Mexico: Drug Cartels a Growing Threat

Mexican Army special forces keep watch around a house where a Colombian drug trafficker was suspected to be hidden in Mexico City. Two soldiers were shot dead while they conducted a search in a house occupied by members of the Juarez Cartel. (Photo: Susana Gonzalez / AFP-Getty Images)

Once known merely as "mules" for Colombia's powerful cocaine cartels, today Mexico's narcotics traffickers are the kingpins of this hemisphere's drug trade, and the front line of the war on drugs has shifted from Columbia to America's back door.

In Aug. 2005, the Christian Science Monitor reported that according to senior U.S. officials, in the biggest reorganization since the 1980s, Mexican cartels had leveraged the profits from their delivery routes to wrest control from the Colombian producers. As a result, Mexican drug lords are in control of what the U.N. estimates is a $142 billion a year business in cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and other illicit drugs.

The new dominance of Mexican cartels has caused a spike in violence along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border where rival cartels are warring against Mexican and U.S. authorities. Drugs are either flown from Colombia to Mexico in small planes, or, in the case of marijuana and methamphetamine, produced locally. Then, they are shipped into the U.S. by boat, private vehicles, or in commercial trucks crossing the border.

According to the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as much as 90 percent of the cocaine sold in the U.S. in 2004 was smuggled through Mexican territory. Mexico is also the No. 2 supplier of heroin, the largest foreign source of marijuana, and the largest producer of methamphetamine. Moreover, Mexican criminal groups now dominate operations in the U.S., said the bureau's latest report, released in March, and control most of the 13 primary drug distribution centers in the U.S.

Growing Power

Whereas in previous years, encounters with law enforcement would most likely put drug smugglers to flight, now officials have come to expect violent, potentially deadly confrontations. The Arizona Daily Star (Sept. 27) noted that assaults on U.S. Border Patrol agents, including rock-throwings, doubled from 2004 to 2005 as the number of agents increased by 4 percent, and now are occurring at a rate of more than two a day. To avoid the beefed up security, smugglers have resorted to measures such as digging tunnels under fences, and disguising themselves as members of the Mexican military. Around Yuma, AZ, they've thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails, and fired paintball guns and real firearms at border agents.

On Sept. 20, the Dallas Morning News published an article headlined, "Power of Mexican drug cartels worries officials on both sides of border."

The article detailed how senior U.S. officials are now expressing grave concerns about the Mexican cartels' growing geographical reach. Recent attacks against Mexican public officials have led some American officials to compare the situation to Colombia in the 1980s and `90s, when drug cartels waged war against the government and targeted police, judges, and politicians.

A senior U.S. anti-narcotics official was quoted as saying, "Mexico is waking up to a new era of brutality. Anyone who gets in the way, including law enforcement, pays the price. They're turning it into this public spectacle. That's alarming."

According to El Paso's Newspaper Tree (Sept. 18): "The news reports are graphic: '7 Bodies Found,' 'Attack with Grenades,' 'Three Kidnapped and Others Murdered,' 'Two De-Quartered Bodies Found.' Iraq? Afghanistan? Guess again. The death toll and motives might be different, but the newspaper headlines in question actually hail from Mexican newspapers that print daily stories about narco-violence that's extended from northern border states to the central and southern parts of the nation. Depending on the estimate, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 Mexicans have been slaughtered in violence connected to organized crime since the beginning of the year, but it is widely suspected by the press and other close observers that the real number of victims is higher."

"While much of the recent attention on Mexico has focused on the post-electoral conflict in Mexico City or the popular uprising against Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, violence attributed to wars between drug cartels and to organized crime shows no signs of abating. Nor does the Mexican state show any new ability or desire to put a halt to the carnage. … Violence is reaching such levels that some 'narco-families' are reportedly fleeing their home bases and seeking refuge in the few remaining tranquil spots of the country or attempting to relocate to the United States and Canada."

An instance where Mexican officials clearly succumbed to the cartels' intimidation can be found in Villa Madero, Michoacan, where the entire 32-member police force recently resigned or failed to show up for work after reportedly being threatened by drug traffickers. Members of the force complained to authorities about a lack of arms and communications equipment to protect themselves.

