Latin America & Caribbean

Monterrey attack: Game-changer in Mexico's drugs war?

Relatives of victims cry in front of the Casino Royale, in Monterrey, on 27 August 2011

Mexican President Felipe Calderon delivers his annual state of the union speech on Friday amid growing anxiety about his country's security situation, just a week after a casino attack that has prompted national soul-searching.

The attack in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, which left 52 people dead, was branded by many as a turning point in Mexico's bloody conflict.

Beyond the mourning and initial shock, what the attack has brought about is a renewed debate on the government's security strategy to tackle a conflict that has claimed almost 40,000 lives.

The attack, some believe, could start a new phase in the conflict, a new chapter in which the options discussed could include decriminalisation of drugs or a truce with the cartels.

It could also herald a phase in which the semantics also changes: Mexico's "war on drugs" may morph into a "war on terror".

'Terror and savagery'

Mr Calderon himself did not hesitate to use the word "terrorism" to describe the attack.

Image caption Zetas cartel members accused over the attack say it got out of hand and they did not plan to kill civilians

Hours after it took place, the president described it "as an abhorrent act of terror and savagery" and later said the authors were "true terrorists".

But not everyone agrees with that definition.

Jose Narro, dean of Mexico's National Autonomous University (Unam), dismissed the use of the term terrorism.

"What happened in Monterrey has nothing to do with ideology; they are simply profoundly criminal acts," he told local media.

Also, many in Mexico dispute the use of the word terrorism, saying that there is no evidence yet that could indicate the sole purpose of the attack was to kill innocent people.

They argue that the firebombing was probably a warning to the casino's owners that became a tragedy when staff and customers saw themselves trapped inside the burning building.

In fact, officials say that the five members of the feared Zetas cartel that have been arrested and confessed to participating in the attack have argued the action "got out of hand" and that they did not plan to kill civilians.

'This cannot continue'

The attack in Monterrey also sparked a call by Mr Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, for the government to consider agreeing to a ceasefire with the drug gangs, possibly the first time such a senior politician has openly broached that possibility.

Image caption The Mexican government sent hundreds of police and troops to Monterrey after the attack

Mr Fox, who belongs to Mr Calderon's National Action Party, said that "a group of experts" should be summoned that could "invite violent groups to a truce and assess the convenience of an amnesty law".

The current administration sharply rejected Mr Fox's call and vowed to continue fighting the drug gangs through legal persecution and the security forces.

It sent hundreds of police and troops to Monterrey after the attack.

During his address after the Monterrey attack, Mr Calderon, as he has done countless times before, blamed drugs consumption in the US as the root cause of Mexico's conflict.

As long as Americans continue consuming drugs, he argued, the bloodshed in Mexico will be harder and harder to stop.

And then he said: "If [the Americans] are determined and resigned to consuming drugs, they should look for market alternatives that annul the stratospheric profits of the criminals, or establish clear points of access that are not the border with Mexico.

"But this situation cannot continue like this."

The L word

Was President Calderon suggesting the US should - eventually - consider the decriminalisation of drugs?

Image caption The Monterrey attack may have put all options on the table in the debate about the security crisis

Some analysts say there is no doubt he was referring to legalisation as a possible strategy - one which the Mexican president has vehemently ruled out in the past.

"The only 'market alternative' that cuts those profits [of the cartels] is legalisation," Luis de la Barreda Solorzano, a security expert, told the BBC.

"I can't imagine he was referring to anything else."

Mexican government officials consulted by the BBC refused to comment or expand further on that particular phrase of Mr Calderon's speech.

Juan Ignacio Zavala, a columnist close to Mr Calderon's administration, said the phrase should not be interpreted as a major change in government policy.

"I just interpret it as a message to the US to take their fight against drug consumption seriously," he told the BBC.

Ruling out a call for legalisation as a possible next step, Mr Zavala said that "what happened in Monterrey has nothing to do with drugs".

What the Monterrey attack has done, it appears, is to put all options on the table in the debate about Mexico's security crisis.

And that discussion, many in Mexico believe, will probably be a key issue during the campaigns for next July's presidential election.

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