Image: Felipe Calderon
Dario Lopez-mills  /  AP
Mexico President Felipe Calderon speaks during an interview Thursday in Mexico City. "I'm fighting corruption among Mexican authorities and risking everything to clean house," he said, adding that there were corrupt officials in the U.S. side of the border, too.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/26/2009 9:58:10 PM ET 2009-02-27T02:58:10

President Felipe Calderon said Thursday he wants to defeat the world's most powerful drug gangs before his term ends in 2012, disputing U.S. fears that Mexico is losing control of its territory, though his government plans to send thousands of soldiers and police officers to one city to try to control drug violence there.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Calderon and his top prosecutor said the violence that killed 6,290 people last year — and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009 — is a sign that the cartels are under pressure from military and police operations nationwide, as well as turf wars among themselves.

"To say that Mexico is a failed state is absolutely false," Calderon said. "I have not lost any part — any single part — of Mexican territory."

5,000 more troops for Juarez
Still, an army spokesman said Thursday that up to 5,000 more troops and federal police officers would be sent to the country's most violent city, where law and order is on the brink of collapse in a war between gangs supplying drugs to the United States.

The army said on Thursday the deployment could take the number of soldiers and federal police to more than 7,000 in Ciudad Juarez, which is across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas.

Calderon, a Harvard-educated conservative, said smuggling cannot be eliminated as long as Americans continue to use drugs, but hopes he can beat back the cartels by 2012 to a point that the army and federal police can withdraw and leave the problem in the hands of local law enforcement. He declined to give a specific timeline for winning the war against drug gangs.

Mexico had bristled when the U.S. Joint Forces Command put it on par with Pakistan, saying both were at risk of "rapid and sudden collapse." That and other reports have put a global spotlight on Mexico's growing violence and pressured Calderon to change tactics. He said Thursday that wasn't an option.

"Yes, we will win," he said, "and of course there will be many problems meanwhile."

Key element of his administration
Calderon sent the army and federal police out into drug strongholds on his first day in office in December 2006, promising to turn a tide in a war that was seeing increasingly brazen tactics such as beheadings, assassinations and the attempt to control local governments.

Since then, Mexico has spent $6.5 billion on top of its normal public security budget, but that falls short of the $10 billion Mexican drug gangs bring in annually, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said in another interview Thursday.

But violence has increased, more than doubling in 2008.

This month alone, drug hitmen killed 250 people in Juarez, where a meeting of cabinet members on Wednesday was rattled by three bomb scares, forcing soldiers to briefly shut the city's international airport.

Drug trade analysts say Mexico's most-wanted fugitive, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who leads a cartel from the Pacific state of Sinaloa, wants control of Ciudad Juarez, currently in the hands of local drug lord Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.

Law and order in Ciudad Juarez is close to collapse as Guzman's hitmen seek to destroy the Juarez cartel's entire operation, drug experts say, and kidnappings and extortions of business people are rampant.

'They are melting down'
But Medina Mora said the increased violence does not reflect the drug gangs' power; "It is reflecting how they are melting down."

As proof, he said street prices of cocaine in the United States have doubled in the last three years, while purity has dropped by 35 percent. He said the government has crippled Mexico's methamphetamine trade by banning precursor chemicals.

Medina Mora predicted Mexico is "reaching the peak" of the violence, adding that the government's goal is to make smuggling through Mexico so difficult that the drug gangs are forced to look elsewhere.

"We want to raise the opportunity cost of our country as a route of choice," he said.

Even as he spoke, five more suspected drug killings were announced by authorities in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero. The men were shot Wednesday night.

Medina Mora said 90 percent of the dead are involved in the drug trade, while only 4 percent are innocent bystanders. The rest — some 800 to date — are police officers and soldiers.

More demanded of U.S.
Both Calderon and Medina Mora called on the United States to do more, by stopping the flow of powerful U.S. assault weapons and mountains of drug cash into Mexico. Calderon, whose government has arrested more than 25 high-level officials for suspicion of taking drug bribes, also called for the United States to purge its own corrupt officials.

"I'm fighting corruption among Mexican authorities and risking everything to clean house, but I think a good cleaning is in order on the other side of the border," he said.

Calderon applauded cross-border efforts that the U.S. said culminated this week with the arrests of 755 Sinaloa cartel members and seizure of $59 million in criminal proceeds in the United States. But he acknowledged that Mexico cannot be the top U.S. priority, saying President Obama would help Mexico most by fixing his own economic crisis.

He expressed optimism that Obama will improve relations in the region, saying Latin American leaders have high expectations for his first trip to the region at the Summit of the Americas in April.

