When Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s top police official, arrived in Tijuana in January, the city was in the middle of a storm of violence that he found, as he put it to me with clipped understatement soon after his visit, “surprising.” First, three local police officers were murdered in a single night, apparently in retaliation for a bust that a drug-cartel boss warned them not to carry out. A few days later, federal police officers tried to storm a trafficker safe house in a quiet Tijuana neighborhood and ended up in a shootout. Five gunmen held off dozens of police officers and soldiers for more than three hours. By the time the police made it inside the house, six kidnap victims from a rival cartel being held there had been executed. The traffickers had skinned off some of the victims’ faces to conceal their identities.
The attacks on the police officers were particularly worrying for García Luna, who as secretary of public security is one of the officials in charge of implementing President Felipe Calderón’s decision to aggressively wage war on drug trafficking. Just before García Luna’s visit to Tijuana, a police officer’s wife and 12-year-old daughter were murdered in their home there, in violation of a longstanding code of combat that is supposed to safeguard the families of cops and traffickers alike. In a further gesture of defiance, cartel assassins were issuing death threats over the police force’s own radio frequency, and the cartel seemed to be getting inside information about police operations. The gunmen in the Tijuana shootout had a cache of automatic weapons, including AK-47’s, the traditional weapon of choice for the cartels. During the shootout, the police, unsure of their ability to control the crossfire, evacuated hundreds of children from an adjacent preschool. “People are saying, ‘There are children fleeing here, like it’s Iraq,’ ” García Luna told me later.
What was “surprising” to him, however, was not the firepower or brutality of the traffickers; the surprising thing was that in Tijuana, the government was supposed to be winning. Over the previous few years, the city’s dominant drug cartel, known as the Arellano Félix cartel, after the family that runs it, had been, as many of García Luna’s top aides told me, practically dismantled. One of the Arellano Félix brothers was shot, another arrested by Mexican special forces and a third seized by American agents as he fished in the Pacific from a boat called the Dock Holiday. U.S. and Mexican authorities shut down several “narcotunnels,” elaborately engineered smuggling passages that run as deep as 100 feet below the fence that separates Tijuana from the United States. Stash after stash of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana was seized in town or intercepted at the border.
But by the measure that matters most to the average citizen — security — the situation was as bad or worse than ever. Even as the Mexican government was sending fleets of security officers to Tijuana, there were at least 15 drug-related killings there the week of García Luna’s visit.
This pattern has become common in Mexico. Since the end of 2006, the Calderón government has sent more than 25,000 soldiers and federal police on high-powered anti-drug “operations” to combat drug cartels. It has initiated sweeping plans for judicial and police reform. It has extradited several top cartel figures to the United States, earning praise and a package of anti-drug aid from the U.S. government. Yet this year is on pace to be the bloodiest on record for Mexico’s drug war, surpassing by almost 50 percent last year’s toll of more than 2,500 deaths.
Soon after the Tijuana shootout, the police got a tip about another building nearby — a plain-looking house with pale yellow walls and a basketball hoop outside. They raided it and found an underground chamber that they called an “assassin training school.” A policeman in a black ski mask gave me a tour, guiding me down a wooden ladder hidden beneath a fake bathroom sink. It went down into a long room with a low ceiling and lined with thick black insulation. There was heavy equipment for outfitting and repairing guns, and an estimated 30,000 rounds of ammunition were neatly organized by caliber on gray plastic shelves. Used shooting targets were pinned up to metal cans filled with scraps of tire, and hundreds of shells littered the floor. “It is incredible, facing these weapons,” García Luna told me later, shaking his head. “It is truly astonishing, in terms of quantity, in terms of caliber. Before, the most powerful weapon we would find was the cuerno de chivo” — the goat’s horn, Mexican slang for an AK-47. “Now we’re finding grenades, rockets.”
