of cities whose citizens don't care whether things are worse in Rio de Janeiro or Washington.
Although it's apparently true that the vast majority of victims have been linked to the cartels, that doesn't account for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians who have lost their lives in the crossfire, nor does it address the terror people feel.
They're locked in their homes and still fear that gunmen will burst through the door, as they did in Ciudad Juarez in February, leaving 15 youths dead at a party celebrating a school soccer victory. Or they're trying to stay off the roads so they don't end up like 10 students shot to death in the state of Durango in March for failing to stop at a drug traffickers' checkpoint on their way to receive government scholarships.
They no longer believe that innocents are safe in Mexico. So Calderon needs to listen to his people and adjust his own message.