REYNOSA, Mexico — Acting on a tip, 30 masked soldiers in combat gear bust down the door of a boarded-up house to find 55 terrified migrants, hostages of the Gulf drug cartel.
Amid screams and the smell of urine and sweat, they find a blood-spattered room and a nail-encrusted log used to beat the captives and extort money from their families: $3,000 each.
Five suspected kidnappers are hauled off in a military truck, including the alleged leader — the son of a local police officer.
The Associated Press spent five days on the front line of Mexico's drug war, embedded with the army's 8th Division in Tamaulipas state, one of many organized-crime hotspots now policed by 45,000 troops nationwide. Launched by President Felipe Calderon in December 2006, the army is Mexico's last and best hope to gain control over drug cartels and spiraling violence, which have killed more than 9,000 people since then.
No long-term solution
But the AP's exclusive front-row seat reveals the army offensive to be at once successful and imperfect, marred by police corruption, lack of training and local distrust. As Calderon has said, it's a temporary fix. There's still not a long-term solution.
Many Mexicans see the army as the only government entity able to face the heavily armed drug cartels, and soldiers rely on citizen complaints, such as the call that led them to the migrant hostages. They enter the house in a rough neighborhood without working with local police to get a search warrant, fearing officers could tip off the smugglers.
Army officials acknowledge they break rules to get results. Their fight is complicated by deep-rooted corruption among local and state police, who work as lookouts and sometimes hit men for the cartels.
"Here you can't call police," says army Capt. Huascar Santiago, "because they're in collusion."
The problem is also complicated by the constitution, which bars the army from doing police work such as the smuggling ring bust. Among other limits, soldiers legally can detain only people caught in the act of a crime as they check suspicious cars, rummage through trash cans and gather intelligence from neighbors.
Army Gen. Edgar Villegas, the division commander, says the military still maintains discipline in these situations.
"If we're going to act in this gray area, in the end what prevails is the honesty and transparency with which we do things," he says. "We're susceptible to committing errors, and when we do, we take responsibility for everything that comes with it."
Dozens held, some for up to a month
In the Reynosa raid, the soldiers free nine women held in the living room in their underwear and 46 men crammed into two small bedrooms — some for up to a month — with little food and water. The torture room has a mattress on the floor and blood and posters of half-naked women on the walls. A handgun sits on a corner table.
"You're heroes. God will reward you," reads a text message on Santiago's cell phone from the man who gave him the tip.
Drug traffickers once had free rein in Tamaulipas, which borders Texas and the Gulf Coast — the home base for the Gulf cartel. They raced around in convoys of bulletproof sport utility vehicles, setting up roadblocks to protect turf and forcing Mexican customs agents at gun point to wave through cars coming from the U.S. without inspection. Men openly displayed their weapons as they drank in bars or had their ostrich-skinned boots shined in the town plaza.
That was before Calderon took office and sent the army — mostly twentysomethings from rural provinces — to wrest control of areas taken over by cartels.
The 8th Division — 2,400 troops plus 1,500 reinforcements — was deployed in late 2007 after a former border town mayor who denounced cartel meddling in local elections was shot dead outside a restaurant.
Masks and ammunition inside stolen truck
Maj. Andres Murias leads his column of 30 soldiers in the border town of Miguel Aleman past a house where he previously saw surveillance cameras and decides to make a stop. His soldiers find ski masks and ammunition inside a stolen truck in the yard, and freshly abandoned fried chicken and tortillas in the kitchen.
As his troops continue through the streets, Murias' driver points out a local squad car that keeps turning up nearby.
"We have been followed by the police every single moment," Murias says. "They have people everywhere reporting on our every move, and that makes it hard to surprise them."
But that doesn't keep them from trying. At dusk, Murias' unit shows up at a cattle ranch near the Rio Grande that he hears is a hideout for gunmen. Days earlier he flew over the ranch, taking pictures.
The military convoy breaks a chain to open the gate, shoos cows from its path and circles the property on bumpy dirt road lined by mesquite trees.
But the only find is a fuming Juan Gilberto Garza, the owner, demanding to know what intelligence the army used to illegally enter his land.
"You can come into the ranch whenever you want, but not like that," Garza says, shaking the broken chain at Murias. "I wanted to talk to you, to ask you to please close the gates. But no one would talk to me and left me standing there like an idiot."
Murias tells him a citizen complained of armed men on the property.
"I had to go in and check," he says.
Complaints against soldiers soaring
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission recently reported that complaints against soldiers — including illegal searches and heavy-handed treatment of detainees — jumped to 1,230 in 2008 from 182 in 2006, before the troops were dispatched.
Calderon defends them. In most areas where large military forces have been deployed, drug-related violence has dropped. That includes Mexico's deadliest city, Ciudad Juarez, where the federal government says drug-related killings are down 70 percent since 11,000 soldiers and federal agents arrived in February.
Murias' unit alone confiscated 52 tons of marijuana in 2008, compared to 2 tons in 2006. Last November, the 8th Division made the largest drug weapons seizure in Mexican history — 540 assault rifles, 165 grenades and 500,000 rounds of ammunition.
But signs are everywhere in Tamaulipas that cartel leaders are ready to return to business as usual as soon as the soldiers leave.
Illegal antennas adorn rooftops and empty lots — 5,000 in Nuevo Laredo alone — allowing a wide network of cartel spies to communicate by walkie-talkie. In some towns, residents tolerate and even protect the traffickers.
Marijuana abandoned on riverbank
In the town of Guardados de Abajo, another army unit is camping along the Rio Grande when soldiers hear a truck rumbling in the dark. They investigate to find more than 800 pounds (400 kilograms) of marijuana abandoned on the riverbank.
The next day, Murias discovers that the only way to get to the spot where the drugs were dumped is through a private driveway that passes a house and a goat pen.
He asks the resident if she heard anything suspicious the night before.
"I keep to myself," she says, nervously smoothing the sweater on her toddler. "And I go to bed early."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.