In Tijuana, drug war exacts a toll
Violence grows as cartel totters
TIJUANA, Mexico - In Mexico's drug war, Tijuana tells the story of a government that says it's winning, even as the battle gets bloodier.
The arrest aboard a yacht in August 2006 of Javier Arellano Felix, the boss of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel, sparked a savage war of succession - one that President Felipe Calderon moved to exploit when he took office four months later and declared war on the whole drug business in Mexico.
Tijuana's case has shown how much time, effort, and blood it can take to subdue even one cartel.
Eighteen months after Arellano Felix's arrest, the border city's drug lords were still fighting the army and one another to control lucrative drug routes.
Now, after daytime shoot-outs and beheadings - 443 killings in the last three months of 2008 alone - Tijuana is quieter. Skeptics say the lull could be only a short-term truce among traffickers. But a top Mexican Army commander says the powerful gang's warring factions are spent.
"They wore each other down," General Alfonso Duarte Mugica said. "They couldn't keep going at that pace."
To break down the country's other big cartels, Calderon is using the same strategy that put the Arellano Felix gang on the ropes.
Drug violence throughout Mexico has claimed more than 10,700 lives since December 2006 - a sign, says Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora, that the government offensive is dividing and weakening drug gangs as they battle for a tightening market.
Calderon's war may never choke off the drug flow permanently. But his goal is to beat back the cartels by the end of his term in 2012 to a point where the army and federal police can withdraw and leave the rest to normal policing.
The fate of the Arellano Felix gang also shows that the government crackdown is changing drug trafficking in Mexico from a disciplined business to a public brawl among less-sophisticated criminals - leading to the bloody chaos plaguing the country.
"At least in the first two years, it hasn't led to smaller and more manageable [cartels], it's just led to smaller and more violent," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.