As Drug War Turns Into Quagmire, Fear Rules Mexico

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Jason Beaubien/NPR

Even major tourist destinations, such as the picturesque town of Taxco in western Mexico, aren't immune to the violent onslaught. A 40-minute gun battle during the middle of the day in June left 15 people dead.

More than 3 1/2 years after Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his war against the drug cartels, violence in Mexico continues to escalate, and 2010 is on track to be the deadliest year yet in a campaign that has already claimed some 25,000 lives. And there is no end in sight to the attacks that reach all levels of Mexican society.

First of five parts

Top politicians have been kidnapped and killed. Massacres of more than a dozen people have become common. And in July, a car bomb exploded in Juarez.

The fallout from the drug war that's starting to be known as Calderon's quagmire is being felt across Mexico, among those of all walks of life. And there is no end in sight to the violence.

The town of Taxco is a major tourist destination in the Western state of Guerrero. It's known for its silver mines and fine jewelry. Taxco's narrow cobblestone streets wind amid jewelry shops, restaurants and small hotels.

But in June, a gun battle there between the Mexican army and alleged drug cartel members left 15 people dead. With the picturesque colonial architecture as backdrop, the shooting went on for almost 40 minutes in the middle of the day and was captured by a local TV cameraman.

A few weeks earlier, authorities had pulled 55 bodies out of one of Taxco's abandoned silver mines. A local drug gang had been dumping its rivals -- sometimes alive -- down the 500-foot ventilation shaft.

Early on in this drug war, Calderon said that most of the dead were cartel members. The implication was that the violence is only eliminating the bad people.

But as the war has spread, so have the casualties.

No One Is Safe

In May, a former presidential candidate from Calderon's own party, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, was kidnapped and is still missing. In June, Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the leading gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas, was assassinated just days before the election.

Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, is a small city of about 300,000 people. Its markets overflow with vegetables. Vendors sell mango and melon drinks from thick glass vats perched on pushcarts. Music blares from a CD stand. Old men in straw cowboy hats sit in the shade on the city square.

At first glance, Ciudad Victoria looks peaceful. But the local Catholic bishop, Antonio Gonzalez Sanchez, says people are terrified. "Now the violence has invaded nearly all of the state," the bishop says. "We don't have hardly anywhere where there isn't violence, where there aren't killings, kidnappings. Unfortunately it's nearly everywhere."

Gonzalez says Torre's assassination sent a powerful message that no one in Tamaulipas is safe. "The people feel, and I think with good reason, that when the government says they're going to overcome the violence, it's a lie, no?" he says.

Violence In Every Corner Of Society

And the violence stretches from the Gulf to the Pacific and from the Guatemalan border up to Tijuana.

In Nayarit, just north of Puerto Vallarta, the governor shut the public schools three weeks before the summer break after a series of bloody, midday firefights.

In the industrial city of Monterrey, schoolchildren are being trained in how to hit the ground if there is a shootout.

Along the U.S. border, local news reports indicate that hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence-plagued cities all along the frontier.

In Ciudad Juarez last month, workers at a blanket shop picked through the remnants of their shattered plate-glass windows after a car bomb exploded up the street. The Juarez cartel claimed responsibility for the blast that killed three people.

In a conflict in which bodies regularly get strung up from highway overpasses and severed human heads are used to send less-than-subtle warnings, the July 15 car bomb represented an escalation of the violence.

Politicians and the press debated "narco-terrorism" and the "Colombianization of Mexico."

After the car bombing, the mayor of Juarez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, said, "We have to be on alert." He ordered all municipal police to take their flak jackets and weapons home with them at the end of their shifts.

Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, has been particularly hard hit by the drug war. The fighting intensified in 2008 as the Sinaloan cartel invaded the Juarez cartel's turf. Since then, more than 6,000 people have been killed in this city alone. Extortion and kidnappings have flourished.

In early 2009, the Mexican military took control of security in Juarez. Thousands of soldiers patrolled the streets. When that didn't work, the federal police took over, but the violence just continues to worsen.

Confessions Of A Cartel Gunrunner

At the Juarez municipal prison, inmates are housed in separate wings according to their gang affiliation. The Aztecas live in open cellblocks that are immaculately clean and look nicer than some of Mexico's housing projects. The Aztecas are clearly wealthier than any of the other gangs in the institution.

The Aztecas are aligned with the Juarez cartel and have been fighting to try to drive the Sinaloans out of the city.

Francisco Garcia, a gunrunner for the Aztecas, says the violence isn't going to stop. "There's a war going on. Nobody could go in and say, 'Hey, that's it.' We can't do that. Because they already killed so many people with us and them," he says.

Garcia is a U.S. citizen. He was born in El Paso, but he says the Aztecas in Juarez are his people. His hair is shaved close to his scalp. A green tattooed tear drips from the corner of his left eye.

"I came over here and I got caught on the bridge with two guns," Garcia says.

The 24-year-old says that was his job on the outside -- shuttling weapons from Texas into Mexico. "Any kind of guns, any kind of weapons that we could use. I was bringing them from over there," he says.

Garcia says the Aztecas had a well-organized system in the U.S. Other people obtained the guns and brought them to him in El Paso. His task was to move them across the border and deliver them to a contact in Juarez.

The Aztecas have a well-organized system inside the prison, too. In their portion of the compound, they have vegetable gardens, an automotive workshop and art studios. There's even an ice cream shop and their own pizza place, which they call "Domino's."

Ranks Of Poor Serve As Recruiting Ground

While the Juarez prison feels calm during a recent visit, prison riots in Mexico between rival gangs have killed scores of inmates over the past two years.

Garcia says that as soon as he finishes his four-year prison term, he plans to go right back to working for the Aztecas on the outside.

"This is my life. This is what I chose to be. I can't just walk out," he says.

Garcia grew up poor in El Paso. As a kid, he says, his family lacked a lot of things. The Aztecas, on the other hand, offered him "fast money."

He says he expects to either die young with the Aztecas or spend most of his life in prison -- and he says he's OK with that.

In Mexico, more than 4 million people live in what the government terms "extreme poverty." For the cartels, this huge pool of the poor serves as a recruiting ground for foot soldiers in a war that's growing more deadly every month.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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