Since taking over as Mexico’s top cop at the end of 2006, García Luna has repeatedly said the situation with the drug cartels would get worse before it got better. But when I spoke to him after his visit to Tijuana, even he seemed startled at just how bad the violence had become — especially since the narcos had started turning their weapons on the state instead of on one another. One of García’s Luna’s top lieutenants, the federal police chief Edgar Millán Gómez, told me in March, “We are seeing a response to our operations: more attacks on police.” A month and a half later he, too, was dead.
A few weeks after the Tijuana bust, I went with García Luna to a meeting of state commanders and some local police chiefs outside Acapulco. The city has suffered its own bouts of drug violence in recent years. It is a major entry and distribution point for Colombian cocaine, and for much of last year two rival cartels were fighting for the turf. Acapulco has became famous for beheadings. In one notorious case, the heads of two police officers were deposited in front of a government building, along with a hand-lettered sign that read, “So that you learn some respect.” We traveled to the site of the meeting, an upscale beachfront hotel filled with American tourists, under the guard of gunmen in armored black S.U.V.’s.
Although he was just 38 when Calderón tapped him for his current job, García Luna had already spent almost 20 years in the security services, much of it monitoring organized crime and drug trafficking. By his late 20s, he was considered something of a wunderkind. Trained as an engineer, he was savvy about and comfortable with new technology at a time when those skills were becoming valued in security circles, and he rose quickly through the ranks. In the late ’90s, as Mexico began to emerge from 70 years of one-party rule, García Luna became a central player in efforts to reform the police. He helped found a new “preventive” police charged with keeping order throughout the country, then headed up the new Federal Investigation Agency, or AFI. Both these organizations are now functionally under his command, and if he has his way they will become an integrated federal police force in the coming years.
Raúl Benítez Manaut, a security analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, calls García Luna’s task “the hardest job in the country.” For now, in carrying out many of the biggest operations against the cartels, the government has relied on the Mexican military. But militarization carries risks. The military worries about increasing corruption and a growing number of soldiers deserting their units to join the traffickers; others have warned that militarization will lead to major human rights violations. García Luna recently announced that the military should be heading back to the barracks, and a new and improved police — better-armed, better-trained, less corrupt — should begin fighting on its own by the end of this year. Before that can happen, though, he will have to build a kind of cohesive and effective federal police force that Mexico has never had.
At the meeting in Acapulco, the police chiefs, tough-looking men with mustaches and wearing guayabera shirts, were waiting for García Luna, their boss, in a conference room. With his square jaw, squat build and crew cut, García Luna cultivates the image of a cop in a world of politicians, a doer in a world of talkers, and after a cursory welcome he quickly moved to the matter at hand. He wanted to discuss, he said, “combating corruption through the systematic purging of the police corps.” That would mean “cleaning up” the forces controlled by some of the men in the room — with their help if possible, “by force if necessary.”
Local police forces — which make up the vast majority of police in Mexico — are the “Achilles’ heel of Mexican security,” as Jorge Chabat, a security expert close to the government, puts it. In much of the country the police are popularly viewed as abusive, incompetent and corrupt — a perception not helped by periodic scandals, like the recent appearance of videos showing Mexican police officers being trained in torture methods. In some of the main trafficker strongholds, the police are the protectors of the cartels; U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers on the ground refuse to even interact with local police departments for fear that doing so will put them at risk. David Zavala, a federal police commander running García Luna’s operation in the border city of Juárez, told me: “When we arrived, we first had to get the municipal police out of the way. A lot of them are involved in trafficking. Sometimes they’ll tell us, ‘There’s nothing over there.’ That’s the first place we look.”
The system of local law enforcement in Mexico has been “abandoned,” García Luna told me. “There is no strategy. Wages are very low. There is no trust.” Corruption among police officers, he went on, “is part of their everyday life.” García Luna has resorted to a variety of measures to bring the nation’s police in line, and he was explaining them to the police chiefs in Acapulco. To get their share of the $300 million the government has for improving local law enforcement, he said, the local departments will have to start working with a new national crime and intelligence system and subject their officers to a regimen of “trust tests” — polygraph exams, financial audits, psychological evaluations. Until then, as many of the chiefs knew from experience, García Luna would not hesitate to use more extreme measures, including forcibly disarming suspect officers.
