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Drug-linked violence nears record high in Mexico

Narco-traffickers taking advantage of political instability to settle scores

By Laurence Iliff and Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News , 09.03.2006

MEXICO CITY — Mexican drug gangs once limited to the north are now cutting a swath across the nation, leaving behind headless rivals and helpless police as they take advantage of a presidential election crisis to settle scores, analysts and officials in the United States and Mexico say.
The historic level of drug violence not only threatens Mexican judges and politicians, who once were immune, but also American tourists and U.S. investors, as the cartels move into vacation corridors such as Acapulco-Zihuatanejo on the Pacific Coast and Morelia-Uruapan in the central state of Michoacan.
A Dallas businessman recently pulled out of a $40 million project near the Zihuatanejo resort.
"We didn't think this was the right moment," said Carol Davenport, a real estate agent from Arlington, Texas, now working in Mexico, who represented the businessman. "The dire situation didn't exactly inspire investor confidence," she added, referring to a rash of killings in the area.
The scale of the lawlessness, its geographical reach, and the apparent inability of the government to keep it in check threaten Mexico's political stability, some analysts warn.
Javier Ibarrola, who writes on the drug trade and the military for the Milenio newspaper, said President Vicente Fox's once-promising drug fight "is now just done in speeches" as violence and narco-corruption spiral out of control.
"I have never seen anything like this, ever," Ibarrola said. "The (narcos) have the field wide open to them."
Mexican authorities insist they are confronting the drug cartels head-on and point to the recent capture of one of the most-wanted capos in Mexico and the United States, reputed Tijuana cartel boss Francisco Javier Arellano Felix. He was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard, but Mexican officials took part of the credit.
But some analysts say an atmosphere of impunity in the nation is not limited to the narcos.
Turf wars widespread
Cartel turf wars extend from Chihuahua to Cancun and have taken 1,500 lives so far this year. Fueling the situation, analysts say, is the unresolved presidential election, in which leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to accept an apparent defeat. Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal is expected to name ruling-party candidate Felipe Calderón president-elect in coming days.
López Obrador's supporters have taken over the capital's streets and plazas, disrupting traffic and commerce. Seeking to avoid confrontation, the local and federal governments have allowed demonstrators to commit crimes ranging from obstructing traffic to destroying government property without punishment.
The same is true in the southern state of Oaxaca, where the center of the capital city is controlled by striking teachers and leftist organizations that may have ties to guerrilla groups, according to some Mexican and U.S. officials.
Mexican analysts say that fears of a broader confrontation have kept the government from moving against the demonstrators.
"The drug cartels are taking control of cities, coasts and highways up and down the nation, while the government and we the people are passive spectators before the images of the tortured and beheaded in the media," wrote Homero Aridjis, a political columnist. "And with the post-election political drunkenness of (López Obra-dor), with his marches, sit-ins and threats, many of us are on the verge of a nervous breakdown."
Fox has signaled that a crackdown against demonstrators may be coming, if the politicians behind them continue to resist dialogue.
Federal judge slain
Meanwhile, drug cartels dedicated both to moving narcotics to the United States and selling them in Mexican cities have moved into the apparent void. They are suspected of killing a federal judge last week near Mexico City, setting off a panic among the judiciary, which is a traditional target for bribes but almost never for bullets. Some want bodyguards.
"There are some real worrisome signs because there's a power vacuum," said Ana Maria Salazar, an expert on national security and former high-ranking Pentagon official. "We still don't know who the next president is, and that only makes the situation more precarious."
Jorge Fernandez Menendez, co-author of the new book, "From the Maras to the Zetas: the Secrets of Drug Trafficking from Colombia to Chicago," said politicians who control 90 percent of the country's police are more reluctant than ever to take on the cartels.
"There are local and state politicians whose intention is not to participate in the drug fight either because they are complicit, in some cases, or they are scared, or because they simply don't want trouble," Fernandez said.
"If the state and local governments don't get involved, the situation is going to become very complicated … and destabilizing."