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Originally published Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Mexico's drug war heats up

These days, it is easy to form the impression that a war is going on in Mexico. Thousands of elite troops in battle gear stream toward border...

The New York Times

RIO BRAVO, Mexico — These days, it is easy to form the impression that a war is going on in Mexico. Thousands of elite troops in battle gear stream toward border towns and snake through the streets in jeeps with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on top while fighter jets from the Mexican navy fly reconnaissance missions overhead.

Gunbattles between federal forces and drug-cartel members carrying rocket-propelled-grenade launchers have taken place over the past two weeks in border towns like Rio Bravo and Tijuana, with deadly results.

Yet what is happening is less a war than a sustained federal intervention in states where for decades corrupt municipal police officers and drug gangs have worked together in relative peace, officials say. The federal forces are not only hunting cartel leaders but also going after their crews of gunslingers, like Gulf Cartel guards known as the Zetas, who terrorize the towns they control.

The onslaught has broken up a long-standing system in which the local police looked the other way for a bribe and cartel leaders went about their business.

In Rio Bravo, for instance, the state police station sits across the street from a walled compound that until recently was used as a safe house by Zeta gunmen. A deadly gunfight broke out when federal agents tried to arrest men carrying machine guns in a car.

As grenades exploded and gunfire ripped the air, Jesus Vasquez, 65, dived behind the dusty counter of his store.

"It was ugly," he recalled. "It's the first time something like this has happened."

President Felipe Calderón, who won office in 2006 on a promise to create jobs, has spent most of his first year in office trying to break up organized-crime rings. To the consternation of some liberals here, he has mobilized the military to do it, sending 6,000 troops into Tamaulipas state alone.

As those troops, along with thousands of federal agents, have begun putting pressure on drug gangs, the midlevel mobsters and hit men have put up a surprising amount of resistance. Again and again, they have chosen to fight it out rather than surrender.

They have ambushed and killed more than 20 police officers this year. In the past two weeks, four federal agents and three Baja California police commanders have been assassinated, along with the wife and child of one of them, apparently in retaliation for arrests, law-enforcement officials said.

Spilling into U.S.

That violence has spread to the United States. On Saturday morning, drug-smuggling suspects from Mexico killed an American border-patrol agent, Luis Aguilar, 32, when he tried to stop their cars in sand dunes about 20 miles west of Yuma, Ariz., then fled back across the border.

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Michael Chertoff, the homeland-security secretary, said the killing demonstrated how Mexican criminal organizations had responded to the crackdown on their operations with increasing brutality.

"The Zetas are defying the state," said Jorge Chabat, an expert on narcotics trafficking and security at CIDE, a Mexican research group. "This operation in the north of Mexico in recent days has no precedent."

It remains to be seen whether Calderón's strategy will work in the long run. Many of the nation's most-wanted drug kingpins continue to elude federal forces, often with the help of local police officers.

Some federal officers admit privately that they face an uphill battle as long as local police officers continue to tip off drug gangs about their movements. The threat became clear on Saturday when federal officials arrested four local policemen in Nuevo Laredo, along with seven civilians, and charged them with feeding the Zetas information over police radio frequencies.

"You cannot count on the local police," said a veteran federal inspector in Reynosa, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. "The problem lies in the state police. They are completely at the service of these guys."

Ex-commandos gone bad

In Tamaulipas state, just south of eastern Texas, the government's focus has been on strangling the Zetas. Founded by former Mexican commandos trained in the U.S., the Zetas have long been the professional assassins of the Gulf Cartel, which controls the flow of drugs along the Gulf Coast and across the Texas border. The group is believed to have scores of members, but the exact number is unknown.

The gunmen remain a formidable force, the authorities say. Federal police commanders in the state must stay on the move and keep their location secret to avoid assassination attempts. The state federal attorney general's office has been vacant for months; officials in Mexico City say they are having trouble filling the post.

Edgar Millan, a federal police commander who is in charge of tracking down the Zetas, said a contingent of 1,200 officers in Tamaulipas searched every day for members of the group, hitting specific targets believed to be safe houses and watching for cars carrying gunmen.

The federal police also run a system of 10 checkpoints on major highways in the eastern half of the state. Most of the time, they stop cars with tinted windows that carry two or more young men, hoping to make it harder for the gunmen to move.

But the Zetas have a sophisticated spy network as well, Millan said in an interview. They employ taxi drivers, store clerks, street vendors and members of the local police to keep them apprised of the movements of federal officers.

Several times in the past four months, the police have been close to capturing the leader of the cartel, Heriberto Lazcano, only to have him slip away at the last moment, Millan said. Two other important reputed cartel leaders, Jorge Eduardo Costilla and Miguel Angel Trevino, have also eluded capture.

While the Gulf Cartel leaders remain at large, the government scored a success in Sinaloa on Monday when it captured Alfredo Beltran Leyva, one of five brothers who are high-ranking lieutenants in the Culiacan-based cartel.

Though the big bosses have slipped through the dragnet, the offensive started against the Zetas in late November, after a prominent local politician was murdered in Rio Bravo, has paid off in many respects, officials said. The police have arrested about 40 reputed members of the gang and seized dozens of machine guns, snipers rifles, side arms, grenades and boxes of ammunition.

The federal police have also begun to submit local police officers to a battery of tests to determine who might be linked to organized crime. Among the tests are polygraphs, drug tests and the vetting of personal finances. The goal is to eventually weed out collaborators.

Many people here say they welcome the federal intervention, even if it means having columns of troops patrol their streets. But others voice doubt that government forces can ever stamp out the cartel, given its infiltration of the local police. All the federal forces have accomplished, they say, is unleashing more violence.

"Living in Mexico has become very difficult," said one man who had been stopped and searched at a roadblock near Matamoros. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of drug dealers. "Even Colombia is looking better."

Others complain that the presence of soldiers and federal agents, along with the gunbattles, has scared away American tourists, an important source of income. Last year, about 6 million fewer people visited border towns than in 2006; hotel bookings are down and sales of package tours have fallen steeply, according to the Association of Mexican Hotels and Motels.

"A lot of people used to come over the border to eat and buy things," said Alfredo Tantu, 40, the owner of El Cazador Restaurant near Rio Bravo, as the smell of roasting baby goat wafted from his kitchen. "Now, almost no one comes because of all this police action."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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