Stark assessments of the threat that drug crime poses to Mexico's stability have put the government of President Felipe Calderon on the defensive as he tries to forge a relationship with a new U.S. president.
Rising violence, spurred in part by Calderon's 2-year-old offensive against drug traffickers, has prompted some officials and analysts in the United States to warn that Mexico faces a risk of collapse within several years.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the former U.S. drug agency director, said in a separate analysis on Mexico that the government "is not confronting dangerous criminality -- it is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorism" and could lose effective control of large swaths near the U.S. border. The outgoing CIA director, Michael V. Hayden, listed Mexico with Iran as a possible top challenge for President Obama. And former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this month that Mexico could turn into a surprise crisis for the new president by year's end.
The assessments come as Calderon seeks to assert that gains have been made in his government's fight against drug traffickers, a campaign that has aggravated violent feuding among gangs vying to supply the lucrative U.S. market for narcotics. More than 5,300 people died in the violence last year.
Mexican officials and most analysts here scoff at depictions of Mexico as a failed or failing state. They say it bears little resemblance to basket cases such as Somalia, Haiti or Sudan, with their weak central governments, sectarian blood-letting or fleeing populace.
"It's a very bad analysis," said Raul Benitez, an expert on security and U.S.-Mexico relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Mexico has some failed institutions inside the government, but not the whole state."
Few deny that lawlessness prevails in cities such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, and that corruption has chewed deep into law enforcement agencies and the courts. Still, many analysts say, the government's basic authority remains intact in most of the country, and the daily violence is nothing like that of a civil war.
"You have places where things are not going well, but that hardly makes a failed state," said one U.S. official. "And there's an incredible resolve by the Calderon government to address those challenges."
But the darker assessments have put the Calderon administration in the awkward position of making a strong enough case for increased U.S. help while trying to stave off the kind of talk that could scare off tourists and foreign investors.
"These analyses are a big strike against Calderon," Benitez said. "He wants the attention, but not the attention for the bad things."
Mexican officials dismiss the idea that their nation's problems represent a threat to the United States. But they have emphasized that the United States must do more to curb drug use and to help stem the flow of guns across the border. Calderon reiterated that drug violence is a shared problem during a visit with Obama on Jan. 12, a week before the inauguration.
Calderon has deployed 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police officers around the country as part of the anti-drug offensive. His administration has said the violence among the cartels is a sign that the campaign is putting pressure on traffickers' ability to smuggle drugs into the U.S.
"It seems unacceptable to me that Mexico would be deemed a security risk," the interior minister, Fernando Gomez Mont, told reporters this month. "There are problems in Mexico that we are dealing with, that we can continue to deal with."
Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa also plays down the possible threat to the central government, saying killings have been concentrated mainly in four drug-trafficking hubs: Ciudad Juarez, Culiacan, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo.
Denials by Mexican officials, however vehement, probably won't be enough to stanch the grave assessments as long as the nation shakes with violence.
"They're pushing back, but I think the evidence is on the other side," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico scholar who teaches at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "You've got more cartels, in more diverse activities. They're in more states. They're killing more people. They're kidnapping more people and getting more attention for the savagery of their acts."
Few here expect Mexico to rise to the top of Obama's long list of urgent foreign-policy worries, which include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and questions over how to handle Pakistan.
An Obama-Calderon relationship is yet to be forged. Calderon's visit with Obama in Washington produced general vows of close cooperation, but no immediate indication of big shifts on the most ticklish bilateral issues, including migration.
Calderon enjoyed the firm support of former President Bush, a fellow conservative, and the two governments usually sang from the same page when it came to Mexico's military-led strategy against drug traffickers.
The Bush administration consistently praised Calderon's efforts to fight crime and corruption, despite setbacks. The U.S. ambassador here was a onetime Bush aide, Tony Garza. He stepped down Tuesday and his replacement has not yet been named.
Calderon probably can count on continued U.S. backing, primarily through the $1.4-billion security-aid package known as the Merida initiative. The first $400 million was approved by Congress last year, and has begun flowing after some delay.
The aid will provide the Mexican military with six helicopter troop carriers and a surveillance airplane, truck scanners, police equipment and law-enforcement training and technical help.
Obama has pledged continued support, including trying to curtail gun-running from the United States. But the administration has not shown signs of the alarm sounded by McCaffrey, who said a failure by Mexico to curb violence "could result in a surge of millions of refugees" across the U.S. border.
latimes.com /siege Previous coverage of Mexico's drug war is available online.