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Drug war debate heats up after another brutal year

14 декабря 2012, 12:04
Packages of methamphetamines. ©REUTERS
Packages of methamphetamines. ©REUTERS
Even when a feared drug lord lied dead in a funeral home, Mexican authorities could not prevent the cartel kingpin from slipping away, AFP reports.

Mexican marines scored big against the powerful Zetas criminal gang when they killed their boss Heriberto Lazcano in a gunfight in northern Mexico on October 7.

But instead of basking in a key victory in the drug war, authorities faced a new embarrassment when gunmen stormed the funeral home hours later and spirited away the body.

The death-and-disappearing act summed up a year of successes overshadowed by failures in Latin America's drug war, which took more capos off the streets but was unable to stop trafficking to the United States.

The death toll surpassed 60,000 in Mexico over the past six years, experts say, with cartels dismembering enemies or hanging them from bridges.

At the same time, a debate heated up across the region on whether governments need to change the US-backed strategy, or even legalize drugs.

"I think we are headed toward full-scale legalization, at least of marijuana, in the long-term, but it will be a slow march," David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at California's University of San Diego, told AFP.

The US states of Washington and Colorado voted in November to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who opposes legalization, told Time magazine that the votes open a debate "about the course the drug war should be taking."

The US military stepped up its involvement in the anti-drug battle, deploying vessels and aircraft to stop trafficking along Central America as part of the multi-national Operation Martillo (Hammer).

Around 200 Marines were sent to Guatemala to provide communications support and aircraft.

But Guatemala's president, Otto Perez, has become a leading critic of the drug war and a proponent of legalization.

"The war we have waged over the past 40 years has not yielded results. It's a war which, to speak frankly, we are losing," he told AFP in April.

On September 26, Perez and counterparts from Mexico and Colombia pleaded for a rethink of the international drug policy at the UN General Assembly, noting that the strategy has failed to curb consumption.

One of the three, Felipe Calderon, ended his six-year term as Mexico's president on December 1 with a mixed record marked by a military offensive against trafficking and vicious turf wars between the cartels.

Lazcano was among 25 of the 37 most wanted drug capos who were either killed or captured during Calderon's administration.

The government also dealt a huge blow against the once powerful Gulf Cartel when it caught its leader, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss," in September.

But Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the country's most wanted man and chief of the most powerful gang, the Sinaloa cartel, remained on the run a decade after he escaped from prison in a laundry basket.

Pena Nieto has vowed to tweak the strategy in order to focus more on reducing the murders, kidnappings and extortions that plague ordinary Mexicans. But he is keeping troops in the streets for now.

While cocaine, crystal meth, heroin and marijuana continued to flow into the United States, the cartels maintained their campaign of terror, cutting their enemies to pieces and hanging men and women from highway bridges.

In another example of the brutality in May, authorities discovered 49 dismembered bodies in black plastic bags on a roadside near the northern industrial city of Monterrey. A note signed by the Zetas was found at the scene.

But the Trans-Border Institute said violence fell in key parts of the country, notably in Ciudad Juarez, once known as the world's murder capital, which could translate into a drop in the overall number of drug-related murders this year.

The drop, however, appears linked to cartels taking control of key turfs rather than police success, Shirk said.

"It would be great if we could say that law enforcement has won the battle in these places. It does not appear to be true," he said, cautioning that the death toll is difficult to count because the government stopped publishing figures of drug-related murders this year.

And though several top capos were caught this year, cartels staged more mass prison breaks.

In September, 131 inmates walked out of the Piedras Negras prison near the US border through the front door in an escape allegedly organized by the Zetas, a cartel founded by military deserters.

While some authorities struggled to keep prisoners behind bars, federal police officers got into trouble themselves even though Calderon boosted its ranks in the hope of giving it the lead in order to withdraw troops.

In June, federal officers shot dead three colleagues in front of horrified travelers in the food court of Mexico City's international airport. Two suspects remain at large while a third was detained.

Two months later, plainclothes police officers driving private cars shot up a US embassy SUV south of Mexico City, wounding two alleged CIA agents who were heading to a military facility with a Mexican navy captain.

Fourteen cops were charged with attempted murder while five commanders were accused of ordering their men to lie to investigators.

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