Mexico’s On The Brink Of Chaos

 A frightening number of drug-related deaths in Mexico

Raymond Alvarez: The quickly rising numbers graphically displayed on a Los Angeles Times web page are telling. Mexico’s drug war story is darkened by numbers, staggering numbers. There were 7,337 drug-related deaths in 2008, the Times reports. The death toll from terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year approaches the average weekly body count in Juarez, which is just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Two years into a war on the drug cartels, the trend is not slowing. USA Today reported Thursday (Feb. 26, 2009) that 1,000 have been killed in drug violence so far this year.

As  the violence escalates Mexico President Felipe Calderon is coming under increasing criticism for ordering 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police into 18 states. Why are Mexicans taking to the streets to protest? The violence is not being contained.

Violence reaches far into U.S.
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the region is a no-man’s land of turf wars, kidnappings, and police intimidation that regularly claims the lives of Mexican lawmen. On the U.S. side, authorities are reporting a spike in killings, kidnappings and home invasions connected to Mexico’s murderous cartels. And to the surprise of some, much of the violence is not confined to border towns. Even cities a considerable distance away, places such as Phoenix and Atlanta, are affected.

Investigators fear violence could erupt elsewhere around the country because the Mexican cartels are believed to have operations all over the U.S., in such far-flung places as Anchorage, Alaska; Boston; and Sioux Falls, S.D. On Wednesday (Feb. 25, 2009), CBS News reported federal agents rounded up more than 750 suspects in a wide-ranging crackdown on Mexican drug cartels operating inside the U.S. The operation netted 23 tons of illicit drugs, weapons and more than $63 million in cash.

If the numbers are disturbing, the trend toward more gruesome killings is all the more frightening. More than 1,350 people died in Juarez last year in violence that included numerous beheadings and the killings of more than 60 police officers. Unofficial tallies by the news media put the death toll so far this year at more than 300 in the state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located.

In the long-running series called “Mexico Under Siege,” the Los Angeles Times has painted a picture of deteriorating conditions so severe some are drawing comparisons to war-torn Afghanistan.

Assassination list for U.S.
Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, writes in an editorial for The Houston Chronicle:

While U.S. leaders focus on Afghanistan, Iran and other problems in distant regions, there is an alarming security problem brewing right next door. Violence in Mexico, mostly related to the trade in illegal drugs, is spiraling out of control. Even worse, it is increasingly apparent that the drug-traffickers are winning …..


….Cartel enforcers have published lists of Americans, including police officers, who are targeted for assassination.


President Barack Obama must put the drug violence in Mexico at the top of his national security agenda. While it is premature to describe Mexico as a full-blown failed state, as some experts have done, the situation has reached alarming proportions.

Almost daily, the headlines in major city publications and web pages carry fresh news of the war. Here are but a few examples:

January 4, 2009 New York Times: FELIPE ANGELES, Mexico – A string of  kidnappings, singling out people with children or spouses in the United States, so panicked this village in the state of Zacatecas that many people boarded up their homes and headed north, some legally and some not…

“The relatives of Mexicans in the United States have become a new profit center for Mexico’s crime industry,” said Rodolfo García Zamora, a professor at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas who studies migration trends. “Hundreds of families are emigrating out of fear of kidnap or extortion, and Mexicans in the U.S. are doing everything they can to avoid returning. Instead, they’re getting their relatives out.”

The country’s spiraling criminality appears not only to be keeping some Mexicans in the United States, but it may also be leading more Mexicans to flee their country. “It’s a toxic combination right now,” said Denise Dresser, a political scientist based in Mexico City. “Mexicans north of the border are facing joblessness and persecution, but in their own country the government can’t provide basic security for many of its citizens.”

  • Feb 6, 2009 Reuters TIJUANA, Mexico – Mexican drug gangs near the U.S. border are breaking into police radio frequencies to issue chilling death threats to cops which they then carry out, demoralizing security forces in a worsening drug war.

“You’re next, bastard … We’re going to get you,” an unidentified drug gang member said over the police radio in the city of Tijuana after naming a policeman.

The man also threatened a second cop by name and played foot-stomping “narcocorrido” music, popular with drug cartels, over the airwaves.

