March 14, 2009
In a desperate attempt to regain control of its northern border region from the drug lords, the Mexican government sent about 2,000 more Army troops into the border city of Juarez this past week. (It is located right across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.) 3,000 additional troops will arrive there by Sunday, bringing the total number of security forces in that city to 8,500 soldiers and 2,300 federal agents. (See AP / washingtonpost.com.) It's a virtual war, against a well-funded and well-armed militia force, but so far it's not getting nearly enough attention in the United States.
Fortunately, President Obama is starting to pay more attention to the escalating drug war than he was last month, offering to transfer five U.S. helicopters to Mexico right away. Having to deal with the economic situation has left him without enough time to focus on the crisis along the Rio Grande. As a further gesture of support for Mexico's war on narcotrafficking, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to Mexico later this month.
Meanwhile, the drug lords are matching the government's numerical escalation of the war with an escalation of barbarity. A few days ago, five severed human heads were found in separate styrofoam coolers in the state of Jalisco, north of Guadalajara. The inscribed messages left no doubt that it was a gesture of intimidation toward anyone who is thinking about informing the police of the mafia whereabouts. See CNN.com. Part of the difficulty faced by the Mexican government is the rising rate of desertions; soldiers aren't paid very much, and their morale is low. According to CNN.com,
But during the past six years, some 150,000 soldiers have deserted, with their departures disproportionately affecting forces stationed in Guerrero, Sinaloa, Michoacan and Chihuahua.
This further escalation of the armed struggle along the U.S.-Mexican border is posing a security threat to the United States. One consequences is that the issue of gun control has been raised in a new context; some people claim that a large portion of the semiautomatic rifles used by the narcotics gangs come from the United States, while others dispute that. In Washington, meanwhile, the National Guard as a last resort to counter the threat of drug violence in Mexico spilling over the border. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, asked President Obama to send 1,000 National Guard troops to patrol the Mexico border, and at a House of Representatives hearing, Roger Rufe of the Department of Homeland Security sketched preliminary plans for such a deployment. See BBC.
The last time Mexico presented such a threat to U.S. security was during the Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1920. Will a present-day General Pershing have to lead an expedition into the desert mountains of Mexico to hunt down the bad guys? Probably not, but we have to remember that the present government of Mexico is on very friendly terms with us, and we can't afford to let the opportunity slip away. In 2012, a leftist president might very well be elected president in Mexico, and cooperation on narcotics and security matters would almost certainly be sharply curtailed.
As recently as five years ago, the primary threat to Mexico's internal security was in the southern states of Oaxaca (see Oct. 2006) and Chiapas (in 2003), where leftist guerrilla forces were operating. That threat seems to have subsided for the time being, but Mexico remains very vulnerable to internal subversion. A big part of the problem is the political stalemate that has lingered ever since the disputed presidential election of July 2006. When Felipe Calderon was sworn in as president in December 2006, the left-wing party led by losing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tried to prevent the inaugural ceremonies from taking place. Disunity in the government has crippled the ability of the security forces to carry out their duties.
What Americans need to understand is that increased material support for Mexico's war against drugs from the United States can only go so far. The political factions in Mexico will either set aside their differences and pull together against the common enemy of subversion, or they will let their country sink further into chaos. We can encourage Mexicans to develop stiffer spines, but whether they actually do so is ultimately out of our hands.
But there is something we can do that would deeply impress Mexicans: Get serious about our own national drug addiction problem. As long as we pin the blame on foreign suppliers while making excuses for our country's high consumption of illegal drugs, it will be hard to get Mexicans or those in other countries to take us seriously. Indeed, a Mexican cabinet official made that very point in a speech this week. Contrary to what many people think, the answer lies not so much in "cracking down" on drug users with police and Federal agents, but rather in mustering the moral strength to ostracize actors and musical entertainers who glamorize drug use. As long as smoking joints and popping pills is considered to be cool, the market for drugs will inevitably perpetuate a virtual civil war in Mexico and other countries in Latin America that produce narcotics.