After the meeting, I joined García Luna as he went to the hotel bar to have a beer with a police commander. García Luna said he thought the meeting had gone well, but he seemed more interested in talking about bomb design. The week before, a homemade explosive device had gone off in the center of Mexico City, killing the man carrying it and wounding a woman who was with him. The word was that the bomb was intended for a police official’s car as retribution for a series of strikes against the so-called Sinaloa cartel — signaling, many feared, a new phase in the drug war. Mexican security experts were talking about “Colombianization” or “the Pablo Escobar effect” — the idea being that, as with Escobar in Colombia in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the cartels were responding to the crackdown with a no-holds-barred assault on the state. “Now, in 2008, we are reaching terrorist violence,” Samuel González Ruiz, a former head of the Mexican attorney general’s organized-crime unit, told me the day after the explosion. “It is an escalation in their fight against the authorities.”
But escalation was not the cartel’s only tactic. Reports were filtering out of Tijuana that, in the wake of the shootout there, representatives of the Arellano Félix cartel had offered police and military officials a pact: the cartel would agree to control violence if the authorities would agree to let the cartels do business. The offer leaked to the press, prompting speculation about whether the government might negotiate.
The mere suggestion of a negotiation made García Luna angry. “Look, I’ll tell you with all forcefulness, we are not going to make a pact with anyone,” he said. “We are obligated to confront crime. That is our job, that is our duty, and we will not consider a pact.” And with that, he changed the subject.
Until quite recently, however, pacts between the government and the cartels, spoken or unspoken, were the norm. For most of the 20th century, Mexico was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The P.R.I. was authoritarian and corrupt, but these traits offered certain advantages when dealing with the drug trade. Political power was centralized and tightly controlled. For a cartel, buying off a key figure in the P.R.I. was enough to guarantee dominance on a patch of territory. In exchange, the cartel had to keep the killing at a tolerable level and to stay off other cartels’ turf. Having accepted the drug trade’s existence, the government could act as an arbiter and as a check on violence. These arrangements were what García Luna refers to as “the historical laws of corruption” — and they are precisely what he sees it as his task to break.
“In some cases,” Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the final years of the P.R.I., told me, “there was absolute corruption, in the sense that the cartels would go to the governor or a mayor and say, ‘Here’s the money, don’t bother us.’ In other cases, and this might have been more common, the cartels would say, ‘Look, we’re going to do business here — don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you.’ It was a matter of reaching accommodation. There were reports that if the cartel had to kill anyone, they would take that person across state lines and kill them in the neighboring state.”
In the latter half of the ’90s, Mexico’s one-party political system started to open up, and in the 2000 presidential election, the P.R.I. lost power to Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive running under the banner of the National Action Party. The transition to democracy was a moment of great hope for Mexico. But it also undermined the system of de facto regulation of the drug trade. “What happened,” explains Luis Astorga, a Mexican scholar who studies the history of drug trafficking, “is that the state ceased being the referee of disputes and an apparatus that had the capacity to control, contain and simultaneously protect these groups. If there is no referee, the cartels will have to resolve disputes themselves, and drug traffickers don’t do this by having meetings.”
García Luna became a key player in Mexico’s antidrug efforts while this transition was taking place. “When we went in, we staked everything on taking on the heads of the criminal structure, going after the bosses,” he told me. The government has captured or killed some of the top figures in the Mexican cartels — several of the Arellano Félix brothers of Tijuana, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva of Sinaloa and Osiel Cárdenas Guillén of the Gulf cartel, which dominates the border towns abutting southeastern Texas. “The idea,” García Luna said, “was that by taking off the head, the body would stop functioning.” Instead, he noted ruefully, “the assassins took control.”
