Mexico takes a risk in drug war

Times Staff Writers

Flying low over the colonial City Hall, the helicopters of the Mexican army are supposed to make people feel safe. But to many here, they are simply a reminder of the war unfolding around them.

The police chief was wounded in an ambush Tuesday and resigned Wednesday, the second top law-enforcement official to flee this agricultural city tucked in the mountains of southern Michoacan state.

At least five drug-trafficking organizations operate in and around Apatzingan. The city rapidly has become the front line of President Felipe Calderon’s campaign to fight back against the traffickers by deploying army troops.


Critics say the army is illprepared for the mission, and that Calderon is putting Mexico’s most trusted security force at risk.

“It’s like a poker game and Calderon has put the army on the table,” Antonio Ramos, a longtime local newspaper and television commentator, said in an interview. “The risk now is corrupting the last honest institution, the army. The truth is the army doesn’t have the capacity to win.”

The mayor here sees little alternative.

“We’re waiting for the level of safety that we all want,” Antonio Cruz Lucatero said. “Not just in our city, but the whole state and the whole country.”

In January, the president donned an army cap and jacket and came to Apatzingan to tell soldiers stationed here that they were fighting a “head-on battle against crime.”

Nearly five months later, on May 7, soldiers from the 51st Infantry Battalion battled a group of traffickers holed up in a home in the city center. Four suspected traffickers were killed in the gun fight, in which soldiers also used grenades.

The battle was captured on video and broadcast later on national television.

Since winning a narrow victory in last year’s presidential election, Calderon has made the war on drugs the centerpiece of his presidency. He has sent troops to Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state, and to the border cities of Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo.


However, Calderon may stretch the army’s resources and could undermine its popularity. Mexico’s military boasts more than 200,000 troops, but only 90,000 are combat-ready, said Javier Ibarrola, a military analyst in Mexico City.

About 30,000 troops are employed nationwide in the anti-drug campaign. Ibarrola and other analysts say the army would be hard-pressed to get more soldiers into the effort.

The army is straining under the budgetary pressures and inefficiencies that affect many institutions in Mexico. Low wages lead to a high rate of desertion. One in eight soldiers simply packs and up leaves every year.

Meanwhile, many question the legality of using the military to carry out police functions.

“The army has declared a de facto state of siege in these places,” said Raul Benitez, a professor specializing in security issues at American University in Washington. “It has done so without the necessary judicial steps required for a state of siege.... But the truth is the Mexican government doesn’t have any other operations force it can send in.”

Mexico’s official human rights ombudsman on Tuesday called on Calderon to refrain from using the army in the anti-drug efforts, citing dozens of alleged human rights abuses, including rapes, attributed to soldiers in Michoacan.

Army troops have been stationed in the southern Mexican state since December, after Mayor Cruz Lucatero said he needed help combating a force of hit men working in the city for the Gulf cartel.


Troops began to patrol the city. This week, they were unable to prevent the attack on Apatzingan’s interim police chief, Jose Alfredo Zavala Perez, who was shot and wounded Tuesday in an ambush.

On Wednesday, shortly after being treated and released at a local hospital, Zavala Perez resigned, leaving the police force leaderless.

Zavala Perez had replaced a chief who walked off the job last July. The old chief, under a cloud of suspicion of links to drug bosses, announced that he was taking a “vacation,” from which he never returned.

“The attack was not against me, personally,” Zavala Perez said in a radio interview Wednesday after fleeing Apatzingan with his family. “It was an attack on the institution.”

Such vacuums of power in local police departments have become common in Mexico. Since 2005, dozens of police chiefs and officers have abruptly resigned after encounters with drug traffickers in several Mexican states, including Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche.

Federal police have been of little help. The Federal Judicial Police force, notoriously corrupt, was disbanded. An effort to remake the federal police is only beginning. The elite Federal Investigation Agency was created in 2001, but has not shed that corruption legacy, analysts said.


Last week, the president created the Corps of Federal Support Forces, an army unit specializing in antidrug efforts. The unit will answer directly to his office.

“Everyone who studies this problem has the same diagnosis,” said Benitez of American University. “It’s urgent to professionalize all aspects of police work: prevention, investigation, and intelligence against organized crime. The police need more resources, better training and better technology.”

But police and judicial reform probably will take years to produce results. Until then, there is the army, an institution that struggles to retain its personnel.

Lieutenants and other low-ranking army officers earn monthly salaries ranging from $400 to $600. Many desert or resign each year to join private-sector security companies. A few join the traffickers.

“A drug-trafficking group can afford to pay a soldier several times what he earns in the army,” said Jose Luis Pineyro, a Mexico City specialist on military issues. “There isn’t a government in the world that can compete with what drug traffickers can pay.”

To keep its elite Special Forces troops from deserting to the drug cartels, as several dozen have done, the army recently raised the monthly salary for soldiers to about $1,100. Pineyro said the cartels simply doubled that amount as the standard pay for their own “troops.”


Drug-trafficking groups have been drawn to the area for its fertile soil and convenient geography. The same qualities once made the area the center of an agricultural boom in the 1970s, when thousands of acres of cotton provided work. Water is plentiful, and the port at Lazaro Cardenas is only 90 minutes away.

The boom crops are now opium poppies, which are processed into heroin, and marijuana. Cocaine shipped by sea from Colombia passes through by the ton, U.S. drug experts say. Chemicals from China are cooked into methamphetamine at clandestine labs.

Rugged hillsides and protection money have made drug enforcement impossible. Traffickers take advantage of long-standing family relationships, as well as ambitious residents with few other means of getting ahead.

The so-called Sinaloa, Juarez, and Milenio cartels form one alliance in the region, the Gulf cartel and La Familia another.

“They are people with little education or culture but a lot of money,” columnist Ramos said of the traffickers. “Their fights are emotional. They are motivated by anger and pride. And they fight like people with empty stomachs.”

One such fight was the May 7 battle on Melchor de Talamantes street. On Wednesday, half a dozen city police stood guard over the one-story brick house where three men and a woman died in the shootout with soldiers.


Locals say that the freshly painted houses in the neighborhood are evidence of the illicit money that is pouring into Apatzingan.

Armando Bustos, the city police officer in charge of guarding the crime scene, said he had lived for seven years in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, working at a car wash and living with an uncle, before returning home to Mexico.

“Am I scared? The whole world is scared,” Bustos, 28, said in English. “I went to Alhambra High School and I’d go back there in a minute if I could. I think I will. This is too freaking dangerous.”


Enriquez reported from Apatzingan and Tobar from Mexico City. Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.