Commentary

Mexico’s Drug Violence Seeps over the Border

The killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent on October 2 in a notorious southern Arizona drug-smuggling corridor fueled speculation that Mexico’s drug cartels were becoming bolder about operating on the U.S. side of the border. Agent Nicholas Ivie’s death apparently was a tragic case of friendly fire. The immediate assumption that the cartels were responsible is an indicator of just how jittery Americans living along the border with Mexico have become.

People have ample reason to be jittery. Three BP agents have died in violent incidents involving the drug gangs over the past two years, including Brian Terry, a victim of Washington’s botched Fast and Furious gun-running sting operation.

Major southwestern U.S. cities remain relatively peaceful, and that has caused some observers to argue that the concerns about spillover from Mexico’s drug war into the United States are overblown. But while violent crime rates in such American cities as El Paso and Tucson remain low, the situation in rural areas is more worrisome. Residents along the border from California to Texas are experiencing a slow but steady rise in drug-related violence and intimidation.

Border Patrol agents haven’t been the only victims. Robert Krentz, a prominent rancher near Douglas, Ariz., was found murdered, and evidence indicated that he had paid with his life for stumbling upon a scout for a trafficking shipment. Gunmen attacked David Hartley and his wife Tiffany while they were jet skiing on Falcon Lake on the Texas-Mexico border. David was fatally shot in the encounter. That incident, and other problems with drug gangs on Falcon Lake, caused Texas authorities to deploy a small fleet of heavily armed speedboats in early 2012 to improve security.

Ranchers and farmers throughout the borderlands increasingly report nasty encounters with cartel enforcers. Farmhands in the Rio Grande valley near La Joya, Tex, were burning stalks of sugarcane for harvest when four masked men on all-terrain vehicles approached them. The armed men surrounded the crew and ordered them to leave the area. The farmer who employed the crew said he had no doubt that the masked men were drug traffickers. “They hide stuff in there,” he said, referring to the dense fields of sugarcane, and try to intimidate anyone who gets too close.

The incident on his farm occurred just two weeks after masked men threatened a county employee in Hidalgo County, Texas, and ordered him to stop clearing brush along a small river near the border. On another occasion, men in a pickup truck fired shots at a foreman on a ranch adjacent to property owned by country music star George Strait.

Recently, the National Rifle Association produced a video that featured interviews with several farmers and ranchers who reported similar episodes of intimidation and terror. Even granting that the NRA is not an unbiased source, given its focus on the need for gun ownership for defense, the pattern it identified is more than a little troubling.

U.S. law enforcement agencies tacitly concede that the Mexico’s drug cartels are now a dangerous presence on the U.S. side of the border. The federal government has posted signs along a stretch of Interstate 8 in Arizona warning motorists that they are entering an “active drug and human smuggling area” where they may encounter “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.” Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu, whose jurisdiction is in the heart of that smuggling route, contends that “Mexican drug cartels literally do control parts of Arizona.”

The U.S. Border Patrol and residents in rural areas close to the border with Mexico are the canaries in the coal mine regarding a growing problem. Mexico’s lame duck president, Felipe Calderón, strongly backed by Washington, has waged an unprecedented offensive against the drug cartels throughout the nearly six years of his presidency. That strategy has cost the lives of more than 55,000 of his citizens, yet the drug gangs are richer, more powerful, and more aggressive than ever.

Trying a different strategy is imperative before Mexico’s problem becomes a major problem on the U.S. side of the border. Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, has urged both his country and the United States to consider all options — including drug legalization — to de-fund the cartels and reduce the enormous power that they have accumulated. The worrisome situation along our border with Mexico demonstrates that Fox’s proposal needs to be given serious consideration.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books on international issues, including The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America (forthcoming, October 2012).