Rather than destroying the cartels, the government’s high-level strikes transformed the cartels from hierarchical organizations with commanding figures at the top to unruly mobs of men vying for power. The cartel’s hit men and hired muscle began shooting and slaughtering their way into the upper ranks of the organizations. “The government has gotten rid of some of the old bosses, but now we’ve got ourselves new leaders who are less sophisticated and more violent,” a top Mexican intelligence official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told me.
There have also been changes in the drug trade itself. As Mexico has grown more prosperous, domestic drug use — driven in part by cartel employees who are paid in product — has grown considerably. Trafficking patterns have shifted as well. As Colombian cartels were weakened by a U.S.-backed government crackdown starting in the 1990s, and Caribbean routes became riskier for traffickers, Mexicans started taking over — just as a Nafta-induced trade boom made it easier than ever to get drugs across the border. The Mexican cartels long ago replaced the Colombians as the dominant players in the global cocaine trade. Now, according to U.S. government figures, about 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States enters by land from Mexico.
When I met García Luna in Washington in January, soon after the shootout in Tijuana made headlines in the United States, he was carrying with him a manila envelope full of color photographs. The photographs were grisly full-color shots of dead Mexican police and narco gun caches — a police officer bleeding on the ground; the aftermath of the shootout; the underground firing range. García Luna thought of them as a sort of secret weapon of his own.
García Luna was in Washington to make the rounds of U.S. government agencies and Congressional offices — visiting those who would have to approve and implement the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion package of counternarcotics aid that the Bush administration proposed. (Congress has since authorized $400 million worth of aid to Mexico for next year, including equipment and technical support for García Luna’s police.) Seeming out of his element in the government buildings and think tanks — unlike many powerful Mexicans, he does not speak much English (all of my interviews with him were conducted in Spanish) — García Luna met with government officials and diplomats and gave a stilted power-point presentation to policy experts. He seemed more interested in the photographs he had brought, his way of making a blunt point about a touchy aspect of U.S.-Mexican relations: the vast majority of weapons in the cartel’s arsenals (80 to 90 percent, according to the Mexican government’s figures) are purchased in the United States, often at loosely regulated gun shows, and smuggled into Mexico by the same networks that smuggle drugs the opposite direction. García Luna has a hard time concealing his anger about the fact that U.S. laws make it difficult to do much about this “brutal flow” of firepower. “How is it possible,” he asked me, “that a person is allowed to go buy a hundred cuernos de chivo” — AK-47’s — “for himself?” In the United States, he said, “there was a lot of indifference.”
In meetings with U.S. officials, García Luna passed around the photographs, with little fanfare or preface. Davy Aguilera, the Mexico attaché for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who was present for one of García Luna’s presentations, said that the images of gun violence “made a real impression inside the Beltway.” Many U.S. officials have come to share García Luna’s frustration. “You take the guns away and you’ll win,” a senior Senate staff member who worked on the Merida Initiative (and who is not authorized to talk publicly about legislation that came out of his committee) said to me. “But if you can’t deal with the issue of guns, you’re not going to see much progress. They’re finding unopened boxes of AK-47’s.”
García Luna told me that “the most important thing is co-responsibility” — an acknowledgment that the United States owes Mexico its support in a long and difficult war. The point of this acknowledgment is not just symbolism. The narcos, he explained, “terrorize the community to build their own social base through intimidation, through fear, so that they can carry out their criminal activities with impunity.” U.S. support would help bolster the message that the good guys will not back down. Projecting toughness and resolve, as García Luna sees it, may be the most important weapon of all.
The cartels seem to understand this way of thinking, and they try to send the opposite message: the bad guys will never back down, either. In 2005, they started posting videos of gangland executions on YouTube. It was, García Luna and others have argued, a gimmick copied directly from insurgents in Iraq. “It was truly brutal. There was postproduction, editing, special effects,” he pointed out. “These were not just videos meant to show what had happened.” They were, rather, shots in the media war, meant to grab headlines and persuade the Mexican people that resistance is futile. It did not help the government’s cause that some of the videos seemed to show the involvement of the police in cartel executions — including police officers operating under García Luna’s command.
