COLUMBIANA, Ala. (AP) — Five men dead in an apartment. In a county that might see five homicides in an entire year, the call over the sheriff's radio revealed little about what awaited law enforcement at a sprawling apartment complex.
A type of crime, and criminal, once foreign to this landscape of blooming dogwoods had arrived in Shelby County. Sheriff Chris Curry felt it even before he laid eyes on the grisly scene. He called the state. The FBI. The DEA. Anyone he could think of.
"I don't know what I've got," he warned them. "But I'm gonna need help."
The five dead men lay scattered about the living room of one apartment in a complex of hundreds.
Some of the men showed signs of torture: Burns seared into their earlobes revealed where modified jumper cables had been clamped as an improvised electrocution device. Adhesive from duct tape used to bind the victims still clung to wrists and faces, from mouths to noses.
As a final touch, throats were slashed open, post-mortem.
It didn't take long for Curry and federal agents to piece together clues: A murder scene, clean save for the crimson-turned-brown stains now spotting the carpet. Just a couple of mattresses tossed on the floor. It was a typical stash house.
But the cut throats? Some sort of ghastly warning.
Curry would soon find this was a retaliation hit over drug money with ties to Mexico's notorious Gulf Cartel.
Curry also found out firsthand what federal drug enforcement agents have long understood. The drug war, with the savagery it brings, knows no bounds. It had landed in his back yard, in the foothills of the Appalachians, in Alabama's wealthiest county, around the corner from The Home Depot.
One thousand, twenty-four miles from the Mexico border.
Forget for a moment the phrase itself — "War on Drugs" — much-derided since President Richard Nixon coined it. Wars eventually end, after all. And many Americans wonder today, nearly four decades later, will this one ever be won?
In Mexico, the fight has become a real war. Some 45,000 Mexican army troops now patrol territories long ruled by narcotraffickers. Places like Tijuana, in the border state of Baja California. Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from Texas. Ciudad Juarez, next door to El Paso. But also the central state of Michoacan and resort cities like Acapulco, an hour south of the place where, months ago, the decapitated bodies of 12 soldiers were discovered with a sign that read:
"For every one of mine that you kill, I will kill 10."
Some 10,560 people have been killed since 2006, the year Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and launched his campaign against the organized crime gangs that move cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin to a vast U.S. market. Consider that fewer than 4,300 American service members have died in the six-year war in Iraq.
The cartels are fighting each other for power, and the Calderon administration for their very survival. Never before has a Mexican president gone after these narco-networks with such force.
"He has deployed troops. He has deployed national police. He's trying to vet and create units ... that can effectively adjudicate and turn back the years of corruption," says John Walters, who directed the Office of National Drug Control Policy for seven years under President George W. Bush. "These groups got more powerful, and when there was less visible destruction, it was because they were in control; they were stable. Now, he has destabilized them."
Walters sees this as an "opportunity to change — for better, or worse — the history of our two countries fundamentally."