CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico - Ten years after Mexico declared a war on drugs, the offensive has left some major drug cartels splintered and many old-line kingpins like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in jail, but done little to reduce crime or violence in the nation’s roughest regions.
Some say the war has been a crucial, but flawed, effort. Others argue the offensive begun by then-President Felipe Calderon on Dec. 11, 2006, unleashed an unnecessary tragedy with more than 100,000 people dead and about 30,000 missing - a toll comparable to the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.
In some places, homicide rates have lessened. In others, the killings continue unabated. The drawn-out conflict has also had a profound effect on those close to the cross-hairs of suffering: youths inured to extreme violence; adults so fed-up with poor and corrupt policing that they took up arms as vigilantes; and families who banded together in the face of authorities’ inability to find their vanished loved ones.
A law enforcement official in the northern border state of Tamaulipas told The Associated Press he now routinely encounters young cartel gunmen who have few regrets about their vocation. In fact, they see killing as the best way to afford things like smartphones, cars and girlfriends.
“I ask them, ‘What do you want to be?’ And they say, ‘To be a chief look-out and have a narco-corrido song written about me,” said the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name. “As young as they are, they have no other aspiration in life.”
He recalled the case of one 16-year-old who kidnapped, killed and mutilated his victims, and then took selfies with the cut-up bodies. A decade into the war, the violence is the only reality his generation has ever known.
“The kids who are getting arrested now, from about 14 years old and up, they have grown up with crime,” the official said. “It is something completely normal to them.”
Now the state faces a new challenge: Many of the older cartel gunmen jailed early on were convicted only of lesser weapons charges, as prosecutors are often unable to make organized-crime or money-laundering charges stick, and some are being released and returning to their old ways.
While Tamaulipas has calmed somewhat after reaching horrifying murder levels around 2010-2012, there are still shootouts and mass graves and piles of bodies - only no longer as frequently. Arrests and deaths have fractured the hyper-violent Zetas cartel in Tamaulipas, but the result has been a dozen smaller factions at war with each other for control.
“Right now, if there’s anything good in this whole bad situation, it is that these groups don’t have that much power anymore,” former FBI agent Arturo Fontes said. “But they are divided, and that is why there is a lot of chaos.”
Mexico’s armed forces have increasingly been pulled into the conflict because police forces are often corrupt or unreliable. That has had its own toll on the troops, who are frequently ambushed and accused of illegally executing detained cartel suspects in some cases.
Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos noted that the army’s involvement was only supposed to be temporary while policing was reformed.
“Ten years ago it was decided that the police should be rebuilt, and we still haven’t seen that reconstruction,” Cienfuegos said. “This isn’t something that can be solved with bullets. It requires other measures, and there has not been decisive action on budgets to make that happen.”
Calderon launched the drug counteroffensive by sending troops to his home state of Michoacan, where the Familia Michoacana drug gang and later the Knights Templar cartel have dominated many aspects of daily life, such as telling residents when to pick crops and determining what price they would get. Through extortion, the gangs took a cut of every industry in the state.
Citizens formed vigilante groups and largely chased the Knights Templar out, though other gangs have since taken root.
“Things are the same as far as crime,” said Hipolito Mora, the founder of one of the first “self-defense” militias. “The government has to do more to combat the corruption in itself. If they don’t do that, nothing is going to work. It is the corruption within the government that creates tolerance for organized crime.”
At the same time, Mora, who also owns a lime orchard, said the new cartels no longer try to dictate when he can harvest or burn down the warehouses of people who disobey their orders.
Bigger gains can be seen in places like Ciudad Juarez, which is across the border from El Paso, Texas, and where an average of 10 people were killed each day at the height of the city’s violence in 2008-2010. In Chihuahua state, home to Juarez, homicides have fallen by about two-thirds since it began a stepped-up policing effort in 2010.
But in some places, things seem to be getting worse.
In the southern state of Guerrero, authorities routinely report grim discoveries: mass graves containing the bodies of kidnap victims, severed human heads dumped in public, federal agents burned to death on a highway. The once-glamorous resort of Acapulco is now one of the world’s deadliest cities.
In Iguala, Guerrero, where 43 teachers’ college students disappeared in 2014, relatives of other people who have vanished were emboldened enough to form a group to search for their own missing loved ones. So far they have found and gotten authorities to exhume 18 bodies from clandestine graves - a measure of closure at least for those families, when missing-persons cases have long been routinely written off by police.
While the government has created support agencies for victims and improved its handling of investigations and bodies, it is grass-roots groups like The Other Disappeared that have mainly been responsible for such small victories.
“If there has been anything good that has come out of all of this, I would say it is the awakening of the victims,” said group co-founder Adriana Bahena, whose husband disappeared in 2011.
Raul Benitez, a security specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said Calderon was right to fight the cartels but argued that the government has failed to stop corruption within its own ranks.
“Without that,” Benitez said, “the strategy will always fail.”