García Luna generally wins praise for acknowledging just how central police corruption is to the drug trade. He has ordered a substantive overhaul of the police, including new educational requirements and higher salaries for incoming officers. He has removed almost 300 federal police commanders, replacing them with trusted officers trained at a new police academy. U.S. counternarcotics officials tend to view the key people under García Luna’s command as an honest core that can be trusted with U.S.-acquired intelligence. That improved intelligence-sharing has led to some high-profile successes in the past year: the seizure of more than 23 tons of cocaine, the biggest bust ever; the arrest of a legendary cartel figure known as the Queen of the Pacific; the discovery of $207 million in supposedly methamphetamine-related cash stashed in the walls of a Mexico City home. “The intel sharing has been key in all of those,” Steve Robertson, a D.E.A. special agent who works on Mexico, told me.
Still, the sheer amount of money involved makes some police corruption as well as other high-level corruption almost inevitable. U.S. and Mexican observers alike are quick to hedge their praise of García Luna’s efforts, often with a bit of history. In 1997, Mexico’s newly appointed drug czar, an army general named Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested for working with the Juárez cartel. For months before that, he was celebrated as the tough, honest new face of Mexican counternarcotics.
“In Tamaulipas, you never know who is with you and who is against you.” Edgar Millán, the federal police chief, made this pronouncement as we drove through a scrubland of farms, factories, fast food and truck traffic in the state, which lies just across the border from South Texas. Conveniently for the cartels, Tamaulipas also has a major port on the Gulf of Mexico. Cocaine comes to Mexico by sea, stashed in cargo from South or Central America, and then is smuggled into the United States in one of the millions of private vehicles or shipping containers that cross every year. In a single day, thousands of cars and trucks enter the United States from Tamaulipas alone. Enough cocaine to supply American demand for a year, a market worth some $35 billion, might fill a dozen or so tractor-trailers.
Tamaulipas has been one of the bloodiest fronts in Mexico’s war on drugs for several years. And as in Tijuana, this year started out on a bad note. “We had to show the cartels that the Mexican state was not going to back off,” Millán told me as we rode along the U.S. border in an armored pickup truck. We were in the middle of what is considered the stronghold of the Zetas, a group of former Mexican special-forces operatives who formed a paramilitary cell for the Tamaulipas-based Gulf cartel. The Zetas had become the most feared force in Mexico. “For them, this zone was untouchable,” Millán said. “We practically couldn’t come here.” Several years ago, Mexico captured the Gulf cartel’s boss, Osiel Cárdenas, and proclaimed a major victory. But that only left the Zetas to run the business on their own and made the rival Sinaloa cartel think it might have an opportunity to move into Tamaulipas. As a result, the Zetas were warring among themselves for control while also trying to fend off Sinaloa operatives.
When we got to the small border town of Río Bravo, Millán directed his driver to go to a former cartel safe house, near where the police engaged in a lengthy shootout with Zeta gunmen at the beginning of this year. Millán pointed out locations where bodies had fallen and grenades had landed. He hardly thought it worth noting that the safe house is directly across the street from the local police station. When I asked him about it, he shrugged. “The power and money of the cartels allows them to recruit police at every level,” he said. “Local police forces have the most contact, the most presence in the streets, so they are the most infiltrated.” Local taxi drivers also serve as a statewide surveillance network for the cartels, Millán explained.
Despite the poor start to the year, by spring García Luna was holding up Tamaulipas as evidence of what his strategy could achieve. Millán agreed that, after months of a heavy federal police and military presence — of checkpoints on the main highways, of targeted raids on suspected cartel houses, of “neutralizing” corrupt local police commanders — things had improved. “We have retaken the area,” Millán told me. We stopped at a police checkpoint, where officers searched cars while half a dozen men with assault rifles looked on. “It continues to be dangerous, it continues to be difficult,” he said. “But our commitment is clear. We are going to win this war.” He summoned the commander overseeing the checkpoint, who explained how the police presence has affected the behavior of the cartels. “Now they are operating with a lower profile,” he said. I asked him what that meant. “It doesn’t mean they are stopping their business,” he responded. “They are always looking for new strategies.” The police have driven them off the main roads, so “they are using the dirt roads in the fields” to continue trafficking.