The Sept. 26 edition of the San Antonio Express-News reported that a new method of intimidation is being utilized by Mexican drug cartels — beheadings. So far this year, at least 26 people have been decapitated in Mexico, with heads stuck on fences, dumped in trash piles, and even tossed onto a nightclub dance floor. In the latter act of violence, which took place in early morning hours of Wednesday, Sept. 6, five heads were scattered on the dance floor of a bar in the state of Michoacan, notorious for drug trafficking. No arrests for the killings have been announced.

Concerned with the escalation of violence in Mexican border cities, at a recent meeting held in Texas between law enforcement officials in the two countries, U.S. officials urged their Mexican counterparts to send more troops to the border. The officials hoped that an increased show of force would result in lowering the level of violence there.

However, a few days after the meeting a raging gun battle broke out between more than 50 Mexican federal agents and alleged drug traffickers in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. According to the Dallas Morning News, the traffickers were from a particularly violent group known as Los Zetas, allegedly comprised of ex-Army Special forces, regular troopers, police agents, and common criminals. The battle, which took place in a residential neighborhood, reportedly involved grenades and bazookas. Four Zetas were believed killed, with at least four injured. The article further noted that the Zetas have grown to number more than 500, with hundreds more in a support network throughout the country. Some of those networks are deepening their ties to Texas cities, including Houston and Dallas, with the help of Texas gang members. It is speculated that deserters from the Mexican military have fueled the group's growth.

In a recent development, Mexican president Vicente Fox has promised to extradite more drug bosses after the handover of major trafficker Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix on Sept. 16. Arellano Felix, who posted bail and fled to Mexico 26 years ago, faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. Before the extradition of Felix, Mexico had been refusing to send anyone to the U.S. who might face capital punishment.

According to the Associated Press, president-elect Felipe Calderon stated recently that drug violence had overwhelmed the governments of the nation's capital and key states across the country. Calderon called for legislative and law enforcement efforts to curb the violence.

Media Silenced

The escalating violence has severely curtailed aggressive reporting from the Mexican media. According to the Houston Chronicle (Sept. 29), in Nuevo Laredo — one of the hardest-hit cities by drug violence — the media has gone virtually silent. Even a 30-minute shootout on Sept. 22 in a ritzy part of the city went unreported by local media.

After gunmen attacked the newsroom of the city's largest paper in February, shorter stories started being run concerning the violence, containing only basic facts. By the summer very few reports of drug-related violence were run in local newspapers or on the air. In addition, with assassins picking off law enforcement and civic officials — like Police Chief Alejandro Dominguez in June 2005 — Mexican government voices have been "reduced to a whisper."

The Newspaper Tree (Sept 18) provided a graphic description of the state of affairs for journalists in Mexico: "In his last report before leaving office, outgoing President Vicente Fox stated on Sept. 1 that freedom of press is a reality in Mexico. What President Fox did not mention was that Mexico now ranks only second to Colombia in terms of murdered journalists, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. For many Mexican journalists, covering the news about organized crime is practically akin to being a Middle Eastern war correspondent."

"Just hours before President Fox delivered his upbeat report, a grenade exploded at the offices of the Por Esto! newspaper in Merida, Yucatan, wounding three workers. The attack occurred within 180 feet of a school that had just begun classes for the day. It was the second grenade attack suffered by a branch of the newspaper in recent days. Known for its audacious reporting, recent stories of Por Esto! have discussed the smuggling of undocumented Cubans and the involvement of law enforcement officials in drug trafficking. … At the same time they physically intimidate the press, narco-gangs are also getting craftier about using the media to spread threats against their rivals and send messages to the government."

U.S. Response to Border Threat

Many charge that the U.S. government's response to the avalanche of drugs coming over the U.S.-Mexico border has been inadequate.

