Five years later, Calderon has managed to build a large, vetted federal police force. But his main tool is to deploy them and the military to quell explosions of local violence. Programs to reform the courts and police have been anemic. A constitutional judicial reform passed in 2008 called for open trials, and established principles of innocence until proven guilty and cases built on evidence rather than confessions extracted by torture. But only one of 32 states has implemented the reform so far. Twenty-three, including Veracruz, are still in the initial phases.
Even Mexico's closest allies, who praise Calderon's efforts, say the government wasn't prepared for the chaos its policy created in the streets.
"I don't think they realized how difficult this undertaking would be," said one senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico, who couldn't be identified for security reasons. "I don't know if they thought that they would need the support of the state and local security apparatus. I think they probably thought they could do it with the feds and the military."
Calderon has said he needed to act to keep parts of Mexico from falling into the hands of the cartels. But some entire states were controlled by cartels, which benefited from a culture of corruption that dated back decades.
Under Mexico's 71 years of single-party rule, traffickers moved drugs and controlled certain states, often making alliances and truces with other cartels, as well as law enforcement and politicians, to do business.
The new attack on the cartels' leadership led to the break up of some of the gangs, triggering the creation of smaller groups vying to control local territory. Security rapidly deteriorated because police, long the purveyors of local organized crime in Mexico, were colluding with the cartels.
The rapid recruiting of foot soldiers for gang warfare created an increasingly vicious kind of criminal.
"It's the spontaneity of criminality in a state without laws," said Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet, diplomat and environmentalist who grew up in Michoacan, where Calderon's war started. "This produced a new kind of Mexican, monsters, who people can't believe have the capacity to commit these atrocities."
Calderon used to say the spike in violence meant that gangs were on the run and that the government was winning. He dismissed the dead as criminals. Now he has changed course, emphasizing a need to take care of victims and reform courts, police and forces necessary for long-term security.
It has been a stubborn process.
Calderon, who leaves office in December 2012, has promised to leave a secure police force. To root out corruption, the federal government has been pushing an elaborate process for vetting all of Mexico's 460,000 police officers.
According to federal figures, only 16 percent have been vetted so far, and only 8 percent of the total passed the background checks and tests. In Veracruz, a state even Calderon conceded had been handed over to the Zetas, 14 percent of state police had been evaluated as of the end of September, and 6 percent of municipal police. The number who passed was not available, but less than a month after the 35 bodies were dumped, authorities announced the firing of nearly 1,000 state police officers for failing their tests.
The federal government this year allotted $331 million (4.3 billion pesos) for 200 cities to train and re-equip municipal police forces. It suspended aid to 162 cities in July for not meeting the spending requirements, then changed course yet again, deciding to give most of the money back.
Governors in turn have complained that they lack the expertise to set up centers equipped to do polygraphs, background checks and other measures to ensure the integrity of their police forces.
Half of Mexico's 32 states still don't have an accredited evaluation center. One of three centers planned in Veracruz has been accredited.
Security analyst Eduardo Guerrero, who initially supported Calderon's attack on organized crime, now thinks the strategy was ill-conceived.
"They should have taken the first year to plan, to size up the enemy we're dealing with and to clean up the government itself, purge the elements linked to organized crime," Guerrero said.
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