Mexico’s Army Wages Futile War on Drugs and Citizens

Mexican troops destroy more than 7 tons of illicit drugs in Ciudad Juarez, the country's most violent city and a key drug corridor. (Photo by Alejandro Bringas)Mexican troops destroy more than 7 tons of illicit drugs in Ciudad Juarez, the country’s most violent city and a key drug corridor. (Photo by Alejandro Bringas)Reporting from Mexico City — Four years and 50,000 troops into President Felipe Calderon’s drug war, the fighting has exposed severe limitations in the Mexican army’s ability to wage unconventional warfare, tarnished its proud reputation and left the U.S. pointedly criticizing the force as “virtually blind” on the ground.

The army’s shortcomings have complicated the government’s struggle against the narcotics cartels, as the deadliest year of the war by far comes to a close.

Though long employed to destroy marijuana and poppy fields in the countryside, the army hadn’t been trained for the type of operations needed to fight groups trafficking cocaine through border cities.

“The army has never worked in urban operations against drug trafficking, in urban cells,” said Raul Benitez, a national security specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “It’s the first time it is engaged in urban warfare. It has to learn.”

Instead, the army often relies on numerical superiority over intelligence and has frequently fallen back on time-worn tactics, such as highway checkpoints, that are of limited use against drug traffickers, especially in cities.

Checkpoints have also been the scene of serious human rights violations, including deadly shootings of civilians. Allegations of abuse at the hands of the army, one of the most respected institutions in the country, have soared. Mexico’s human rights commission this year received nearly double the number of complaints it had gotten in the previous three years combined.

The military has delivered important victories to the government by killing or capturing several senior cartel figures and confiscating large drug shipments. And the decision to put retired and active army officers in charge of police departments around the country has helped bring relative quiet to some violence-plagued cities, such as Tijuana.

But in places such as Ciudad Juarez, where Calderon has staked his political reputation, the death toll has skyrocketed since last year. Seven of every 10 stores have been forced to shut down as a result of extortion and threats, and nearly a quarter of a million people have fled the city in the last two years.

The failures have alarmed U.S. officials, who for more than a year have been training Mexican forces in counter-narcotics operations and who are footing a large part of the drug-war bill.

– Article from The Los Angeles Times.