Four years and 50,000 troops into President Felipe Calderon's drug war, the fighting has exposed severe limitations in the Mexican army's ability to wage unconventional warfare, tarnished its proud reputation and left the U.S. pointedly criticizing the force as "virtually blind" on the ground.
The army's shortcomings have complicated the government's struggle against the narcotics cartels, as the deadliest year of the war by far comes to a close.
Though long employed to destroy marijuana and poppy fields in the countryside, the army hadn't been trained for the type of operations needed to fight groups trafficking cocaine through border cities.
"The army has never worked in urban operations against drug trafficking, in urban cells," said Raul Benitez, a national security specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "It's the first time it is engaged in urban warfare. It has to learn."
Instead, the army often relies on numerical superiority over intelligence and has frequently fallen back on time-worn tactics, such as highway checkpoints, that are of limited use against drug traffickers, especially in cities.
Checkpoints have also been the scene of serious human rights violations, including deadly shootings of civilians. Allegations of abuse at the hands of the army, one of the most respected institutions in the country, have soared. Mexico's human rights commission this year received nearly double the number of complaints it had gotten in the previous three years combined.
The military has delivered important victories to the government by killing or capturing several senior cartel figures and confiscating large drug shipments. And the decision to put retired and active army officers in charge of police departments around the country has helped bring relative quiet to some violence-plagued cities, such as Tijuana.
But in places such as Ciudad Juarez, where Calderon has staked his political reputation, the death toll has skyrocketed since last year. Seven of every 10 stores have been forced to shut down as a result of extortion and threats, and nearly a quarter of a million people have fled the city in the last two years.
The failures have alarmed U.S. officials, who for more than a year have been training Mexican forces in counter-narcotics operations and who are footing a large part of the drug-war bill.
A series of secret diplomatic cables leaked recently revealed the United States' profound unease over Mexico's efforts, despite public assurances to the contrary, with stinging language criticizing the army as stymied by well-protected fugitive drug lords.
U.S. diplomats and Mexican intelligence officials say the Mexican military and police distrust each other, refuse to share intelligence and resist operating together, squandering important potential gains.
The Mexican army appears to have lost favor with U.S. officials who turn increasingly to the navy, whose special forces are more eager to work with the Americans and small enough in number to remain agile and less susceptible to corruption.
At the same time, however, the naval marines' small size confines them to limited commando operations taking out targeted cartel leaders or dismantling small cells, not the massive presence needed to rein in the most widespread violence and retake lost territory such as Juarez, the eastern border state of Tamaulipas or the Golden Triangle drug bastion where Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa states meet.
Not that the army has succeeded in those missions either.
"Mexicans are paying a high price … for a strategy that does not seem to have much impact," said Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on the Mexican military at Claremont McKenna College. "It is not reducing drug consumption in the U.S., it is not reducing drug-related income for the trafficking organizations, nor is it reducing their influence in other activities," such as kidnapping and people-smuggling.
"I don't see the army, or anyone else, winning this 'war' in the immediate future."
In the four years since Calderon launched an offensive against the cartels shortly after assuming office in December 2006, he has deployed more than 50,000 military troops, plus an estimated 30,000 federal police officers, to more than half of the country's 31 states.
In the diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website and published in numerous newspapers, U.S. officials noted that the army's inability to contain violence in Ciudad Juarez represented a demoralizing failure. Troops were eventually pulled out of Juarez and replaced with federal police officers.
Calderon's strategy relies in large part on taking down capos and splintering their organizations. In the short term, however, that has often led to more bloodletting as the battles for turf and succession escalate.
U.S. officials, who are giving Mexico $1.4 billion as part of the Merida Initiative to fight cartels and shore up law enforcement, repeatedly emphasize that their relationship with Mexican forces, including training exercises and intelligence-sharing, is stronger than ever.
Instead of relying on the army, however, U.S. efforts have focused on revamping the police and providing assistance to the navy special forces.
As The Times reported a year ago when marines killed drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, Washington has moved into an ever-tighter relationship with Mexican naval forces involving the exchange of real-time intelligence. In that Dec. 16, 2009, attack, U.S. officials supplied their Mexican counterparts with the precise location of Beltran Leyva, holed up in a luxurious apartment building in Cuernavaca. Beltran Leyva and four of his bodyguards died in the ensuing shootout.
What was unknown until the cables were leaked, however, is that the Americans gave that piece of intelligence to the army first, and the army refused to act. (The army did, however, kill Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel, this summer in an upscale Guadalajara suburb.)
The navy "is well trained, well equipped and has shown itself capable of responding quickly to actionable intelligence," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual wrote in a December 2009 cable. "Its success puts the army in the difficult position of explaining why it has been reluctant to act on good intelligence and conduct operations against high-level targets."
U.S. officials have found the navy a far more cooperative ally, describing its 2,000- to 3,000-strong commando forces as "willing, capable and ready." The army by contrast was viewed as slow and "risk averse."
The reasons are to be sought in the differing training, history and cultures of the two forces.
Army doctrine contains long lessons on the perceived expansionist ambitions of the United States, with the history of U.S. military interventions in Latin America a foremost topic. Consequently, the army has retained its long-standing wariness of the U.S., and that interferes with the intelligence-sharing central to the fight against drug cartels.
The navy, by contrast, is willing to share. It is a more goal-oriented force whose main task is interdiction at sea, a duty that fits more naturally with the work of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition to taking out Beltran Leyva, Mexican marines acting on U.S.-supplied information last month killed Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, alias Tony the Storm, a major leader of the Gulf cartel.
The army appears to be keenly aware of its shortcomings and has expressed interest in changing the nature of its relationship with U.S. authorities. In another leaked cable, the army's top commander, Gen. Guillermo Galvan Galvan, requested more U.S. help and acknowledged the need for rapid-deployment units that can better act on intelligence.
He described frustrated efforts to capture Mexico's most wanted fugitive, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, saying the Sinaloa cartel kingpin was moving around among 10 to 15 locations and was surrounded by "security circles of up to 300 men" and a network of spies that "make launching capture operations difficult."
U.S. officials said the army, following the navy's lead, has requested special operations training "for the first time."
Galvan acknowledged the risk to his institution's prestige that comes with its involvement in the drug war. Still, Galvan said he was reconciled to what many here see as an ominous prospect: The army anticipates fighting this treacherous war "for the next seven to 10 years."