Death toll in Mexico’s drug war surges

In a chilling assessment of Mexico’s drug war, the country’s top prosecutor said Monday that more than 5,000 people had been killed in drug violence so far this year, more than double the toll for the same period in 2007.

Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora released the figures in a meeting with a small group of journalists. It was the first official toll provided by the government in many months, and was substantially higher than the tallies being kept by Mexican newspapers.

Medina Mora said 8,150 people had been killed since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006. In the first 11 months of 2007, he said, 2,477 people were killed. In the same period this year, 5,376 were slain, 117% more than the previous year.

“I don’t think we’ve reached the top of the curve,” the attorney general added.

The jarringly candid comments came as the government is battling well-armed drug-smuggling gangs and seeks more aid and cooperation from the U.S., where most of the drugs are consumed and most of the weapons originate.

Violence has intensified and become increasingly gruesome because of splits within the most powerful group, the so-called Sinaloa cartel; the more vicious nature of newer gang leaders; and the actions of paramilitary hit men recruited by the major drug mafias.

November was a record month for deaths, with 943 people killed. Most of the slayings took place in the northern border states of Chihuahua and Baja California and in the historic birthplace of the drug trade, the Pacific coastal state of Sinaloa.

Mexican law enforcement has also suffered its worst corruption scandal in a decade, with dozens of senior officials and agents accused of accepting money to pass secrets to traffickers. Medina Mora said that had not eroded U.S. confidence in Mexico’s drug fight.

Wilkinson is a Times staff writer.