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Criminal Gangs Turn Parts of Mexico into War Zones

A municipal police officer during a confrontation with members of a gang in the beach resort of Acapulco, Mexico, 8 Jan 2011.
A municipal police officer during a confrontation with members of a gang in the beach resort of Acapulco, Mexico, 8 Jan 2011.

Much of Mexico is now under the grip of drug-related violence that has claimed 30,000 lives since president Felipe Calderon declared war on organized criminal gangs in December, 2006. While polls show support for the president's policy, they also show that a large percentage of people believe the government is losing the war.

While crime is a big concern in Mexico City, people feel far removed from what is happening along the northern border or in other violence-plagued areas.

News media report almost daily about ghastly mass murders, beheadings and large-scale gun battles in other parts of the country.

But for many people in the capital, it seems far away, like this woman.

She says here there has not been generalized violence, but in the north the death toll has been appalling.

But some parts of central and southern Mexico are starting to witness brutal murders and shoot outs on a regular basis and security analyst Ana Maria Salazar says no part of the country is totally safe.

"People sometimes think I exaggerate when I talk about Mexico being at war, but there are certain parts of the country which clearly have war-like conditions," said Salazar.

While some Mexicans criticize President Calderon's war on drug traffickers for causing an increase in violence, Salazar says the Mexican leader had to act.

"When you consider how dangerous these organizations are and how well armed they are and how well organized they are, the Mexican government really did not have many other options," she said.

One border area where the president's strategy is showing some results is the city of Tijuana, just over the border from San Diego, California.

The violence has subsided there as police have regained control. Crime is still a problem there, but it is far less a problem than it is in cities like Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Tijuana resident Gerardo Mora credits cooperation between various levels of government and police.

"For us, what really worked is that municipal police, state police, federal agents, the governor - they got together and worked as a group," said Mora.

But Mora says citizens also need to do their part, by reporting criminal activity to the police.

"If you do not report it, they cannot help you," he said. "So, in Tijuana, they started reporting. They were afraid before, i will not deny it. But they are working now towards this and now, if something happens, you report it."

But widespread official corruption has discouraged many Mexicans from trusting the police and efforts to root out corruption and reduce violent crime have made slow progress.

Still, Ana Maria Salazar says people need to be patient.

"Any impact, in terms of reducing the violence in this country, from these reforms, is going to take years," she said.

With less than two years left in his term, though, President Calderon may be running out of time, and Ana Maria Salazar says his success may ultimately depend on the level of support he gets from north of the border.

"The question is what is the United States going to do to help the Mexican government, to help the Mexican people confront these organizations on the one hand and, too, the us cannot assume that this type of violence is not going to filter back into the United States," she said.

But Mexico is a sovereign country and the United States has few options to help beyond training and material support. Under the Merida initiative, the United States is providing Mexico with $1.4 billion in anti-drug assistance and on a visit to Mexico earlier this week U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced $500 million in additional aid for this year.