Mexican Drug Gangs Target Military

Mexican army soldiers stand over a detained man after a gun battle that left 4 dead traffickers in the city of Apatzingan, Mexico, May 7, 2007.
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 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 $10 billion and $30 billion selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine to the U.S. 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 United States more rapidly than ever before, and police recently made the world's biggest seizure of drug cash, $207 million neatly stacked inside a Mexico City mansion.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials say it's too early to judge the crackdown's success. Seizures at the U.S. 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 a top federal police official, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia 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.