Mexican drug cartels armed with powerful weapons and angered by a nationwide military crackdown are striking back, killing soldiers in bold, daily attacks that threaten the one force strong enough to take on the gangs.
The daily bloodshed includes an ambush that killed five soldiers this month, a severed head left with a defiant note outside a military barracks on Saturday and the slaying on Monday of a top federal intelligence official who was shot in the face in his car outside his office in Mexico City.
Mexicans were particularly shocked last week by televised images of kindergartners fleeing their school during a grenade-and-gun battle between traffickers and soldiers that lasted for nearly two hours in this small town in President Felipe Calderon's home state of Michoacan.
The unrelenting bloodshed has forced a change in strategy for Calderon, who sent more than 24,000 federal police and soldiers out in December to reoccupy territory from Michoacan's poppy-dotted mountains to the tourist-packed port of Acapulco.
Now, to supplement the massive presence of soldiers and tanks in small towns, he's ordered the creation of an elite military special operations force capable of surgical strikes.
"We are not going to give in," Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. "In the states where there is most violence, we will be right there to confront the phenomenon."
The drug trade is all-powerful in Mexico. Analysts estimate that cartels here make between US$10 billion and US$30 billion selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine to the US market, rivaling Mexico's revenues from oil exports and tourism. The gangs also make billions through robbery, kidnapping and extortion of businesses and would-be migrants.
The Calderon administration insists the crackdown is working -- the government has already detained more than 1,000 gunmen and burned millions of dollars in marijuana plants. Traffickers are being extradited to the US more rapidly than ever before, and police recently made the world's biggest seizure of drug cash, US$207 million neatly stacked inside a Mexico City mansion.
US Drug Enforcement Agency officials say it's too early to judge the crackdown's success. Seizures at the US border indicate the flow of drugs north may actually be increasing -- 20 percent more cocaine and 28 percent more marijuana has been seized in the past six months, compared with the same period a year earlier.
Violence nationwide in Mexico seems to be increasing. The country's three leading newspapers estimate shootouts, decapitations and execution-style killings have claimed the lives of about 1,000 people this year, on track to soar past last year's count of 2,000. The government doesn't count drug-related killings, and Luna has referred to the newspaper figures as the best numbers available.
This month's death toll for soldiers and sailors is the worst for the military in more than a decade -- violence that shows the gangs' desperation, officials say.
On Saturday, drug gangs left the head of a 37-year-old auto mechanic wrapped in a sheet outside an army base near the port city of Veracruz, along with a note that read: "We are going to continue, even if federal forces are here."
The grisly message came shortly after the government said it was sending troops to the city to respond to a shooting attack.
Many Mexicans fear even the army is outgunned.
"Calderon's war on drugs has been a big disappointment for us," said Pedro Ortega, a family doctor in Aguililla, a Michoacan farming town at the center of the drug trade.
"The reality is that we are scared to go out of our houses, scared about what could happen to our children," he said.
Calderon's overall approval ratings remain high -- 68 percent according to a recent Ipsos-BIMSA poll. But 40 percent blame the military presence for the increasing violence, and 36 percent believe the traffickers are winning, according to the nationwide survey of 1,050 adults from April 26 to May 1, which had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Aguililla was one of the first towns to receive soldiers. Convoys of Humvees rolled down the streets, black helicopters clattered low over the houses and soldiers at checkpoints frisked motorists for guns. But residents say the military presence has been sporadic since then, and most of the time they are left without protection from the traffickers.
"There is no government here. We just pray to God to take care of us," said 60-year-old Soledad Lombera, sobbing at a cross of candles in her house, an alter she created days after her son Francisco Alvez was found shot and buried on a nearby ranch.
Like many towns in the heart of drug country, Aguililla is strategically difficult to control, approachable by winding roads on which assailants ambushed and killed 11 state police last year. At night, the paved central plaza is taken over by gun-wielding thugs in sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.
Outsiders are not welcome. A group of Mexican newspaper reporters who tried to cover the killings in Aguililla were blocked by a gang of men bearing automatic rifles who ordered them to leave, said the reporters, who asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.
Seven journalists have been killed in Mexico since last October, making it the world's second-most dangerous place to report, after Iraq.
Aguililla Mayor Miguel Avila said the crackdown won't work unless Mexicans get better jobs as an alternative to growing and smuggling drugs.
"If you don't let people make money in one way, you have to offer them another," Avila said. "All the people in the United States buying these drugs give people a big incentive to produce them."
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