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DEA officials interviewed by The Times said the Sinaloa cartel employs Mexican federal officials, while other cartels pay off local governments and police.

“Many times, what you see isn’t really what’s going on,” said a DEA official, who asked not to be named because of the nature of his work. “Many times the death of federal officers or local police isn’t a cartel making the hit, but the cartels themselves in the government fighting one another. The same thing has happened to the Mexican army, where the cartels have also bought loyalty to move dope into the U.S.”

Mr. Courtney said the Mexican cartels have “evolved into the Colombian cartels of the 1980s. Even the government’s reaction to what’s going on there right now and over the last five years is what the government of Colombia faced when they went after Pablo Escobar. Juarez has seen an escalation in that same type of brutal violence.”

Escobar was a Colombian drug lord who died in 1993.

More than 2,000 Mexican army soldiers and 425 federal police are patrolling in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located. More than 45,000 Mexican troops have been engaged in the drug war since Mr. Calderon took office in 2006.

Mr. Carpenter said the use of the Mexican military may be backfiring.

“I said at the time when Calderon called the military to take the lead role in confronting the cartels that he was undertaking a massive gamble,” Mr. Carpenter said. “It is clear now that he is losing that gamble if he has not already lost it.”

A U.S. counterterrorism official said, however, that the severity of the crisis was bringing the U.S. and Mexican governments closer and that the CIA will work closely with Mexico if asked for guidance.

“Both countries have a common interest in clamping down on the cartels, and that has shaved away some of the underlying historical tensions in what has long been a close relationship with Mexico,” said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “The Mexicans understand - perhaps more so than at any time in recent memory - that we are genuine about taking these people on.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Mexicans daily cross the Santa Fe bridge, which connects Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, ironically one of the safest U.S. cities.

“Why should we have to live like this?”asked Maria, the vendor. “Why do our children have to die, while our neighbors live like nothing is happening? Every day we pray for something different, for peace. Every day our prayers are left unanswered.”