Drug smugglers have proven to be particularly resourceful in devising schemes to avoid detection. Earlier this year a half-mile long tunnel stretching from Tijuana, Mexico to an abandoned warehouse in San Diego was discovered. It was the longest cross-border tunnel discovered in U.S. history, reaching a depth of more than nine stories below ground and featuring ventilation and groundwater drainage systems, cement flooring, lighting, and a pulley system. More than 4,200 pounds of marijuana was seized by authorities in the tunnel, which was attributed to a Mexican drug cartel.

In an anticipated government response to this revelation, the Sept. 26 edition of the California Chronicle announced that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had proposed legislation to protect the U.S. borders from underground smuggling routes. The legislation closed a loophole in federal law by criminalizing the act of constructing or financing a tunnel or subterranean passage across an international border into the U.S. Conviction under the law would stipulate a prison term of up to 20 years. The bill is expected to pass both the House and the Senate.

Other measures are being taken as well. ABC News (Sept. 21) reported that the House recently approved a bill, currently before the Senate, that would build a 700-mile fence along one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border. Three other bills would make it easier to detain and deport non-citizen gang members and criminals, and clarify the authority of state and local law enforcement officials who volunteer to help in detaining illegal immigrants. The bill has since been signed into law by President George W. Bush.

However, some law enforcement officials are far from satisfied with the measures being taken to secure the border. In a Sept. 26 Washington Times article, a coalition of Texas sheriffs said that the Department of Homeland Security has been "doing a lot of talking" about securing the nation's borders, but not much else. They complained that the U.S. Southwest continues to be overrun with illegal aliens, illicit drugs, and rising violence.

The Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition was formed to seek funding from federal and state officials to help pay for rapidly escalating border-enforcement costs. Their concerns center on increased incidents of violence along the border, much of it targeting U.S. law-enforcement authorities.

Love-Hate Relationship

An interesting subplot to the rise of the drug cartels is how citizens on both sides of the border view the current state of affairs. Not surprisingly, albeit the existence of many mutual dependencies, resentments continue to smolder. The Houston Chronicle (Nov. 2) examined this issue in an article titled, 'Mexico's love-hate relationship with the U.S.': "When President Vicente Fox said Mexicans should be glad they weren't born in the United States, it was a reminder of an ugly little truth. Aside from the U.S. economy, many Mexican citizens — especially those living in Mexico — don't care much for the United States."

"Mexicans often see the U.S. as full of broken families, rampant drug use and unchecked materialism that is run by a government that doesn't hesitate to go to war or meddle in the affairs of others, a standing underscored by events in Iraq. … They [Mexicans] also wonder why the U.S. would want to build a wall along the border to keep out illegal immigrants while it is so reliant on their labor. When it comes to illegal drugs, Mexicans see the U.S. as very willing to point the finger at Mexican drug cartels, but not willing to do more to reduce drug consumption at home."

Warnings Issued

The growing violence on the border triggered a recent travel advisory. As reported in the San Diego Union Tribune (Sept. 15), the U.S. ambassador to Mexico issued a warning to Americans planning to visit that country, asking them to exercise extreme caution because of "the rising level of brutal violence."

Ambassador Tony Garza said that drug-related violence had escalated throughout Mexico with sharp increases in homicides and kidnappings of Mexican and American citizens alike.

U.S. citizens have been injured in random shootings on major highways outside Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Mexico City, according to the U.S. Embassy, in an advisory.

"Drug cartel members have been known to follow and harass U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles, particularly in border areas," the advisory said.

The Tribune article further quotes Garza as stating that the rise in drug violence has, "put a strain on travel and tourism, on the business and investment climate, and on the bilateral relationship. … The bottom line is that we simply cannot allow drug traffickers to place in jeopardy the lives of our citizens and the safety of our communities.

In all, the threat posed by the cartels is growing, not diminishing. Mexico's president-elect Felipe Calderon will face a very difficult challenge from the cartels when he takes office in December. Calderon has publicly stated that the traffickers have billions of dollars to buy weapons and corrupt police officials, and that some highly trained former military commandos are now working with the criminal organizations. The president-elect also indicated that stepped up law enforcement efforts on both sides of the border will be necessary to contain the threat.