View a slide show of Mexico's bloody 2010
December 16, 2009, was supposed to be a turning point in Mexico's long and violent war on drugs. On that day, 200 Mexican naval commandos -- the army and local police were considered too infiltrated by the drug cartels to lead the operation -- stormed the luxury high-rise apartment of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, one of the country's most notorious drug kingpins. Following a two-hour gun battle that was captured on local television, the troops overpowered the drug lord's security forces, killing Beltrán Leyva and six of his bodyguards.
The operation was praised by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials and hailed by Mexican President Felipe Calderón as "an important achievement for the people and government of Mexico and a heavy blow against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico." Mere days later, however, Beltrán Leyva's gunmen brutally slaughtered the family of a young marine killed during the operation, including his mourning mother and sister, in an act of retribution. This was a mere prologue to the worst spike in killings in the past four years. In the six months that followed this operation, disputes over leadership of the Beltrán Leyva cartel helped push the number of drug-related murders in Mexico from less than 800 per month to more than 1,100, where it has remained ever since.
One year later, Calderón's offensive against the country's drug-trafficking cartels continues to exact a horrible price on Mexico's population. If current trends hold, Mexico will end 2010 with more than 11,000 drug-related killings, up from approximately 6,600 last year. The 2010 figure represents a fivefold increase over the number of deaths in 2006, at the dawn of Calderón's war.
Even worse, drug-related violence is spreading throughout Mexico. In 2008, three states -- Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Baja California -- accounted for 57 percent of killings. Two years later, they account for well less than half of the deaths, as massacres have spread to areas that had previously been largely spared of the violence, such as Mexico City and the state of Nayarit. And yet, not long ago Calderón still claimed that "our hope lies in persevering in this attack, in persevering in this strategy." Despite the difficulties, he promised that "a clear day will come."
Calderón's failure to bring peace to the country should prompt serious questions about his strategy, which has focused on weakening the cartels by military means. More than 45,000 soldiers are currently deployed to this end. While the government can point to discrete achievements in disrupting the cartels' operations, the long-term consequences of its operations have been ambiguous.
For example, seizures of cocaine have indeed gone up in Mexico during Calderón's offensive. However, the scale of the confiscations is underwhelming when compared with those made by much smaller countries in the region, at a fraction of the human cost. Cocaine seizures in Mexico during 2008 and 2009 were similar in volume to those made by Costa Rica and were less than 40 percent of those achieved by Panama's authorities.
Similarly, the government regularly touts having arrested around 20 major drug bosses in the past four years as a signature victory in its war on the cartels. However, this achievement has done little to bring stability to the country -- in fact, it has done just the opposite. The resulting fragmentation of the cartels has unleashed vicious murderous cycles and a geographical dispersion of violence as emerging organizations vie for control of new routes.
When Calderón introduced his military plans to deal with the drug cartels, violence in Mexico was nowhere near the heights it has reached today. The country's murder rate had fallen by nearly half between 1992 and 2006. And this was true even in the states that have borne the brunt of drug-related violence in the past four years. The state of Chihuahua -- where the violence-ridden city of Ciudad Juárez is located -- had 18 murders per 100,000 people when Calderón took over at the end of 2006. Three years later, it suffered a whopping 74 murders per 100,000 people, 13 times the rate of the United States. If Chihuahua were an independent country, it would have the dubious honor of having the world's highest homicide rate.