Sure enough, two hours later the dead bodies of the two named policemen were found dumped on the edge of the city.

Cartels killed some 530 police in Mexico last year, some of them corrupt officers who were working for rival gangs. Others were killed in shoot-outs or murdered for working against the gangs or refusing to turn a blind eye to drug shipments.

  • Feb. 9, 2009 MSNBC HOUSTON – More than 200 American citizens have been killed since 2004 in Mexico’s escalating wave of violence, amounting to the highest number of unnatural deaths in any foreign country outside military combat zones, according to the U.S. State Department.

The deaths included a 22-year-old Houston man and his 16-year-old friend who were hauled out of a minivan and shot execution style. They also included a 65-year-old nurse from Brownsville found floating in the Rio Grande after visiting a Mexican beauty salon and a retiree stabbed to death while camping on a Baja beach, reported the Houston Chronicle in a story published Sunday, which examined hundreds of records related to the deaths.

The State Department tracks most American homicides abroad but releases few details about the deaths. Most, however, occurred in border cities, including Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, where violence has spiked with drug cartel feuds in recent years.

The Chronicle analysis showed some American homicide victims were involved in organized crime. At least two dozen American victims were labeled as cartel hitmen, drug dealers, smugglers or gang members. Others were drug users or wanted for crimes in the United States.

But in at least 70 other cases, the Americans were killed in Mexico while there on seemingly innocent business: visiting family, vacationing or living and working there.

The Council on Foreign Affairs carried an analysis in November 2008. The think tank writes that no progress  can be made until Mexico’s police and judiciary are reformed. In the meantime, concerns mount about drug-related violence spilling across the border.

Calderon has sought U.S. assistance to tackle the problem. A new aid package known as the Merida Initiative will provide $400 million in equipment and communications systems this year, with plans for further funding in the next two years. Some Mexican and U.S. analysts criticize the package for its focus on equipment rather than training and institution building. Others note that the package does not address how to reduce U.S. drug demand, the council said.

How did things go so wrong for so long? Mexico’s drug cartels are rumored to supply campaign funds in elections. The U.S. has been a generous partner in the war on crime, but critics say money is not directed at reforming the system. Corruption is entrenched.  Harvard International Review wrote in December 2008:

Mexico’s Department of Defense estimated that, of the half million Mexicans involved in narco-trafficking in Mexico, at least one third are ex-military officers. While these new figures are shocking, the trend (soldiers deserting the military and joining the cartels) is not new. In the 1990s, the U.S. helped to train an elite force of Mexican soldiers to take on the cartels. Not long afterward, the cartels offered to hike their salaries, and most defected. They became Los Zetas, one of the most formidable mafia organizations in the country.

The Review went on to say that it would appear at this point that there are only a handful of realistic options for dealing with Mexico’s cartels, none of which are particularly attractive:
1.   Decriminalization of illicit drug sales.
2.   Complete militarization of Mexican society, including a draft to    increase the size of the army, and support from the United States for aggressive military assaults on the cartels.
3.   The final option is to negotiate with the cartels, just as the U.S. has considered negotiating with the Taliban.

To the Review list I might add the most sensible and appealing: More aggressive prosecution of drug criminals here in the U.S. But none of the options are very attractive.

Our nations have arrived at a crossroads. We must stop the flow of drugs here.

The outlook could not be more grim as Mexico faces growing isolation. Tourism in affected areas, particularly Tijuana and Jarez, is drying up quickly. Who can blame anyone for staying away? Who wants to venture into Mexico to be caught in heavy lines as the military steps up its vehicle inspections? Tourists may want to think twice about traveling to traditional playgrounds.

Economic hit
Some may be tempted to think that Mexico’s problems are Mexico’s, that the whole mess can be walled off. Unfortunately, Mexico’s stability is vital to the U.S., both strategically and economically. Mexico is the third most important source of oil to the United States. Output has been dropping since 2005, though. A package of energy reforms passed Mexico’s Congress on October 28, but industry experts say it likely does not go far enough to attract the kind of private investment needed to build capacity.

Mexico also is the third largest trading partner to the U.S., behind China and Canada.

Obviously, we can ill-afford to do nothing, even if our financial own crisis has us preoccupied.

By Raymond Alvarez