Commentary

Mexico’s Colombian Exchange

Even as U.S. officials concentrate on such troubling foreign-policy issues as the stalemated six-party talks regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, the increasing likelihood that Iran may join the ranks of nuclear powers and growing tensions in relations with Russia, a serious security problem is brewing much closer to home. Violence between drug-trafficking organizations and government authorities in Mexico has exploded in the past two years. The carnage is now so extensive that American tourists increasingly avoid Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and other cities on the U.S.-Mexico border that used to be popular destinations. Worst of all, some of the chaos in Mexico is spilling over into America’s own southwestern states.

The drug trafficking problem in Mexico is not new. The country is a major source of heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine for the American market as well as the principal transit and distribution point for cocaine from South America. For years, people both inside and outside Mexico have worried that the country might descend into the maelstrom of corruption and violence that plagued the chief drug supplier in the western hemisphere, Colombia, from the early 1980s to the early years of this century. There are growing signs that the “Colombianization” of Mexico is now becoming a reality.

If Mexico goes down the same path that Colombia did, the consequences to the United States will be much more severe. Colombia is relatively far away, but Mexico shares a border with the United States and is closely linked to this country economically through the North American Free Trade Agreement. There is simply no way for Americans to regard the alarming trends in our next-door neighbor with indifference.

Washington has pressed Mexican governments for years to be more proactive against the drug-trafficking gangs. Since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, U.S. officials have gotten their wish. Calderon has even given the military a lead role in combating the traffickers, a step that previous presidents had declined to take. The principal outcome of his strategy, however, has been an even greater level of violence, with military personnel increasingly being targets. The military also has now been exposed to the temptation of financial corruption that has compromised Mexico’s police forces so thoroughly.

Even supposed victories in Mexico’s drug war prove to be mixed blessings at best. As Stratfor, a risk-assessment consulting organization, notes

“inter-cartel violence tends to swing upward after U.S. or Mexican authorities manage to weaken or disrupt a given organization. At any point, if rival groups sense an organization might not be able to defend its turf, they will swoop in to battle not only the incumbent group, but also each other for control.”

The turf battles have been ferocious. In 2005, slightly more than one thousand three hundred people perished in drug-related violence. By 2007, the yearly total had soared to 2,673. And it continues to get worse. By mid-August 2008, the carnage for that year already exceeded the number of fatalities in all of 2007. The State Department warned American travelers in May 2008 that battles between drug-trafficking gangs (and between those gangs and Mexican military and police) in portions of northern Mexico were so severe that they constituted “small unit combat operations.” Those battles included the use of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

In addition to the extensive violence reminiscent of Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, another Colombian pattern also is emerging in Mexico-the diversification of the drug gangs into kidnapping and other lucrative sources of revenue. Some reports suggest that the kidnapping problem in Mexico is now more severe than it is in Colombia, and even U.S. citizens have been victims.

U.S. officials concede that the drug-related violence in Mexico does not respect borders. According to John Walters, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, “The killing of rival traffickers is already spilling across the border. Witnesses are being killed. We do not think the border is a shield.” A Dallas narcotics officer reaches a similar conclusion. “We’re seeing an alarming number of incidents involving the same type of violence that’s become all too common in Mexico, right here in Dallas. We’re seeing execution-style murders, burned bodies, and outright mayhem … It’s like the battles being waged in Mexico for turf have reached Dallas.”

U.S. law enforcement officials along the border are increasingly the targets of violence. A Homeland Security Committee report notes that at one time, smugglers “would drop the drugs or abandon their vehicles when confronted by U.S. law enforcement.” That is no longer the case. “In today’s climate, U.S. Border Patrol agents are fired upon from across the river and troopers and sheriff’s deputies are subject to attacks with automatic weapons while the cartels retrieve their contraband.” Some of the attacks have come from Mexicans wearing military uniforms. It is not certain whether they are smugglers with stolen uniforms or if rogue elements of the Mexican military are attacking U.S. law enforcement personnel on behalf of traffickers.

Mexico can still avoid going down the path to chaos, but time is growing short.”

U.S. policy seems to assume that if the Mexican government can eliminate the top drug lords, their organizations will fall apart, thereby greatly reducing the flow of illegal drugs to the United States. Washington has now backed up that policy with a lucrative aid package, the Merida Initiative, to help fund law enforcement reforms and other anti-drug efforts. In the summer of 2008, Congress approved the first installment ($400 million) of what is likely to be a multi-year, multi-billion dollar program modeled after Plan Colombia, the initiative that began in 2000 for Colombia and its Andean neighbors, and which has already cost $5 billion.

The belief that neutralizing Mexican drug kingpins will achieve a lasting reduction in drug trafficking is the same assumption that U.S. officials made with respect to the crackdown on the Medellin and Cali cartels in Colombia during the 1990s. Subsequent developments proved the assumption to be erroneous. The elimination of those two cartels merely decentralized the Colombian drug trade. Instead of two large organizations controlling the trade, today some three hundred much smaller, loosely organized groups do so.

More to the point, the arrests and killings of numerous top drug lords in both Colombia and Mexico over the years have not had a meaningful impact on the quantity of drugs entering the United States. Cutting off one head of the drug-smuggling Hydra merely results in more heads taking its place. Jorge Chabat, a Mexican security and drug-policy analyst notes: “For years, the U.S. told Mexico’s government, ‘The problem is that the narcos are still powerful because you don’t dismantle the gangs.’ Now they’re doing just that … and the narcos are more powerful than ever.”

Mexico can still avoid going down the path to chaos, but time is growing short. Washington had better pay far more attention to the problem than it has to this point, and U.S. officials need to come up with better answers than the ineffectual and discredited policies of the past. If Washington continues to pursue a prohibitionist strategy, which creates the enormous black-market profits in drug trafficking, violence and corruption will become a dominant and permanent feature of Mexican life. The illicit drug trade has already penetrated the country’s economy and society to an alarming degree. U.S. officials need to ask whether they want to risk a chaotic, embryonic narco-state on America’s southern border. If they don’t want to deal with the turmoil such a development would create, the new administration will have to reconsider the prohibitionist strategy and do so quickly.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America (2008).