Last week, soldiers cornered and gunned down Arturo Beltran Leyva – the "boss of bosses" – and only one of their own, a Marine Ensign, Angulo Cordova, perished in the operation. Progress had been made, at last.
But no one is celebrating today.
Just hours after the soldier was buried as a hero in the southern state of Tabasco, with a televised ceremony that featured a grateful Navy Secretary presenting the dead man's mother with the flag that had lain on his coffin, gunmen burst into the family home and opened fire. The latest victims of this savage conflict: the marine's mother, sister and aunt. His brother died on the way to hospital.
Thus Mexico enters the festive season more fearful than ever that the battle with the cartels that President Felipe Calderon began when he cameto power in 2006 is not curbing the violence as promised, but making it worse. Those who have died in drug-related violence since then now number at least 14,000.
The cruel slaying of the marine's family in Tabasco – officials said gunmen broke down the door with a sledge hammer before spraying the rooms inside with bullets – were being treated by the government yesterday as a reprisal killing, directly linked to the execution of Beltran Leyva in the city of Cuernavaca, about an hour south of Mexico City, last Thursday.
"These contemptible events are proof of how unscrupulously organised crime operates, attacking innocent lives, and they can only strengthen us in our determination to banish this singular cancer," President Calderon said in a statement, calling the new murders "a cowardly and contemptible" act.
Even as Mexicans everywhere were digesting the cold cruelty of the Tabasco slayings , far to the north in the state of Coahuila gunmen fired rounds of bullets into a restaurant where the mayor of the US border town of Eagle Pass was eating a meal with the State Attorney General Jesus Torres. Neither man was hurt in the attack, but a woman who was leaving the restaurant at the time was killed.
Barely a day seems to pass without reports of bloodshed as the cartels, vying for control of lucrative smuggling routes into the US, fight both with each other and with the federal forces, who include not just the police but roughly 50,000 army troops deployed by Calderon. Bodies, sometimes with the heads missing, are routinely dumped in public view, providing grim reminders of the security crisis.
The majority of those killed are the foot soldiers of the competing cartels. Also in the firing line, however, are government forces as well as government officials, including prosecutors and judges. This week also saw the slaying in Sinaloa state of its tourism minister.
But people are becoming increasingly nervous that innocent bystanders are at increasing risk from the fighting and no single incident is likely to highlight that more vividly than the killing of the marine's kin, even as they were mourning his death.
For now, the government is only able to say that it will not be intimidated. "We must not let our guard down, the government must continue and complete its duty," Sebastian Calderon, a spokesman for the national Senate said yesterday, while admitting that the Tabasco events were a disaster for the President and his anti-drugs effort.
Certainly, it cut short any sense of accomplishment after the Cuernavaca siege. Beltran Leyva was the third most-wanted man in Mexico. He was one of five brothers who split from the Gulf Cartel to align themselves with a paramilitary group of former soldiers, Los Zetos, which has been credited with many of the most savage killings in the ongoing struggle.