Mexico's Drug War Is a Battle for Hearts and Minds

In the yard under the midday sun at Santa Marta Acatitla, a women's penitentiary on the outskirts of Mexico City, a prisoner dressed in a stylish beige pantsuit, Jackie O-style sunglasses and heels, heads over to the pay phone in the shaded corner. "Look," says one inmate, her eyes lighting up and her jaw dropping slightly. "La Reina."

La Reina del Pacifico, the Queen of the Pacific, otherwise known as Sandra Avila Beltrán, was taken into custody late last year. The alleged drug queenpin who rose to the top of a male-dominated industry now spends her days here, awaiting trial for charges relating to alleged connections to organized crime. Her cellmates spend much of their days gossiping about her. "She's so cool," says one. She's a "hero" who worked around the system. At this another inmate frowns. "She's just one more here in the prison," she says cynically. "If she's really La Reina, then why is she still here? Why haven't her people come and rescued her yet?"

Such talk is increasingly common throughout Mexico today, from prisons to mountainside towns, as the country wages a ferocious military campaign against powerful drug cartels that make an estimated $13 billion a year and control swaths of national territory. On one side is the president, the military, the law; on the other, the drugs, the violence, but also the stuff of legends—the supposed Robin Hoods who steal from the rich and give to the poor, the bad boys for whom rules don't apply.

President Felipe Calderón is trying to do more than just eradicate drug production and smuggling into the United States, he's attempting to transform a culture that was built on cartel money, force and patronage. It won't be easy. More than 4,000 lives have been lost since Calderón started his initiative in December 2006.

In many parts of the country, drug bosses run everything from local politics to the police to business. They've established themselves as the grandstanding members of the community that local politicians never have been. Sometimes their influence is subtle, sometimes not. At a party earlier this year commemorating Children's Day in the northern town of Ciudad Acuña, a banner hung proudly behind the swarms of kids being entertained by clowns. HAPPY CHILDREN'S DAY, it read, FROM YOUR FRIEND, OSIEL CARDENAS GUILLEN. YOU ARE THE FUTURE OF OUR MEXICO.

The godfather of the Gulf cartel had sent a message home to the future of "our" Mexico from his cell in Houston, to which he was extradited last year after being arrested in 2003. He currently faces charges of drug trafficking and attempting to kidnap two U.S. federal agents. (He pleaded not guilty before a magistrate in Texas.)

While the government battles the cartels, an even more difficult war is being fought for the hearts and minds of many Mexican people. "There was a lack of enforcement in some areas in the past that now are seeing a lot of Mexican government law enforcement action with successful results," says one senior U.S. counter-drug official in Mexico, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Calderón is trying to change the country."

Recent polls show that for the first time a majority of Mexicans think the cartels are winning the war. When top cartel members are arrested or killed, homages in the form of narcocorridos—drug ballads—are posted on YouTube almost immediately. But no one wrote a song for Edgar Millán Gómez, the federal policeman killed on May 8 in his Mexico City apartment who, after being shot eight times, still mustered the strength to ask his attacker, "Who sent you to kill me?" No one wrote a song about Alberto Capella, the current Tijuana police chief, who mere days before taking up his new post, was attacked by 20 gunmen in his own home. Tijuana's "Rambo," as he's now known around town, managed to fend them off with his own weapon before the police arrived some 30 minutes later from the station—which is just over a mile away.

Defeating an ingrained system of corruption and lawlessness where the bad guys are often admired will be difficult, many Mexicans say. "There's a culture of corruption which we face in this country, which hurts our country, but is part of its soul," laments Jaime Alberto Torres Valadez, a spokesman for the Ciudad Juárez police department.

Some don't necessarily want to change the status quo—after all, it's a system they've known nearly forever. In the state of Sinaloa—the heart of Mexican drug country—drug trafficking and lawlessness are an entrenched part of the culture. The earliest documented poppy production in the state was in 1886. Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, and the Sinaloa cartel were born there. And admiration for the bandidos of yesteryear is so strong that the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking—the mythical mustachioed Jesús Malverde, who is said to have robbed from the rich and given to the poor before he was hanged at the beginning of the 19th century—has his own small but well attended chapel in the state capital, Culiacán.

