Alexandre Meneghini, File, Associated Press
VERACRUZ, Mexico — Brighitte Cuesta Sanchez answered the telephone the same day a local newspaper ran a front-page story that she was dead.
It was her mother checking on the 22-year-old sex worker, a local celebrity in blond extensions and black hot pants who drove a red Mini Cooper. The two laughed and called the paper for a correction. But that night Brighitte disappeared.
Two days later masked gunmen dumped her bound body along with 34 others on a central boulevard at rush hour. A banner claimed the dead were members of the Zeta cartel, eliminated by rivals.
The governor said most of the victims were convicted criminals. Federal prosecutors differed, saying only a handful had prior records, and loose if any ties to organized crime. Nearly three months later, none of the victims have been publicly identified.
Meanwhile, Brighitte's mom said her daughter's disappearance seemed like a kidnapping for ransom. She got a call from someone demanding the Mini Cooper.
This is a snapshot of Mexico five years after President Felipe Calderon launched his all-out assault on organized crime: Mass killings as cartels fight each other for territory and civilians caught in the violence; police unable to prevent the mayhem or to investigate the aftermath.
Just 10 days into his term, on Dec. 11, 2006, Calderon sent 6,500 troops to his home state of Michoacan to battle drug cartels. The government needed to act decisively, he said, to prevent organized crime from taking over the country.
Over the next five years, he deployed 45,000 troops, made major hits on the leadership of at least five cartels and spent nearly $46 billion fighting organized crime, his defining domestic policy.
Since then, chaos has exploded on the ground in once-quiet places across the country, including Veracruz. As authorities cracked down in one spot, violence moved to another. When cartel leaders were arrested, the gangs dissolved into more violent splinter groups fighting in areas where corrupt local authorities did not fight back.
The warring splinter groups have allowed two major cartels to take over most of the territory.
The death toll has grown from 2,000 in 2006 to more than 45,000 by many counts. Calderon says the government was reacting to violence that was already heating up among cartels, not the cause of it.
Meanwhile, drugs continue to flow into the United States. According to various U.S. drug reports, cultivation of marijuana and poppies is up. Mexico continues to be a source of 95 percent of all cocaine going into the United States and remains the primary foreign source of marijuana and methamphetamine.
One of the main results of the five-year war is that Mexicans live with a new kind of fear.
"They're afraid when they leave their houses," said pollster Roy Campos, adding that one in six Mexicans knows someone killed by drug violence. "We no longer just watch it on television, we feel it."
Calderon's initial offensive was one-dimensional — to send the military to destroy crops and labs, set up checkpoints and do searches and arrests. In January 2007, he outlined a five-point program that included sending soldiers to reinforce the federal police, increasing his security budget and asking the attorney general for a plan to improve security and prosecution of crime.
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