Later, I asked García Luna if this was an acceptable definition of success in the war on drugs: violence down, the police seemingly in charge, the cartels operating less conspicuously and less violently. He ducked the question but did not dispute the implication. “Given the temptation,” he said, “there are people who are always going to play the game, whether by airplane or helicopter, by land, by sea, because there is a real market. ... There is no product like it in the world.” (When I asked David Johnson, the assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, about the reason for mounting drug violence in Mexico, he said, without prompting, “In significant measure, it grows out of violent people taking advantage of the continuing strong demand in the United States.”) García Luna mentioned Colombia, invoking an analogy that Mexican and U.S. officials generally resist. Colombia has received billions of dollars in U.S. anti-drug aid under Plan Colombia, and violence has fallen significantly in the past several years. “Do you know how much the amount of drugs leaving Colombia has gone down?” García Luna asked me. “Check,” he said with a smile. And indeed, by all evidence, there has been no significant decrease in drug flows out of Colombia or in the availability of cocaine or heroin in the United States — and yet, Colombia is considered a success story.
In a recent interview with a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, Mexico’s attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, acknowledged that the objective “cannot be destroying narcotrafficking or drug-related crime.” “Trying to get rid of consumption and trafficking,” he said, “is impossible.” Jorge Chabat explained to me: “The strategy of the government is to turn the big cartels into lots of small cartels. If you have 50 small cartels instead of four big cartels, first you have less international pressure, and second, you will have violence in the short term, but in the long term you will have much less violence.”
Achieving even that goal means changing the balance between the government and the cartels — and that may be a much bloodier task than García Luna and many Mexicans anticipate. The police have uncovered plots against top law-enforcement officials in Mexico City involving grenades and rocket launchers. The attorney general’s office recently released statistics showing that under Calderón’s government, almost 500 law-enforcement personnel — some of them clean, some of them surely corrupt — have been killed in drug violence. One border police chief even sought asylum in the United States. And in recent polls, Mexicans have expressed growing doubt that the authorities are up to the fight: 56 percent say they believe that the cartels are more powerful than the government, while just 23 percent say they believe the government is more powerful than the cartels. But García Luna and his men contend that they will not back down until the cartels have been broken. As Millán told me in Tamaulipas, “They think we will step back, but on the contrary, we will attack them harder.”
A few weeks later, Millán was shot to death in an apartment in Mexico City. A disgruntled former federal cop had reportedly sold information about Millán’s movements to the Sinaloa cartel. Two other federal police officials close to García Luna were also killed around the same time; another senior officer and his bodyguard were gunned down in June while eating lunch in Mexico City.
I asked García Luna recently whether the fight was worth it, for him personally and for Mexico. “This has been my life,” he said, suggesting that such a calculation was not possible for him: he will fight because that is what he does. “I have been chosen to live this,” he went on. “I have 20 years of it, and this position is the summit of my career. I feel a personal obligation.” García Luna argues that Mexico is in a moment of violent transformation and that the only way through is to keep pushing forward. To Americans, he likes to bring up the example of the Mafia, to show that this has nothing to do with Mexican incompetence or corruption. “That is how it has been all over the world,” he said. “Look at Chicago, New York, Italy.”
García Luna had begun repeating the same phrase Millán used, which has turned into something of a mantra — ni un paso atrás, “not a step back.” When I asked him about when violence would begin to decline, he became frustrated. “Is it costly?” he said. “Yes, it is costly. You have to face it.” Over his shoulder was a small statue of Don Quixote, which he keeps on a shelf behind his desk.