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Mexico’s troop casualties escalate along with drug war

Times Staff Writers

The number of Mexican soldiers slain has jumped dramatically since President Felipe Calderon began using the army to battle drug traffickers, records show.

Since December, when Calderon began the campaign, 89 soldiers have been reported killed, compared with less than a dozen from January through November of 2006, according to army records provided to The Times.

The escalation of attacks on soldiers has come as 12,700 troops man roadside checkpoints and patrol cities in nine Mexican states where rival drug gangs battle for control of ports, roads and other smuggling routes.

The Mexican army reported that troops slain since December included 27 soldiers on duty and 37 off duty. The circumstances of 25 more deaths remain under investigation.

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Calderon dispatched the army, along with several thousand federal police officers, shortly after taking office because of concerns that incompetence and corruption had hampered local and state police and judges in combating well-financed drug gangs.

More than 2,000 killings last year were reportedly drug-related.

The killings of troops include the ambush of five men, including a colonel, in Michoacan state this month. In April, authorities found the bodies of three soldiers bearing signs of torture. A message next to the bodies said, “Whoever gets involved will die.”

The troop deaths are among more than 1,000 killings so far this year attributed to drug violence, according to tallies by Mexican newspapers. The government doesn’t keep an official count.

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Calderon’s failure to slow the violence has drawn criticism from opposition parties, which have called on him to revise his military strategy. The president said Thursday during a speech in the state of Durango that he was not ready to change course.

“Organized crime wants to scare the Mexican people,” Calderon said. “It wants to scare the Mexican people so that the government crosses its arms and they go unpunished. They want us to retreat.... Our stance is clear: not a step backward.”

Army salaries have gone up slightly, but pay for the lowest ranks begins at about $2,460 a year, plus room, board, uniforms and medical care. Generals are paid between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.

The government pays the funeral expenses of slain soldiers and also provides a lump sum equal to 40 months’ pay to their immediate families.

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The families also continue to collect the monthly salaries of slain soldiers and are entitled to full medical coverage at military hospitals and clinics, as well as discounts at three luxury hotel chains.

sam.enriquez@latimes.com


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