TIJUANA, Mexico – It's a war that last year claimed four times as many lives as were lost in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan — and it is right on America's doorstep.
Drug-related violence in Mexico has reached record numbers with an average of 15 people executed daily — and some 6,000 killed last year. As a result, a chorus of U.S. officials has been sounding alarm bells.
Last month Mexico was cited as one of two countries that "bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse," according to a report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command on worldwide security threats. The other is Pakistan.
In an unprecedented step, Mexico's President Felipe Calderón deployed his country's military to the region's hardest hit areas, including the northern drug-trafficking corridors from Chihuahua to Baja California. Up to 45,000 military personnel have been called in to stem the violence that has sent cities like Tijuana spiraling out of control.
Gen. Alfredo Duarte, who as commander of the 2nd Military Zone is in charge of running the war in the Tijuana area, said the military is winning and that international perceptions are all wrong.
"On the contrary, the killings that took place, they were principally between the organized crime groups that are in conflict over controlling the region. Less than 3 percent were innocent victims," said Duarte.
Based on Duarte's figures, around 200 of the 6,000 killed in Mexico's drug war last year were innocent civilians. Duarte said the death of any innocent bystanders is too much, but the numbers show that the cartels are effectively fighting each other to the death, which makes him confident enough to predict victory "in a short time."
"We think that 2008 was a year of a lot of activity in which there were a lot of violent incidents, but we think that this is winding down in one or two years," said Duarte.
That flies in the face of the U.S. Joint Forces Command analysis which claims that Mexico "could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States."
But both the Mexican and U.S. authorities agree that this year will be critical for Mexico's war on drugs.
Drug violence was traditionally handled by Mexico's civilian police force. But in 2006 it became clear that, because of corruption or incompetence, the local police forces were unable and, in many cases, unwilling to deal with the drug gangs.
And so President Calderon sent in the army. Military leaders insist that their troops are acting in a supportive role and that their presence is merely a stop-gap measure to allow restructured police units to take over.
But the military, one of Mexico's strongest and most respected institutions, has been criticized by human rights groups for not having the proper civilian law enforcement training. Military officials say they abide by the law and reject any claims of mistreatment of civilians.
And General Duarte says the rest of the world misunderstands the situation in Mexico.
"The real problem is just between organized crime groups."