Killings Cast Pall on Mexico Drug Plan

The gangland-style murders of three people with ties to the U.S. consulate in this border city have confirmed for many people what residents here already knew: President Felipe Calderón’s strategy of sending in the troops to corral drug gangs has failed.

The gritty working-class city of 1.5 million has become a litmus test for Mr. Calderón’s antidrug strategy and, by extension, his presidency. The conservative leader took power vowing to bring cartels to heel, and chose Mexico’s army rather than local police to do the job, sending 45,000 troops to various hot spots, including 7,000 to Juárez.

But violence has skyrocketed in Juárez, an assembly center for export goods that never escaped its roots as a border playground for Americans. It has suffered a disproportionate amount of the mayhem, accounting for 5,349 out of more than 18,000 drug-related murders across Mexico since Mr. Calderón took power in December 2006.

“It’s a complete failure,” Oscar Cantú, publisher of local newspaper El Norte, says of Mr. Calderón’s enforcement strategy.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, while praising Mr. Calderón’s antidrug efforts, said this week the military deployment “hasn’t helped.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Calderón visited the city, just days after an American couple, including a woman who was four months pregnant and worked at the U.S. consulate, were killed in broad daylight. Separately, another man married to a consulate worker was killed.

The president told residents he regretted the “cowardly” murders and that the fight for Juárez was crucial to Mexico’s future. Mr. Calderón resisted calls by some protesters to pull out the army, saying “I don’t think that’s going to help Juárez’s security problem.”

The president’s top aides tacitly acknowledge that the army strategy hasn’t worked. Officials say they will try two new approaches: a greater focus on intelligence work, and an effort to create jobs, build schools, open parks and counsel drug addicts.

On March 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead a top-level delegation to Mexico, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, to discuss efforts against drug cartels, Reuters reported State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley as saying Wednesday.

Juárez, considered the world’s murder capital, is caught in a turf war between two Mexican drug gangs fighting to control smuggling rights to the giant U.S. market. The violence scares away investment needed to reduce poverty and undercut drug gangs. The local manufacturers’ trade group estimates nearly $1 billion in potential investment has been lost over the past two years due to the insecurity.

Amid a wave of extortions, many city businesses have shut their doors. Many families with the means have fled across the border to El Paso, Texas.

On the day the Americans were murdered, six other people were killed here in drug-related hits, according to local newspaper reports. A typical incident: A man identified only as Nicolas was riding a bicycle on a boulevard at 8 p.m. when he was chased by gunmen in a car. He tried to hide but was gunned down. The car drove off.

Part of the problem is that the military doesn’t have the training for intelligence work or counterinsurgency operations that could help turn the tide in Juárez, experts say. Until now, the troops’ main function has been to patrol Juárez and other cities. Most troops rotate out after two-month assignments.

“This was an improvised strategy that wasn’t thought through,” says Arturo Yañez, a former federal antidrug official. Mr. Calderón hasn’t wanted to use Mexico’s local cops, which are widely perceived as corrupt. The army serves as a stopgap while new federal police forces are trained. Mr. Yañez says that money and training should flow not to the army but toward local prosecutors and cops. Local police still aren’t allowed to investigate organized crime. “We aren’t doing enough to support the guys on the ground who can get the best intelligence,” he says.

Other experts say Mexico’s army of conscripts could develop intelligence capacity if it got more direct training from the U.S. military. The U.S. has pledged about $400 million a year in antidrug aid to Mexico, though much of the money is for hardware such as helicopters and hasn’t yet been disbursed.

“A related lesson from Colombia’s experience is that if government forces have the technology and training, they can get ahead of these violent organizations,” says Jay Cope, a fellow at the National Defense University and a retired U.S. Army Colonel.

Mexico, however, is reluctant to ask for increased training. Soon after the U.S. government said the FBI would help Mexico investigate the recent killings of the Americans, several Mexican senators complained about a violation of “sovereignty.”

– Article from Wall Street Journal.