MEXICO CITY -- On the home turf of Mexico's deadliest drug cartels, they hang banners that mock Mexican authorities trying to maintain order. "Little tin soldiers, federal officers made of straw," read one banner in the state of Sinaloa.

But a more powerful message is coming in the brazen and widespread burst of murders, much of it geared toward law-enforcement officials, that has shaken even the most hardened Mexican in recent days.

Even as the body counts spiral in northwestern Mexico, a single killing in Mexico City raised the stakes. Edgar Millan Gomez, acting national police chief, was assassinated at home last week, the highest-ranking official to be killed since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006.

Millan Gomez's death, a coolly efficient hit in the nation's political and symbolic heart, has raised stark comparisons that Mexico could be heading the way of Colombia of the 1990s, when chunks of territory were out of government control and the indiscriminate killings of police chiefs, judges and prosecutors became commonplace.

This critical juncture for Mexico comes as the U.S. Congress is set to vote this week on the Merida Initiative, a $550 million anti-crime aid package. Bush administration officials say the recent violence shows the urgency for the proposal.

Infiltrating the ranks But Mexican authorities said Monday that Millan Gomez's slaying was an inside job organized by the Sinaloa cartel. The murder has bolstered skeptics from both U.S. political parties who have questioned whether aid from the Merida Initiative could end up in the wrong hands.

At a news conference Monday, reporters asked Calderon whether he might need to reassess his get-tough approach, which includes the deployment of about 25,000 military troops and federal police to trouble spots.

"Those who insinuate that the government should back away from this strategy are those who would see us abandon journalists, citizens, businessmen, farmers and youth to the clutches of crime," Calderon said.

The United States has backed Calderon's efforts because Mexico is the primary corridor for cocaine and marijuana that enter the U.S. Also, violent clashes between drug traffickers often spill into the U.S., but Mexico has seen some successes, including the extradition of dozens of criminals to the U.S.

Law-enforcement officials expected a violent backlash, but the governor of Sinaloa said the recent clashes are the worst in recent memory.

More than 1,000 Mexicans have died this year in violence tied to organized crime. Security analyst Ana Maria Salazar said the new element is the killing of high-ranking law-enforcement officials.

In addition to Millan Gomez, the No. 2 police official in Ciudad Juarez was slain Saturday in the border city. A week earlier, a federal intelligence official was killed in Mexico City.

Mexican authorities reported Monday night the arrests of six men tied to the Sinaloa cartel in the murder of Millan Gomez, the nation's top police official. Millan Gomez had helped coordinate the arrests of several associates of the cartel's Beltran Leyva family.

Authorities said a lone gunman had been waiting inside Millan Gomez's home. Police immediately arrested Alejandro Ramirez, 34. It was apparently an inside job: One of the masterminds was a federal police officer who had worked in Sinaloa, authorities said.

Jorge Fernandez, a columnist in Excelsior newspaper, is one of several analysts to begin comparing Mexico with Colombia in the 1990s. He noted that it wasn't until Colombia cartels broke every barrier of society that they were eventually neutralized.

"The lessons are useful," Fernandez wrote. "What we are living in these sinister weeks and months appear to be part of a similar process that Colombia endured."

Salazar, a former U.S. Defense Department official who helped craft American military policy in Colombia during the 1990s, said the comparison is not entirely accurate but worries that Mexico is getting closer to that dangerous situation.

"At this point, the criminal organizations really feel they can get away with murder," she said. "Once the cartels decide to systematically kill cops and there is not going to be any consequences, that's what happened in Colombia."

Several risks Erubiel Tirado, director of national security studies at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, said the Millan Gomez slaying showed Calderon needs to move faster.

"You can't go back in midstream, but they need to re-evaluate their strategy because it is clearly not working," Tirado said. "The fact that we have such infiltration in the police structures that you can buy or threaten someone at the highest levels, it shows a great vulnerability of the state itself."

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also hinted this week at deeper risks, saying the resurgent violence shows a threat to Mexico's "democratic institutions."

While Bush aides see the spate of killings as reason to approve the Merida Initiative, some lawmakers are not so sure. Congressional aides say they expect the measure to come up this week.

Tim Rieser, an aide to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy ( D-Vt. ), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that funds foreign aid programs, said Millan Gomez's murder illustrates that any aid request must include strict American oversight. The slaying "shows the need to help Mexico but it also shows the importance of conditionality and accountability to ensure that U.S. funds don't end up in the wrong hands," Rieser said.

For now, Mexican officials are moving forward with their offensive.

Calderon dispatched a security working group of Cabinet members to Sinaloa on Tuesday and deployed nearly 3,000 more troops there.

James Jones, former U.S. ambassador to the country, said that Mexico is not the ideal partner but that the U.S. must be supportive. He recalled passing intelligence on a drug lord to Mexican authorities in the 1990s and being told "that there are only five people in the whole department they could trust."

"As long as Calderon really keeps up this commitment, I don't think Mexico will be a Colombia," Jones said. " We have to help him."

Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
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