US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heaped praise on Mexico’s war on drugs as she visited the country this week, keen to show US backing for President Felipe Calderón after much bloodshed in his controversial strategy against drug cartels.
Mrs Clinton said that the Obama administration accepted that US drug consumption, as well as the flow of weapons south of the border, were major contributions to the violence.
"What President Calderón has done is absolutely necessary," Clinton told reporters at a press conference in Guanajuato. “There’s no alternative. The drug traffickers are not going to give up without a terrible fight. When they do things that are barbaric, like behead people, it’s meant to intimidate.”
More than 34,600 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón took power in December 2006. Just less than 15,300 of those deaths took place in 2010 alone. Mrs Clinton said: “If it was easy, it would have been done before. It is hard and carries all kinds of costs.”
President Calderón’s drug war is not popular with many Mexicans, who live with news of death and violence every single day. “Back in the day, the narcos were always very open with the public,” said Miguel Perea, a veteran journalist in Ciudad Juárez. “You would pass by their houses and there was no problem. But when President Calderón came to power, all-out war was declared against them.”
This war is thought to have exacerbated the problem, pushing the cartels further underground. The death or arrest of cartel leaders has caused many turf wars to break out, leading to cities such as Ciudad Mier in the country’s north to become ghost towns as residents are forced to flee, as violence takes over.
Mrs Clinton's visit has been touted by some as an exercise in damage limitation after WIkiLeaks revelations that the US administration was frustrated with Mexican authorities' inability to combat organised crime and also after previous comments she has made.
The US Secretary of State sparked anger in Mexico in September when she compared its drug problems to an "insurgency", suggesting that the US military may need to intervene.
Focusing on the huge number of deaths, car bombings and kidnappings, Mrs Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that Mexico was looking "more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago".
President Barack Obama, however, weighed in against Mrs Clinton, rejecting the comparison. "Mexico is vast and progressive democracy, with a growing economy, and as a result you cannot compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago," Mr Obama told Los Angeles-based Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion soon after her comments.
Mexico refuted the allegations claiming that its problems were less political than in Colombia, while also bringing up the "enormous, gigantic demand for drugs in the United States".
Ciudad Juárez has come to epitomise Mexico’s drug wars. WikiLeaks’ revelations this week that President Calderón requested help from the US government to subdue criminal organisations in Cuidad Juárez will shock many Mexicans.
However, residents of Juárez are keen for any help they can get, as many have lost all faith in Mexican authorities. Olga Esparaza’s 16-year-old daughter went missing in March 2009, when she was 18. She has had no help in finding her daughter from authorities and has conducted much investigation herself.
She said: “To any authorities, the FBI, Interpol, please help us. The Mexican government is incompetent and does not help us with anything. It's inhumane that the authorities have not the slightest interest in finding my daughter.”
William Simmons, an academic from Arizona State University working on legal remedies for the situation in Juárez said: “We need to give more aid from the US side in terms of humanitarian assistance and infrastructure assistance but instead we give five high-powered helicopters to the Mexican military, which is just going to exacerbate the drug war.
“If either country thinks they're going to win a war of attrition against the drug cartels, they're crazy. The cartels can replace their footsoldiers and the leadership quicker than anyone can kill or arrest them.”