MEXICO CITY – Mexico opened the new year with what could be its most dubious distinction yet in the 3-year-old battle against drug trafficking — 69 murders in one day.
The country resembled a grim, statistical dart board Saturday as law enforcement and media reported the deaths from various regions, including 26 in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, 13 in and around Mexico City and 10 in the northern city of Chihuahua.
More than 6,500 drug-related killings made 2009 the bloodiest year since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in late 2006 and deployed 45,000 soldiers to fight organized crime, according to death tallies by San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.
Two weeks into 2010, gang bloodshed is becoming more grotesque as drug lords ramp up their attempts at intimidation. Last week a victim's face was peeled from his skull and sewn onto a soccer ball. On Monday, prosecutors in Culiacan identified the remains of 41-year-old former police officer divided into two separate ice chests.
"You wonder how this will end, and it seems impossible," said Daniel Vega, an architect in the northern city of Monterrey. "I doubt Mexico can override drug use, especially since demand for the drugs, as well as all the money and weapons, come from the United States."
Using their so-called Narcobarometer, researchers at the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute track and analyze murders in Mexico, hoping to find ways to quell the violence. Their tally? More than 20,000 murders since 2001, more than half in the past two years.
"It does appear that the violence has grown exponentially, but it's not clear that it's necessarily a slippery downward slope from here," institute director David Shirk said, noting that government operations — including a December raid that killed cartel boss Arturo Beltran Leyva — have hit seven of Mexico's eight significant cartels.
Shirk said the remaining, mostly unscathed Sinaloa cartel headed by billionaire gang boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman may now become dominant, reducing the deadly power struggles.
"If that happens, it's quite possible that six months from now things will be much calmer," Shirk said.
Though almost all of drug-violence victims are somehow involved with cartels, the impact is felt well beyond law enforcement and organized crime.
"I'm afraid to take to the streets every day because of the violence, and I no longer want to excel economically because it could make me an easy target for a kidnapping," said Silvana Cervantes, a Monterrey nurse.
Tijuana resident Fernando Escobedo said he used to spend his evenings at a vibrant strip of clubs in the border city until a recent massacre at one of his hangouts.
"Now I prefer socializing at houses or parties, with family or lifetime friends," he said.
As Mexico tries to develop both politically and economically, the killings jeopardize its international reputation, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.
"The figures in Mexico are so scary that it has produced a subliminal sense that Mexico is a dangerous place and you'd better keep away," he said.
Calderon said last week he would shift focus to job creation and reducing poverty and move the fight against drug cartels that dominated the first half of his presidency to No. 3.
Monterrey police officer Delfino Ramos, who grapples with the violence in his daily work, said economic issues are at the root of the problems.
"So much unemployment pushes people toward crime," he said.