A five year old boy killed by a shot of acid to the heart. Bodies dissolving in vats of chemicals. Plastic bags containing severed heads dumped in shopping centers. These are brief glimpses into the brutality of Mexico’s savage drug war, which has killed over 13,000 people since Mexico’s President Calderon deployed the army to curtail cartel activity in 2006. While grisly headlines churned out by the American media ensure that the chaos in Mexico is well known in the US, the long-term ramifications of that chaos have not yet been fully considered. Nor, it seems, have they been a priority in DC since the signing of the Merida initiative. But even though the maelstrom in Mexico has been overshadowed by national nail-biting over Afghanistan and Iran, it carries a heavy impact for the security of many Americans. The Obama administration, busy as it may be, cannot afford to continue ignoring the situation south of the border. Instead, Obama must be proactive, addressing the situation now before it worsens and the US finds itself with security threats on its border, not half a world away in Afghanistan.
Mexican drug violence is increasingly spilling over into the US. Already, the Department of Justice has designated Mexican drug cartels as the biggest organized crime threat in the US. In the past few years there has been a substantial increase in the number of cartel-related crimes in the US, with cartel activity in forty-eight states. In 2006, the Justice department estimated that 100 cities in the U.S. were affected by cartel activity. By 2009, that number had risen to 230. Accompanying these rising numbers are rising crime statistics. In Phoenix, for example, the police department has recorded 700 home invasions in the past two years, all of them linked to drug and human smuggling. Between 2004 and 2007, a Mexican drug trafficking ring tortured and killed nine men in San Diego, dissolving two of their bodies in acid. And in Alabama in 2008, police stumbled upon the corpses of five men who had their throats slit for not paying their debt to a drug-trafficking ring.
Unfortunately, even with crackdowns like the one in October, the US is unlikely to be able to effectively push cartels out of its territory. Until cartels lose their significant territorial, financial, military and human resources back in Mexico, they will be able to maintain a presence in the US. And even with the Calderon administration’s efforts to destroy drug cartels, the situation in Mexico is still far from under control. Violence is increasing, with kidnappings, torture, mass executions and decapitations now daily occurrences. In 2007, there were 2, 275 drug related killings in Mexico, while in 2008 that number rose to 6,290. Adding to the problem is widespread corruption, which has permeated all levels of Mexican government, law enforcement, and judicial institutions, thwarting effective rule of law. Even top officials are involved, as the October 2008 arrest of senior officials in the Mexican Attorney General’s anti-organized crime unit demonstrates. All of this points to the probability that things won’t be getting better anytime soon.
Furthermore, cartels have begun branching out in other industries, entrenching themselves into the fabric of Mexican society. In addition to drug trafficking, cartels are now involved in extortion, protective rackets, piracy, and trafficking of everything from stolen goods to people. Most worrying, there have been reports that drug cartels have been smuggling or aiding Middle Eastern terrorists attempting to cross the border illegally. According to a 2007 CRS report, some aliens associated with terrorism, including members of Hezbollah, have already successfully entered the U.S. via the Mexican border. Already, hundreds of people from countries of ‘special interest’- countries that are known to support or sponsor terrorism- cross the border every year. Intelligence also shows that Latin America, particularly Venezuela, is becoming a common way point for terrorists attempting to travel from South Asia to the US.
Altogether, the situation is ominous. The US can expect to see increasing levels of cartel-related violence both within its borders and below them. Americans should also be prepared for the possibility, even if small, of national security threats coming from the south.
Unfortunately, the 2,000 miles of border we share with Mexico means we cannot simply ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Denial is not an option, nor is procrastination. Instead of waiting until it is too late, we should begin a serious public and governmental debate on the situation now. The Merida initiative was an excellent first step. But as the continued chaos in Mexico demonstrates, it has not been enough. Extra steps are needed in the form of extensive US assistance to Mexico. This assistance can take the form of additional financial aid, training for Mexican law enforcement, and advice on building long-term security institutions that have the public’s trust.
Finally, the US must also accept responsibility for its role in Mexico’s drug wars and take actions to reduce that role. The vast majority of Mexican drugs go to the US to feed American demand, and 95% of the weapons used in drug violence in Mexico come from the US. American money supports cartels, and American weapons kill Mexicans. Steps to decrease domestic demand for drugs are sorely needed, as is a plan to stop the illegal purchase and smuggling of weapons.
These actions are well within the Obama administration’s capabilities. Instability in Mexico and cartel violence in the US can be lessened, if the political will is there. Yes, Obama has a lot on his plate at the moment. But history has shown us that preventative action often goes further to fix a crisis than a massive cleanup after the fact. Mexico cannot be ignored. The Obama Administration must act now, or face the consequences later.