Nation & World

Mexico's drug traffickers set their sights on top officials

MEXICO CITY — Mexican Congressman David Figueroa already had survived two assassination tries when federal intelligence officials passed the news to him: They'd heard that another attempt soon would be made.

Figueroa took it seriously. He dropped out of the race for governor of Sonora state, and, with the help of Mexico's president, was quickly confirmed last week as the country's new consul general in San Jose, Calif.

Almost as quickly, Figueroa, an up-and-coming politician in the president's political party, relocated.

His flight highlights an alarming new trend in Mexico's bloody war against drug traffickers: While drug cartels have long targeted local police officials, they're now striking at higher-level ones, particularly those close to President Felipe Calderon, who's made curbing the drug trade a central policy of his administration.

In recent months, gunmen thought to be tied to cartels have killed the national police chief, Edgar Eusebio Millan Gomez, as well as Roberto Velasco Bravo, who headed the organized-crime unit of the federal police force. Calderon appointed both men to their posts.

A cousin of Calderon's wife, Margarita Zavala, was found murdered and stuffed into the trunk of a car in Mexico City 10 days into Calderon's term, in what was reported as a message from cartels. In March of last year, Calderon revealed that he and his family had received threats from cartel leaders.

Figueroa, a member of the president's conservative National Action Party, headed Calderon's 2006 presidential campaign in Sonora, a state that's a thoroughfare for drugs heading to the Western United States.

U.S. law-enforcement officials, demanding anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue, say they think that the recent killings are an effort to turn up the heat on Calderon, who's undertaken the most concerted offensive against the drug cartels by a Mexican president.

"There is a strategic focus on sending messages to high-level officials within the government," said a U.S. law-enforcement official who's familiar with Mexico's drug war.

Since Calderon took office in December 2006, he's undertaken a frontal assault on the drug gangs. He's dispatched more than 40,000 soldiers all over Mexico to combat the gangs and has involved the military in other ways that none of his predecessors dared do.

He's also extradited top drug lords to the United States, surprising even American officials, and promised to send others to the U.S. for prosecution.

Calderon administration officials say that the measures have struck at the very heart of the drug cartels, whose members previously could expect at least to remain in Mexico, even if they were imprisoned.

They've lashed back with a vengeance.

So far this year, by the count of two leading Mexican newspapers, there have been at least 2,400 drug-related murders nationwide. That almost equals the roughly 2,500 drug-related killings for all of last year.

In recent weeks, kidnappers seized the top police official for the international airport in Monterrey _ Mexico's industrial capital _ and his assistant. Their bodies were found days later, dumped along a national highway, their wrists and faces wrapped in duct tape.

In Sinaloa state, a federal officer, Pablo Aispuro Ramirez, was found shot to death in late July. The killers had planted a huge sombrero on his head and positioned him against a tree to look like the tourist trinkets that depict a Mexican resting in the shade. A mocking message left with the body read: "I'm hypocritical brass, that's why I'm here taking in the shade."

Perhaps the most troubled area is a region called La Laguna, where the states of Durango and Coahuila meet.

This region includes three adjoining municipalities that make up the so-called Golden Triangle _ Torreon, Gomez Palacios and Ciudad Lerdo _ which is a crossing point for drugs moving from Mexico's Pacific coast to the Texas and Arizona borders.

The top anti-kidnapping official for the region, Gerardo Valdez Segura, was kidnapped July 10 after a month on the job and is presumed dead. His predecessor Enrique Ruiz Arevalo had been kidnapped in May 2007 and killed.

Three weeks later, six pickups full of armed gunmen attacked police headquarters in Ciudad Lerdo, killing two officers and sending citizens scurrying into the mayor's offices for protection.

To U.S. law enforcement, the escalating violence is a perverse sign of success.

"These cartel leaders are starting to feel the pain, and the natural response is to up the ante in terms of violence," said a U.S. law-enforcement official who's close to the drug war.

Many Mexicans, however, question whether the explosion of violence is worth the effort to crack down on what's widely seen as an American problem.

A July poll in the newspaper Milenio found that only a quarter of Mexicans thought that the administration was winning the drug war, and more than half said the cartels were winning.

"The costs are very high, and that is the pressure that Calderon will face in the coming months and years," said Jorge Chabat, a political analyst in Mexico City who follows the drug war.

Threats against Calderon's political supporters may be just another way to exploit that ambivalence toward the drug war.

Figueroa had been targeted before. On Nov. 27, 2006, just days before Calderon took office, shots from a passing car struck Figueroa in both legs and the head as he rode in a car outside the city of Toluca, near Mexico City. Authorities later determined that 25 bullets struck the car.

Last Oct. 31, he survived a brazen close-range shooting near Mexico's towering World Trade Center building, which was captured on surveillance cameras and later splashed across YouTube. A man dressed in a business suit called out "Congressman," then opened fire as Figueroa turned to look. Inexplicably, the shots missed the lawmaker.

Figueroa, who first earned the enmity of drug traffickers when he was the mayor of Agua Prieta, a border town across from Douglas, Ariz., publicly attributed his departure from the governor's race to a desire to spend more time with his family.

But he revealed the real reason in an interview with McClatchy in the safety of Mexico's secure congressional building after his diplomatic appointment was approved last week. McClatchy withheld details until he'd left the country.

"They send a clear message. They hit wherever it is, whenever they want," he said. He admitted to surprise that he's still alive. "I live because God is great. I don't know how else to explain it," he said.

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