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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 February 2007, 10:11 GMT
Battling Mexico's powerful drugs cartels
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has deployed more than 20,000 troops and personnel from other federal agencies to cartel strongholds across the country. The BBC's Duncan Kennedy has been given access to some of the operations now under way.

Federal policeman near Tijuana
Federal police forces are working with the army to tackle the gangs
Any colour, as long as it is black. That is the dress code for those fighting the drug cartels.

At a deserted airport in the central state of Michoacan, black was all around.

The federal forces were going on an operation and they had donned their black uniforms, their black balaclavas and were holding their black weapons. It made quite a menacing sight.

The insistence on black was a little puzzling given that this operation was being carried out in broad daylight. But black it was.

The helicopter headed off over the beautiful mountaintops of this troubled province. Michoacan has seen some of the bloodiest excesses of Mexico's violent drug cartel rivalries.

Most infamous of last year's events: the dumping of five severed heads on the dance floor of a night club. It shocked the country and is one of the reasons why the new president has come into office with law and order at the top of his agenda.


It did not take long for the helicopter to reach its landing zone. The black figures of the federal forces jumped out onto the grass, temporarily flattened by the spinning blades above them.

It needs intelligence work, not just a show of force
Professor Victor Clark Alfaro
Soon after, they were walking up dirt tracks.

They paused, the index finger of one soldier lifting into a vertical position across his lips, the sign that everyone should keep quiet.

Whatever danger there might have been passed and the group pressed on.

Just over the brow of one hill, the operation's target loomed into sight. A field of marijuana.

After the orders were given, the troops set about chopping down the green spike-leafed plants. It may be that this was done for the cameras present, but within a few minutes the men had uprooted up enough crops to start a fire.

Standing up-wind, the men added armful after armful to the pyre - the drug gangs' profits, like the smoke, heading upwards into oblivion.

This had been just one, albeit modest, attempt to put the cartels out of business.


Further north, in the state of Baja California, federal forces are out in force as well.

A Mexican soldier stands in front of marijuana being incinerated
Federal forces are battling cartels that have been operating for years
This time it is a ground operation centred on Tijuana. This is the city that sits next to the United States border and is a key conduit to the American market for copious quantities of narcotics.

Here, cartels have been operating for years.

Members of the police force have been accused of colluding with them, which is why outside federal forces have been sent in.

Three hundred people died in the city last year in cartel-related violence.

"It was extremely violent," says Carlos Alberto Flores, the head of the State Preventive Police force.

"But now, since our operation has begun, there have been hardly any murders or kidnappings."

His team, in the obligatory black uniforms, is mounting a series of stop-and-search operations designed to disrupt the flow of drugs.

One officer, packing his own custom-made pistol complete with chrome inlaid handle, has been working here for 33 years.

"I have seen it all," he says. "But this time I get a sense that the government is serious and wants to smash these gangs once and for all."

New spirit

Others are not so sure. Professor Victor Clark Alfaro, a political scientist who lectures at San Diego University across the border, but who lives in Tijuana, is one of those with doubts.

"I applaud President Calderon for trying," he says. " But I am not sure it is going to be a long-term operation. It needs intelligence work, not just a show of force."

Asked if he thinks it is a bit of a publicity stunt, the professor replies: "I think so."

That may be unfair. President Calderon has only been in office since December and the infusion of federal forces shows no sign of being an attempt at a quick headline. On the contrary, more forces have just been sent into the northern city of Monterrey.

The Americans seem impressed. A week ago they praised the Mexicans for extraditing a whole group of high-profile suspects.

Such co-operation has not always been the hallmark of relations between the two countries.

For a long time, Mexico resisted deporting alleged criminals to stand trial in the US. The row about migration into the United States added to the strains.

But now there seems to be a new spirit of shared interests.

You can see the fruits of the collaboration at any number of airports these days.

Busloads of suspects picked up in the new wave of Mexican operations, ferried to airports, and then marched, handcuffed, up the steps of waiting aircraft bound for Houston or other American cities.

It is no longer just drugs heading north of the border.

Tijuana police get weapons back
28 Jan 07 |  Americas
Mexico troops sent to border city
03 Jan 07 |  Americas
Mexico troops sent to fight drugs
12 Dec 06 |  Americas
Human heads dumped in Mexico bar
07 Sep 06 |  Americas

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