Mexico Agonistes
Forget the talk about a “failed state.” America’s southern neighbor has made real economic and political progress. But the drug violence overshadows it.


In May 2005, New York Times correspondent Ginger Thompson filed a harrowing dispatch from the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, “a fast-growing hub of drug smuggling that has been transformed from a tough but orderly border town into a war zone, where violent death has become a fact of life.” Throughout northern Mexico, she explained, the narcos were terrorizing ordinary citizens, exacerbating official corruption, and fostering a climate of fear. Just a few weeks after Thompson’s story appeared, the courageous Alejandro Domínguez was sworn in as police chief of Nuevo Laredo — and was gunned down the very same day.

Mind you, this horrific slaying occurred 18 months before the December 2006 inauguration of Pres. Felipe Calderón, whose aggressive anti-crime campaign is now blamed for triggering a volcanic eruption of gangland murders. After the Domínguez assassination, Washington Post reporters Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan noted that the “human cost” of Mexico’s drug war was “skyrocketing” amid the country’s “worst barrage of drug-related violence in years.” Even if Calderón had simply maintained the policies adopted by his predecessor, Vicente Fox, the number of killings would probably have continued to creep upward.

Without the historical context, we cannot fully understand the blood-drenched chaos currently plaguing our southern neighbor. In early 2001, Fox traveled to the narco-dominated city of Culiacán and championed a “great crusade” against drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). But his vaunted crusade, which included army deployments, was small beer compared to the military offensive launched by President Calderón at the end of 2006.

That offensive unquestionably contributed to the subsequent explosion of DTO violence, and it has raised all manner of thorny human-rights concerns. There seems little doubt that Calderón underestimated the magnitude of the problem when he initiated his strategy. According to government data, Mexico experienced a staggering 15,273 organized-crime killings last year, up from 9,614 in 2009, 6,837 in 2008, and 2,826 in 2007. Previously calm municipalities — such as wealthy Monterrey, which the business magazine AméricaEconomía ranked as Latin America’s safest city in 2005 — suddenly witnessed a rash of bloodletting. In northeast Mexico, the state of Nuevo León (home to Monterrey) suffered 620 organized-crime murders in 2010, up from 112 in 2009. Next door in the Gulf-coast state of Tamaulipas, the number of killings ballooned to 1,209 from only 90 a year earlier. In the west-central state of Nayarit, the year-to-year jump was from 37 to 377.

To be sure, the victims of this violence were overwhelmingly DTO members and others tied to the drug trade. But they also included a frightening number of civilians — journalists, prosecutors, political candidates, elected officials, teenage partygoers. In two of the most prominent cases, DTO gunmen assassinated Rodolfo Torre, the frontrunner in the 2010 Tamaulipas gubernatorial race, and Silverio Cavazos, the former governor of Colima. They also massacred a U.S.-bound group of 72 Central and South American migrants, whose corpses were discovered at a Tamaulipas ranch last August. Earlier this month, Mexican authorities found new mass graves, containing scores and scores of bodies, in the same general section of Tamaulipas. It is believed that the Zetas — members of a particularly vicious DTO (created by elite Mexican soldiers) that is now warring with its onetime patrons in the Gulf Cartel — were responsible for the Torre murder, the slaughter of the migrants, and the grisly burial pits.