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In Mexico, Massacres but Claims of Progress

By New York Times. Only a week into the new year, 15 human heads sat outside a gleaming shopping center on the other side of the lush hills that frame this seaside resort’s big tourist hotels. Within hours, several bodies turned up in a taxi and elsewhere, bringing the number of victims to 33 in a single weekend, scattered around a side of town few visitors see.

Then two weeks later, the government announced that it had captured the leader of a shadowy criminal organization believed to be responsible for the mayhem, as well as for the disappearance of 20 men who came here for vacation last fall.

The twin events — the shock of yet another massacre and the government’s ability to take down those it believes responsible — define the seesawing battle for the right to claim victory at a critical juncture in Mexico’s organized crime war.

The increase in violence is indisputable. The government says more than 34,600 have been killed in the four years since President Felipe Calderón took office and threw the federal police and military at the cartels, with last year’s toll, 15,273, the heaviest yet.

Mexican and American officials, crediting American training of the military and what they consider to be an increasingly professional federal police force, point out that more than half of the 37 most wanted crime bosses announced last year have been captured or killed. The government also maintains that the last quarter of 2010 showed a decline in the pace of killings.

But the public does not seem to believe it. A poll released Jan. 11 by Mexico’s national statistics institute found that more than 70 percent of respondents believed that the country’s security had worsened since 2009.

The findings mirrored similar research by pollsters showing that, for the first time in recent years, Mexicans are more worried about safety than the economy, a near reversal from the year before.

“There is a disconnect between what the government thinks it is achieving and what the public perceives as happening,” said Denise Dresser, a veteran political analyst in Mexico City. Because Mr. Calderón “made the war the center of gravity of his term, he is now being evaluated on whether he is winning it, and the public perception is he is not winning.”

Both Mexican and American officials, who say the two countries have never worked closer in fighting crime, are facing growing pressure to prove that their strategy is working. With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, the Obama administration will face renewed scrutiny to account for the $1.4 billion, multiyear Merida Initiative, the cornerstone of American aid in Mexico’s drug fight.

“Right now I am concerned whether the administration is focused on giving Merida a chance,” said Representative Connie Mack, the Florida Republican who is the new chairman of a House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He says that while he supports the initiative, he will call hearings over what he considers the slow pace in which it has been carried out.

“There is a lack of execution,” Mr. Mack said. “We are going to find out why this is.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a visit to Mexico last week to reiterate American support for the Mexican drug fight, said $500 million in Merida money would be allocated this year.

But unlike in the past year, when the emphasis was on delivering helicopters and other equipment, United States Embassy officials said the aid this year would focus on attacking the impunity that lets criminals get away with murder, by shoring up local and state police forces and the justice system. Only about 2 percent of those charged with organized-crime-related offenses face trial in Mexico, American officials have said.

Carlos Pascual, the United States ambassador, argued that the longstanding impunity, not Mr. Calderón’s offensive, should be blamed for the violence.

“The vast majority of the violence we’ve seen over the past decade in Mexico is not because it has arisen as a result of taking on organized crime,” he said, adding, “It’s that you’ve had impunity within the country because there has never been a legacy of investing in state and local police and in a judicial system that was able to crack down and contain it.”

Alarmed at the high death toll, the Mexican Congress summoned Mr. Calderón’s top police official, Genaro García Luna, to a hearing on Monday to explain the violence here and in several northern states. Mr. García Luna said a corner was being turned, but legislators, chiefly from opposition parties, did not appear convinced.

“The country is under a security crisis, a crisis without precedent in the history of the country, a systemic crisis that you guys, Mr. Secretary, appear to ignore,” said Senator Ricardo Monreal Ávila.

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