More on the Border

A War We Cannot Afford To Lose

By Robert J. Caldwell

Recent events leave no doubt about just how desperate a battle Mexico is fighting to take down it’s rapacious drug-trafficking cartels and stop the escalation of drug-war violence. No American should imagine that this battle being waged on our doorstep doesn’t involve vital U.S. national interests inextricably entwined with those of our neighbor Mexico.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made the fight against the drug cartels and organized crime his top national priority, as well he should. Losing to the narco-traffickers’ violent syndicates would risk making Mexico a failed state, with disastrous consequences for Mexico’s economic development and political reforms. Simply put, Mexico’s modernization cannot succeed without the rule of law against which the cartels wage unrelenting war.

For the United States, a failed Mexico unable to control the escalating drug-war mayhem on its territory would have the most dire results: Tidal waves of illegal immigration, wholesale disruption of tens of billions of dollars of mutually beneficial trade, and a vastly greater threat to U.S. national security along the 1,800-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

All the more reason, then, to view recent events in Mexico with genuine alarm. Despite the 17-month-old Calderón administration’s efforts, including the dispatch of more than 24,000 Mexican army troops and federal police to locations (including Tijuana) most threatened by the narco-cartels, violence continues unabated.

Among the most recent outrages:

A running gun battle between rival narco-traffickers in Tijuana on April 26 that left a dozen dead and eight or more wounded.

Four days later, two assassins shot and killed the director of Mexico’s Organized Crime Department of the Federal Secretariat of Public Security. A day after that, the secretariat’s general staff director was assassinated as he left his home in Mexico City.

On May 8, the acting chief of Mexico’s federal police was shot nine times and killed at the door of his apartment in Mexico City.

On May 9, four gunmen killed a former commander of Mexico City’s anti-kidnapping unit, a man who was working for the Mexico City police department’s internal affairs unit, which investigates police corruption.

The next day, the deputy commander of Ciudad Juarez’s police force was ambushed and killed near his home, shot more than 50 times. The Ciudad Juarez police chief resigned that same day.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that three Mexican police chiefs, clearly in fear for their lives, have requested political asylum in the United States. This is unprecedented.

Drug-war violence killed 2,500 people last year in Mexico. The toll of dead so far this year runs to 1,100, according to Mexican press reports. Most of the dead were feuding narco-traffickers and their murderous enforcers, but the victims also include Mexican government officials, police and prosecutors, soldiers, journalists and innocent civilians caught in crossfires.

Of Mexico’s fight against the cartels, John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, minced no words in an interview in San Diego last week.

“They’re fighting for their lives and their futures,” Walters said.

As the violence in border areas, notably including the Mexican states of Baja California and Chihuahua, grows, Americans are increasingly put at risk. Dozens of U.S. citizens have been kidnapped, and some murdered, by Mexican criminals in the Tijuana region who are believed linked to drug traffickers.

The U.S. State Department’s current travel advisory on Mexico says this about the growing risk to Americans in the border region:

“Violent criminal activity fueled by a war between criminal organizations struggling for control of the lucrative narcotics trade continues along the U.S.-Mexico border … Foreign visitors and residents, including Americans, have been among the victims of homicides and kidnappings in the border region. Recent Mexican army and police force conflicts with heavily armed narcotics cartels have escalated to levels equivalent to military small-unit combat and have included use of machine guns and fragmentation grenades … Public shootouts have occurred during daylight hours near shopping areas.”

The Department of Homeland Security reports that escalating border violence increasingly threatens U.S. Border Patrol agents. Assaults against Border Patrol officers have nearly tripled since 2001 – from 335 that year to 987 during fiscal year 2007. Four Border Patrol agents and three other border security officers were killed last year. Two Border Patrol agents have been killed to date in 2008.

The Bush administration’s response to the growing threat of Mexican drug cartels is the Merida Initiative now pending in Congress, a $1.4 billion, multi-year security-assistance plan to help Mexico and the Central American countries fight drug trafficking and organized crime. President Bush is proposing $500 million in security assistance to Mexico this year, including badly needed drug-detection technology, communications equipment, helicopters and surveillance aircraft, technical advice and training, case-management software for Mexico’s creaky criminal justice system and help in establishing witness protection programs.

Critics, among them the usual chorus of Mexico bashers, deride the Merida Initiative as an unwarranted giveaway to a corrupt country not worthy of U.S. assistance. They couldn’t be more wrong, more misinformed or uninformed.

Whatever Mexico’s problems with drug-money corruption, and they are undeniably immense, the transnational drug cartels can only be defeated by a transnational strategy built around U.S.-Mexico cooperation. Ditto for helping Central America’s small states cope with growing drug trafficking through their territory, nearly all of it intended for the lucrative U.S. market, plus such vicious street-gang networks as the El Salvador-based MS-13 organization now lethally present in Los Angeles and other American cities.

A model for dismantling Mexico’s drug cartels could well be the law enforcement successes scored in recent years against the Tijuana-based Arellano Félix Organization. Hammered by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, the AFO is now a shell of the feared, ultra-violent narco cartel it once was. Many of these successes, including the apprehension of numerous AFO kingpins, have been the result of painstakingly patient cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement.

Only effective cooperation between the United States and Mexico offers any reasonable hope of defeating the drug cartels that threaten both countries. The Merida Initiative, blueprint for a closer, more effective U.S.-Mexico alliance against the sources of 80 percent of all illicit narcotics entering the United States, is a key to victory.

For the United States and Mexico alike, this is a war we cannot afford to lose.

Caldwell edited the Union-Tribune’s Insight section until his retirement from the newspaper in January, and often reported on the Mexican drug cartels. He is now a freelance writer living in San Diego.


San Diego Union-Tribune
May 25, 2008


2 thoughts on “More on the Border

  1. While we certainly need to do something to protect ourselves I fear that Mexico may already be a lost cause. We are beyond the point where simply throwing money at the problem (something our government excels at) is going to do any good.

  2. I think you’re right. Mexico may be a lost cause. What we can’t afford to not do is to keep their problems from spilling over the border. And yeah throwing money at it is useless.

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