How powerful are Mexico’s drug gangs?
In much of the country, more powerful than the government itself. Mexico’s three main drug cartels are effectively in control of swaths of the country’s Pacific Coast, industrial heartland, and tourist havens of the Gulf Coast. With their staggering income from drug smuggling—$8 billion to $23 billion a year, according to U.S. estimates—the gangs can afford more powerful weapons than the police, and they don’t hesitate to kill the politicians, cops, and journalists they can’t bribe or intimidate. Since 2006, the cartels have been responsible for the murders of more than 3,500 people, including many innocent bystanders, while thousands more have been maimed. Yet they are folk heroes to many poor Mexicans; pop songs celebrating the gangs’ exploits, known as narcocorridos, are wildly popular, even as many of the singers themselves have been gruesomely murdered (see below).

What’s fueling the gangs’ rise?
The changing nature of the illegal drug trade in Central America. Ironically, the Mexican drug gangs’ growth was in large part sparked by the U.S. focus on the Colombian drug cartels. Starting with the Clinton administration, the U.S. has been doing everything it can to disrupt Colombian drug smuggling operations. As a result, the Colombians have been having a much harder time transporting their wares to the U.S. via cargo ships and airplanes, so they’ve switched to overland routes through Mexico. Mexican gangs then seized a piece of the action, warring with one another and the police to control supply routes. Relatively few illegal drugs are actually produced in Mexico. But 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the heroin and marijuana consumed in the U.S. is shipped through Mexico, and tens of thousands of Mexicans either have joined the cartels or collaborate with them.

How violent are these gangs?
“The level of brutality rivals that of death squads in Iraq,” said a report prepared for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Last September, members of the so-called Gulf Cartel charged into a bar in Uruapan, Mexico. Screaming and waving assault rifles, they tossed a bag onto the dance floor; five human heads rolled out. The victims, whose heads had been sawed off with a bowie knife, were street-level meth dealers allied with the rival Sinaloa Cartel; the hit men were making an example of them, as a warning to other gangs encroaching on their turf. In another recent incident, gang members in Acapulco beheaded the commander of a local police drug squad and jammed his head into a fence outside police headquarters. A note, which had been driven into the head with an ice pick, read: “So you will learn to respect.”

Where do the gangs get their weapons?
Mostly from the U.S., and it’s an impressive arsenal. In addition to assault rifles and powerful handguns, the gangs have machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, bazookas, and even shoulder-fired missiles. “These guys are armed to the teeth,” said a U.S. law enforcement agent. “The weapons we’re seeing now is stuff normally used for war.” The heavier arms are bought on the black market, but authorities believe most of the rifles and handguns are purchased by “straw buyers” at Texas gun shows, who then ferry the guns across the border and deliver them to drug-runners. The gangs are so well armed that they resemble paramilitary groups. And their ranks now include many former members of Mexico’s elite special forces. At the same time, the gangs have infiltrated much of Mexico’s power structure.

How high does their influence reach?
They have corrupted every level of government, from local policemen to army generals to presidential aides. Many street-level cops take bribes to alert gang members to impending raids. “Everyone in the world knows we’re coming,” said Patricio Arias, Mexico’s deputy secretary of public security. In January, Carlos Landin, a former police commander in Tamaulipas state, was convicted in Texas of helping run the Gulf Cartel’s smuggling operation. In 1997, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, appointed by President Ernesto Zedillo to head the National Institute to Combat Drugs, was convicted of accepting payoffs from a drug cartel. And Raul Salinas, brother of Zedillo’s predecessor, Carlos Salinas, was believed to control almost all drug shipments passing through Mexico.

What’s the U.S. doing about the mayhem on its border?

In October, Congress approved a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico. So far, about a third of the money has been distributed, mostly for aircraft, surveillance equipment, and police training. But many Mexican officials and crime experts say the aid misses the mark, because it favors high-tech aircraft and spy gear over more prosaic but effective items such as transport planes and SUVs. “They are overemphasizing the technology,” said Luis Astorga, a law professor at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University. The Mexican public, meanwhile, has been growing increasingly frustrated by its government’s inability to stop the carnage. “Living in Mexico has become very difficult,” said a man in the border town of Matamoros, who didn’t identify himself for fear of reprisal by drug dealers. “Even Colombia is looking better.”

‘Court poets’ to the narcos
When Jesus Rey David Alfaro’s body was found in scrubland outside Tijuana in February, it was wrapped in a blanket with a note reading, “You’ll be next.” Alfaro, a popular singer known as the “Little Rooster,” had been shot once in the head, and rope burns around his neck indicated he had been tortured first. Locals recognized the killing as the work of the Sinaloa Cartel, which operates along the Pacific Coast. Alfaro was one of a dozen narcocorrido singers murdered since 2006 and was linked to the rival Arellano Felix Cartel. Narcocorrido singers are often “adopted” by the cartels, which help finance their careers in exchange for having their exploits chronicled in song. “They’re essentially court poets to the drug world,” said Elijah Wald, author of a book on narcocorrido music. But a cartel’s sponsorship comes at a steep price. Musicians risk torture and death at the hands of rival cartels, or even by their own patrons. Traffickers have killed musicians for flirting with their girlfriends, or for not sharing their profits. And sometimes they kill just for the glory. “In the underworld, you gain immortality through the words of a corrido,” says Mexican journalist Gilberto Castro. “If you aren’t bad, nobody will write about you.”