By Alfredo Corchado and Lauren Villagran
The Dallas Morning News
Mexico's drug violence in 2010 was striking not only for its scale but also for its brutality.
In the northern city of Santiago, the mayor's body was found with the eyes gouged out. In the picturesque town of Cuernavaca, four decapitated men were hanged from a bridge along a heavily traveled highway. And in Ciudad Juárez this week, two university students were hunted through a maze of streets and killed with bullets to the head, their bodies set on fire.
In 2010, the levels of Mexican violence and the kind of extreme cruelty once reserved for Quentin Tarantino movies reached new heights, not just along the Texas-Mexico border, but in regions that were once spared such bloodshed. More than 13,000 people were killed across the country in drug violence, up from an estimated 9,600 a year earlier.
"Mexico has a long history of violence, which is completely different from a culture of violence," said Harvard historian John Womack. "This kind of violence, however, hasn't been seen in Mexican modern history."
Theories as to why such violence is surfacing now include Mexico's difficult transition to democratic government after decades of authoritarian rule, when unwritten understandings – even among drug gangs – kept a lid on things.
The Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, has said that the heart of President Felipe Calderón's strategy is an effort to create a more democratic society with functioning governmental institutions that could help combat crime. But the transition has been difficult. For much of its history, Mexico has been ruled by authoritarian leaders whose tools of power were cajoling, co-opting or bludgeoning rather than governing by rule of law.
"We are what we are because we were what we were," Sarukhan said in comments before the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
The violent year has left Mexicans shocked and perplexed, posing challenges for the government's U.S.-backed strategy and particularly for Calderón, whose presidency slides into lame-duck status in 2011. The U.S. supports Mexico with the $1.2 billion Mérida Initiative, which aims to help build institutions and provide training and equipment, but U.S. officials wonder whether the strategy will continue beyond the Calderón administration.
"There's always doubt on how much more Mexicans can tolerate," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Building rule of law is not an overnight task. It's taken Colombia more than a decade, and they've made some impressive gains, but the road remains a long one. Will Mexicans, the next administration, show the same resiliency and determination? Those are questions that you cannot help but ask."
Calderón administration officials acknowledge the exceptional violence in the past year but insist that it began stabilizing in the second half of 2010 – a claim that some independent experts dispute.
"Violence is usually cyclical," said Carlos Flores, a former analyst for Mexico's intelligence agency and a visiting scholar at the University of Connecticut. "The numbers vary and are not necessarily conclusive."
For decades, cartels have operated in Mexico, often enmeshed with the government itself. Democracy was supposed to change that, strengthening institutions like the courts and reducing the number of crimes that go unpunished.
The reality has been starkly different: Ten years after the so-called democratic opening, with the election of the first opposition party to the presidency in 2000, the rate of unsolved crimes hovers around 98 percent, virtually unchanged from a decade ago.
"The democratization succeeded in breaking up power relations that controlled the violence," said Georgina Sanchez, an independent security analyst. "Governors, police, military, all institutional powers – when their power base was broken, an enormous void opened that the democracy wasn't prepared to confront."
With democracy, "the top came off the pressure cooker," she said, and the violence that had long been simmering boiled over.
Business between rival cartels was once negotiated quietly, but now these groups, including those operating along Mexico's border with Texas, battle openly for territory and have become notorious for torture and horrendous killings. One group in particular, the Zetas, has raised the stakes for violence.
"Previously you had an informal code of ethics," said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. "Women were not targeted; children were not targeted. You took out your rivals, but you didn't hang their bodies from bridges. It was a quieter type of violence than what you're seeing now."
Genoveva Sánchez, a vendor who sells roasted chickens on a street corner in Ciudad Juárez's 16th of September neighborhood, said she pays a weekly extortion fee of 700 pesos – about $60 – to the Juárez cartel in order to operate.
"In the end, organized crime has proven to be very organized and more visionary than the government itself," she said. "We wanted democracy and voted for that, and look what we got: criminals who scare everyone off, from cops to politicians to citizens. How can we ever change that? Do we even stand a chance?"