Violence will be eradicated, officials maintain
By DUDLEY ALTHAUS
Underscoring the region's severe security crisis, Mexico's defense ministry reported that soldiers have either killed or recovered the bodies of 338 alleged gangland gunmen so far this year in the cities and ranchland towns near the South Texas border.
The tally was quietly released by the military district that includes metropolitan Monterrey and the adjoining states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi. Soldiers also arrested 1,200 suspected gangsters, seized more than 2,000 rifles, 500 pistols, 450 grenades and 450,000 rounds of ammunition.
Many of the slain gunmen died in fighting between rival criminal bands, a military spokesman said. But scores more have died in skirmishes with the army. Five Mexican soldiers were killed in the area's clashes this year, the military said.
The army "continues battling the criminal organizations at every level, in urban as well as rural areas," the defense ministry statement said, "emphasizing its commitment to bring the climate of peace and tranquility that that society deserves and demands."
Northeastern Mexico has exploded in violence in the past 14 months as the so-called Gulf Cartel narcotics trafficking organization has gone to war with the the paramilitary assassins known as the Zetas who onced worked for it.
The two gangs have waged nearly daily battles with one another - and with security forces - in the Mexican cities and towns along the Rio Grande and in the Monterrey and Tampico areas.
Clashes near U.S. border
Six more men were killed Thursday when army troops clashed with supposed gangsters battling one another in the village of Los Aldama, a short drive southwest of the Rio Grande at McAllen. Soldiers in the past week also killed six alleged gunmen in Nuevo Laredo, bordering Laredo, and two others in Ciudad Mier, on the border 50 miles upriver from McAllen.
President Felipe Calderon has ordered thousands more soldiers and marines into the region, so far to little obvious effect. Large swaths of territory - particularly the small farm and ranch towns in the triangle bounded by Monterrey, the border and the Gulf of Mexico - remain at least intermittently under the gangsters' sway.
That became all too apparent this month when soldiers and police uncovered mass graves in San Fernando, a town of about 60,000 people 80 miles south of the border at Brownsville. The graves so far have yielded 183 bodies.
Calderon had vowed to pacify San Fernando last August after alleged Zeta gunmen executed 72 Texas-bound Central American migrants on a farm there.
Though only a handful of the graves' victims have been identified, the majority of them reportedly are civilians abducted by gunmen from inter-city buses passing through the town in recent months.
"It's not an option for the government, nor can it be for anyone in our country, to quit the fight against this criminal and social disease," Alejandro Poire, the government's national security spokesman, told reporters.
Calderon deployed the military against the criminal gangs upon taking office in December 2006 and there are now some 50,000 soldiers and marines involved in the fight. He has vowed to keep them in the field until local, state and federal police forces are up to confronting the gangsters.
Few expect that to happen soon, and certainly not before Calderon leaves office 18 months from now.
Thousands have died
Gangland violence has killed more than 35,000 people in little more than four years. Officials say most of the victims appear to have been murdered by gangland rivals. But a growing number have been killed in clashes with the military, especially in the region near south Texas. Hundreds of innocent civilians have also been killed, both by gangsters and the military.
Police this week arrested an army captain in Monterrey accused of helping plant a gun on a 28-year old civilian who was mistakenly killed by federal police and soldiers during a shootout on one of the city's main streets.
Opinion polls show the army still enjoys wide public support. But a growing number of human rights advocates, citizens groups and Calderon's political opponents of Calderon have demanded the military's return to the barracks. Nationwide protests demanding just that are planned for May 8.