Connect to share and comment

Putting the 'war' back into drug war

Attacks by Mexican drug cartels are being likened to a military campaign.

Federal police patrol with military grade weaponry the streets in Morelia, in the state of Michoacan, July 17, 2009. Mexico is sending 5,500 troops, police and naval officers to the western state where a flare-up in drug gang violence is posing a new challenge to President Felipe Calderon in his home state. (Eliana Aponte/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — The corpses of the 12 police officers were laid out along the mountain highway in a neat line, the cuts and burns of torture scarring their torsos and bullets embedded in their brains.

Surrounding the carnage were three notes bearing the same message in scrawled handwriting: “Try and arrest another one of us. We are waiting for you here.”

The mass killing of the federal agents, who had been abducted while off duty, happened at the peak of a rampant offensive by a Western Mexico drug cartel against government forces over the last week.

The operation — one of the cartels' boldest coordinated campaigns in recent history, undermining President Felipe Calderon's efforts to crack down on the cartels — included attacks on more than 16 police bases with grenades and automatic rifles, the torching of dozens of squad cars and ambushes that killed at least four more officers.

One local journalist, Ciro Gomez Leyva of the newspaper Milenio, likened it to the Vietnam War's pivotal "Tet Offensive," which brought the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops into open combat with the forces of the South Vietnamese army and its U.S. allies.

“It is that kind of Hollywood-style, synchronized action ... that created the perception that the once invincible army of Washington could never win in Vietnam,” Leyva wrote.

Any comparison to the storied Vietnamese campaign on Tet (the lunar new year) may well be overstated, as Mexico’s drug cartels have stuck to their guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics rather than mounting military-standard attacks.

As the government sent in an extra 5,500 federal police and soldiers to the region of the attacks on Friday, the cartel seemed to melt back into its barrios and mountain villages, creating a pause in fighting.

But while it may not have amounted to a conquest of territory for the drug gangs, the offensive certainly has all but shattered public confidence in the government’s efforts to bring the cartels to heel.