"President Barack Obama has a tremendous opportunity to recover the leadership of the United States," he said.

This story contains reports from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Photos: Mexico Under Siege

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  1. A tattooed man stands on a hill overlooking Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, on Dec. 20, 2008. Cartels have launched a wave of violence against the government of President Felipe Calderon since it began a crackdown on organized crime in 2006. According to the attorney general’s office there were 5,370 drug-related homicides in the year to Dec. 2, 2008. That is double the 2007 number. Juarez alone saw an estimated 1,600 such slayings. And the deaths can be horrific – victims have been tortured, beheaded or dissolved in acid. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Inside the car where Marisela Granados de Molinar was killed on Dec. 3 alongside her boss, Jesus Martin Huerta Hiedra, a deputy prosecutor in the Mexican city of Juarez. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Federal police search cars at an impromptu checkpoint near the U.S. border on Nov. 10, 2008. In the late 1980s the United States stemmed the flow of cocaine from South America through the traditional trade routes in the Caribbean. Looking for alternate ways into the U.S., South American cartels began to run drugs through Central America and Mexico, and now the vast majority of illegal drugs flow through this corridor. Facing the recent slew of deaths and corruption scandals among all levels of the police, the government has deployed 45,000 soldiers to fight the cartels as well. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Missing person signs litter the walls of local police stations in Juarez. Kidnapping is integral to the drug-running business and the general lawlessness accompanying it. Before the latest surge in drug violence, Juarez was infamous for another gruesome string of crimes – the kidnapping and murder of young women. There have been 508 such incidents since 1993, according to the state government. When the bodies do show up, many have been raped and mutilated. Many believe that most of these deaths are related to gang initiation rituals. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. El Diario newspaper's Armando Rodriquez was murdered outside his home while warming up his car on Nov. 13, 2008. The 40-year-old crime reporter was killed in front of his 8-year-old daughter who he was about to drive to school. Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 2000, 25 have been killed there. In addition, seven journalists have disappeared since 2005. Many reporters refuse to put their bylines on stories, and many newspapers have stopped covering the drug gangs altogether. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The body of El Diario's Rodriquez -- killed in his car outside his house while his family watched in November 2008 -- is taken away in a body bag by an ambulance. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. official stands beside a recently discovered cache of drugs on the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border crossing. In December, the United States delivered $197 million to Mexico, the first stage of a $400-million package to buy high-tech surveillance aircraft, airport inspection equipment, and case-tracking software to help police share intelligence. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Men and boys shoot heroin in a "picadero," or shooting gallery, in Ciudad Juarez on the banks of the Rio Grande, just across from the United States. Thousands of picaderos, some serving as many as 100 customers a day, are said to exist in Juarez alone. Drug use and addiction among Mexicans has exploded recently, with the number of known addicts almost doubling to 307,000 in six years. Most experts assume these numbers dramatically undercount the problem. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Patrons and workers mingle at Hollywood strip club in downtown Juarez. With American sex tourism on the decline due to the dramatic increase in murder and violence, the few remaining strip clubs have become common hangouts for narcotics traffickers, or ‘narcos.’ (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A man walks in front of 24-hour funeral parlor. The death industry is booming in Juarez where an estimated 1,600 people were murdered in 2008. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Neighbors and family of slain Alberto Rodriquez, 28, watch and cry as the authorities descend on the crime scene. Rodriguez was killed in his car outside his house while his family watched. (Shaul Schwarz) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A bus carrying women and children drives by the site where David Rodriguez Gardea, 42, and Antonio Bustillos Fierro, 38, were gunned down on Nov. 12, 2008. The agents had led an investigation resulting in the arrests of gang members suspected in dozens of murders. The cartels are killing police officers at an unprecedented rate, especially at the border. Gangs have been breaking into police radio frequencies to issue death threats. "You're next, bastard ... We're going to get you," an unidentified drug gang member said over the police radio in the city of Tijuana after naming a policeman, Reuters reported recently. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A U.S. border patrol officer stands behind bullet-scared bullet-proof glass on the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border. Although border agents do not get shot at often they are self-described "sitting ducks." The cartels and drug traffickers send messages of terror through such examples. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The casket of David Miranda Ramirez, 36, is carried by fellow police at his funeral on Nov. 13, 2008. An estimated 50 of Ciudad Juarez’s police officers were killed in 2008 in incidents blamed on drug gangs. Many officers have quit out of fear for their lives, often after their names have appeared on hit lists left in public. While some police have been killed, others are being lured into cooperating with the cartels. Theses gangs have “enormous economic power, and behind that, enormous power to corrupt and intimidate,” says Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Family of slain police officer Miranda Ramirez mourn his loss at his funeral. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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