Battlefield scenes from the war with no end in sight.
It’s all too indicative of the average knowledge of the Mexican drug war that few realize it’s “only” been going on, as we now know it, since 2006. So many of us implicitly understand Mexico to be locked in a state of drug-fueled violence that we simply take for granted that the country is but a kind of permanent battlefield.
Things haven’t always been this way, though. While just this past year Mexico had more than 17,000 homicides (making for a rate of 14 homicides per 100,000 people, among the highest in the world), in 2005, the homicide rate was 9.5 per 100,000.
But in 2006, everything changed.
On December 1, 2006, new President Felipe Calderón took office following one of the closest and most highly contested elections in Mexican history. Ten days later, perhaps feeling that he needed to announce his presence with authority and own his claim to the country’s highest office, Calderón sanctioned Operation Michoacán.
This strike — the first large-scale, joint police and military move by the federal government against the country’s drug cartels — sent approximately 7,000 officers to the southern state of Michoacán to arrest suspects and seize both weapons and drugs en masse. The Mexican drug war had begun.
Over the coming years, the federal government launched similar operations in a number of other beleaguered states, and the drug-related death toll rose from 2,477 in 2007 to 15,273 in 2010, according to government figures.
The country’s overall homicide rate climbed even higher the following year before finally stopping its ascent in 2012, the last year of Calderón’s presidency. Over the course of his term, the drug war left about 27,000 missing and 60,000 dead, with the country’s overall homicide count reaching about 100,000.
While Mexico’s homicide rate dropped from the end of Calderón’s term until 2014, it rose again last year, and new government estimates place the total death toll of the Mexican drug war at a minimum of 80,000.
By the time 2016 is out — marking the war’s tenth anniversary — government estimates show (in Spanish) that Mexico’s homicide rate will rise again, above the number set by its 2015 resurgence.
After a decade of soldiers, guns, seizures, corpses, arrests, and little resolution, it’s not hard to see why so many assume that Mexico will always be — and has always been — a battlefield.
See some of the most striking scenes from that battlefield above.