In Badiraguato, a small town high up in the dry hills just north of Culiacán, a group of teens and 20-somethings talked candidly about their culture one day last week. If Sinaloa is the heart of drug country, then Badiraguato is its primary valve—the surrounding hills are home to poppy and marijuana fields, and residents there know who puts food on the table. "The drug traffickers do good things here. They employ people. There's no corn, no beans here—the people here are all about drugs," said 22-year-old José de Jesús Landell García, who co-owns a shoe shop with his father. He added that most of his friends took up employment with the drug cartels "because it was the only thing they could do."

Badiraguato is the epitome of a drug-funded town. Unlike most mountainside pueblos, this town of roughly 5,000 people is clean, its roads newly paved. Brand new SUVs, BMWs and Mercedeses cruise the streets, and most residents live in Mediterranean-style homes, with red tiles, gates and lush, green lawns. The mayor earns $63,000 a year—a high salary in this area—and lives in a two-story house high on a hill overlooking the town, which looks more like Santa Barbara, Calif., than what one might expect to find in the sierras of Mexico.

"The drug traffickers have money, create jobs and help people," said Landell García. His friend, 17-year-old Gladys Elizabeth López Villareal, agreed. "The people, like Chapo, are good people. We're their admirers. They help us and they respond how they have to," she said, referring to the drug traffickers' not so pleasant ways of dealing with their business competitors and, sometimes, the law. Such sentiments are found throughout the state. "[Often] the government doesn't give to the people, so they turn to the narcos," said 28-year-old law student Jesús Manuel González Sánchez, who runs the Malverde shrine in Culiacán.

Still, that's not to say the locals like the violence. "On the one hand, I'm not against the narcos," said Landell García. "But they also bring the violence. I'd like to see another form of employment here." One 50-year-old had harsher words for the local industry. "It's no good," he said, refusing to give his name. As he talked positively about the increased military presence in the area, four SUV's repeatedly circled the town square in which he was sitting. His eyes darted back and forth. "The mafia cry when [the government] catch their soldiers," he said, with just a hint of a grin. "They cry."

The government is hoping for such tears, rather than more blood. Violence has flared with the recent increased troop presence, but the government maintains that it's conquering this troublesome turf. "We're advancing," said a two-star general who helps lead what's known as Operation Sierra Madre at his base on the outskirts of Culiacán.

During a dog-and-pony show last Friday, the general and his men showed off—and promptly burned—a patch of marijuana plants about an acre in size they had located and seized the day before. But the general, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, admitted the problems of fighting the cartels, who he said are "like an army. They know right away when we find something."

As the marijuana smoke began to waft over to the other side of a nearby lake, a narcocorrido blared back from unseen loudspeakers. "It's because of this," the general said, pointing to his soldiers' work. A colonel explained that this was par for the course: the narcocorridos are often used this way, either to alert others in the area to the soldiers' presence or simply to remind the army that they're still there.

Even though the army is one of the most trusted and respected institutions in the country, few ordinary Mexicans want it to settle in their cartel-controlled region for the long haul, according to experts who say that such a presence could instill a "cold war" mentality. On the other hand, if the violence continues, the U.S. counter-drug official says, there's always the hope the people will rise up and say "No more!" In some parts of Mexico that's already happened. Recent protests in cities like Tijuana, where doctors have led strikes to protest the insecurity that prevents them from doing their jobs, show that many people are indeed fed up.

"Everyone is saying that we're losing the drug war," says the Sinaloa general, a 42-year veteran who has dealt with drug trafficking in a handful of states around the country during his career. "I don't think so. We're winning, little by little."

But sitting in front of a strategic map scattered with pins denoting targets yet to be seized—marijuana fields, methamphetamine labs, landing strips—that far outnumber the pins representing targets thus far seized, he takes off his glasses and sighs. "We work 365 days a year. From the generals to the grunts, we all have a right to a vacation," he says, chuckling. In most bases around the country, the soldiers—many of whom patrol the streets in masks to hide their identities from potential killers—aren't even allowed a little R&R on the weekends because of security concerns.

Mexico's cartels don't take vacations or weekends either, but they are fighting for far more than a military paycheck and pension. If the tide keeps flowing in their favor, and if towns like Badiraguato continue to depend on the drug cartels for their existence, Calderón's drug war will be lost, and Mexico's future will remain imperiled.