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Last Updated: Monday, 2 July 2007, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Mounting toll in Mexico's drugs war
By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Mexico

2007 is turning into the year of grim statistics for Mexico.

Mexican soldiers stand guard over a detained man in an operation in Apatzingan in May
Soldiers detain a suspect amid almost daily battles with drug gangs

Take the figure of 1,000 dead dominating the headlines here.

It is not a figure about road accidents or fatal diseases. These are deaths in what are being called the "narco wars" - the fight between the country's drug cartels and the security forces.

The killing rate runs at five a day - and the combined forces of the army, federal police and local police do not seem able to stop it.

A shoot-out in the northern state of Sonora in May left 22 dead, including five officers.

"We were shocked", says Jose Larrinaga from the police in Sonora.

"We heard that a convoy of 40 to 50 cartel members were moving across the state. So we sent 200 of our own men to confront them."

The very audacity of cartel members moving round the country in military-like formation is itself chilling. It's also a reminder of how far out of control they have become.

Former soldiers

They might not have regimental titles , but they do come with names suggesting a degree of organisation. The two main groupings are the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel.

Many of their members are believed to be former regular army soldiers. They are called the Zetas and are the most ruthless hitmen.

It is thought as many as 120,000 soldiers have deserted the regular army in the past eight years. Even if a small percentage join the cartels, that's still a lot of guns for hire.

Another recent example of their handiwork was at a newspaper office in the state capital of Sonora, Hermosillo.

Not exactly a great tactical or strategic target for the militarised cartels you might think.

Jose Larrinaga
Sonora policeman Jose Larrinaga confronted a cartel convoy

But they appear to have opened up a new front in this war by literally attacking the free press.

The newspaper closed after two grenades were thrown at their offices.

"I was terrified," says Claudia Rojo, a journalist who was inside when one of the blasts happened.

"No one was hurt. But the newspaper felt it could no longer guarantee the safety of its staff and so it has been shut. We are heartbroken.

"It's a blow not only to our jobs but to the freedom of speech in Mexico," she says.

Time for another statistic.

According to Reporters Without Borders, nine journalists were killed in Mexico in 2006 after writing about the cartels. The country was second only to Iraq, where 40 reporters died last year.

Public support

The violence is making newspapers more restrained in their investigations. Some reporters are said to be asking for their names to be taken off stories.

Others who live with the danger are also paying a price.

Raquel Rodriguez is one. Her husband Nelson was a policeman until one of the cartels killed him.

"He was a responsible man. With him I never wanted for anything. Our children called him 'Superman'. I am angry he has been taken from me.

"Why did they do that?"

Raquel Rodriguez
Raquel Rodriguez lost her husband to a drugs gang

Raquel's voice and gaze trail off, leaving her question unanswered. The memory of what she has lost surfaces again, pushing before it yet more tears.

It brings us to another statistic.

One opinion poll recently gave President Felipe Calderon a 65% approval rating. The vast majority applaud his decision to use the army to take the fight to the drug gangs.

Some cartels members are being captured. And some are being sent to the United States to face trial.

But still, the deadliest statistic of all is beginning to haunt his administration - 1,000 dead, in a kind of war without a visible enemy, or a victory in sight.

Mexico suspends police officers
25 Jun 07 |  Americas
Mexican politician slain in city
13 Jun 07 |  Americas
Mexican paper closes amid threats
25 May 07 |  Americas
Country profile: Mexico
20 Jun 07 |  Country profiles

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