Whilst the headlines across the American media are nightly filled with tales of death and destruction from Afghanistan, the hunt for Wahabbist militants in the border regions of Pakistan and the challenges facing the economy, America and the administration of Barack Obama are perhaps guilty of ignoring a security threat much closer to home then the war taking place amongst the snow capped mountains scattered across the Durand line. That growing threat is Mexico, a country the Pentagon in a 2009 report warned was at risk of “rapid and sudden collapse” owing to the degradation of state authority in the face of a coordinated campaign of violence from drug lords that matches in scale the Taliban spread carnage in post War Afghanistan and dwarfs the insurgency that has shaken Pakistan since 2007.
Make no mistake about it Mexico is in turmoil. The sheer scale of death and destruction is gut wrenching, anything between 26000 (CNN) and 30000 (LA Times) people have been killed in the orgy of gang violence that has spiked since 2006. The Mexican state has or is fast losing control over huge swathes of its territory, especially the northern regions that border the United States. In cities such as Ciudad Juárez, near the US border, any semblance of state control has been lost. Here gang lords run amok, enforcing their rules at the point of a gun. Worst still is the endemic corruption in Mexico’s state institutions that results in countless law enforcement officers working for the drug cartels, those who can’t be brought are simply eliminated. ‘O Plato O Plomo’ as the criminals say, silver or lead. The prize the cartels kill for is control of the trafficking routes to the United States, the largest and richest market for drugs in the world.
When Mexican President Felipe Calderón says the US is the cause of the violence, he makes a fair point. It is the insatiable appetite for cocaine amongst America’s chattering classes that sustains the market, a market valued by a congressional report at nearly $50 billion annually. That is the pot of gold men like Joaquín Guzmán Loera kill for, the billionaire Mexican drug lord profiled by Time and regarded by Forbes as the 60th most powerful man on the planet. These are the men who for all practical purposes pose a far greater threat to US security then any cave dwelling religious extremists half a world away.
Why is this America’s problem? The answer is simple. As a neighbour, with some 30 million citizens of Mexican stock, a poorly guarded border and given the proximity to the violence, if Mexico continues to slide-who do you think catches the fall out? Failed states take neighbours with them; the spill over of violence, crime and disorder is almost impossible to stop. Afghanistan has infected its region; Somalia is a hub of problems throughout East Africa and in the same vein any Mexican overspill will pour into the United States. The Mexican Army is hopelessly outgunned and out thought, virtually incapable of denting the well armed, motivated and superbly financed drug cartels.
To assist its southern neighbour, the US provides about $1.5 bn in material and intelligence assistance to the Mexican state forces annually, the Merida Initiative, but it is not enough, a whole new approach is needed. To date, federal forces are attempting to control drug violence in 16 of Mexico’s 31 states. Any further surge in cartel power and territory and Mexico faces a virtual point of no return. A fulcrum in time that will determine its future path. The risk posed to the United States is far too great, and thus it is imperative of this administration to pay far closer heed to the warning of its security experts and act now, before it is too late.
There are some obvious steps the Administration can take, steps that will achieve multiple goals by both creating a firm barrier against drug violence spilling over into the United States and as well as appeasing those who call for tougher action against illegal immigration from the south. A practical measure and a political touchdown, Obama would be well served by pursuing both. Firstly, the time has come to ensure the violence stays on the Mexican side of the border. Numerous reports indicate it has already reached Texas on occasion, and thus to honor his inaugural pledge to defend the United States Obama would be well served by deploying armed guards at the border, guards who man checkpoints that stretch the length of the US-Mexican frontier.
Secondly, recognizing as security analyst now do that Mexico is approaching the brink, perhaps the US needs a much more active military role. Given the utter comical inadequacy of Mexico’s own forces, the United States should consider deploying her own special service teams, obviously in coordinated action with the Mexicans to minimize political fallout.
It may sound a drastic step but if Mexico goes under, much larger US intervention will be required as a matter of urgency. To be sure, I am not the first and surely wont be the last to call for greater US action now to avert the need for wholesale intervention tomorrow. The deployment need not be followed by a media circus, targeted elimination of cartel leaders by special service groups would cut the head of the snake, backed up where needed by US airpower. Indeed, perhaps the air war should be wholly run by the US forces, using their unrivalled airpower to rain hurt on those who threaten the stability of the Mexican state and by extension that of the United States.It is of paramount importance to understand the broader picture here.
Narco-terrorists are indistinguishable from religious extremists in many ways. Both kill, maim and spread horror to preserve their position. That one set is motivated by economics and another by a warped version of religion makes little difference to the dead and those left behind to suffer daily. Car bombs, beheadings, attacks on innocents, both groups deal in the same currency. The difference here is that the cartels are based next door, with countless operatives in the US as well as the will and the resources to bring the Mexican state down unless it acquiesces to their demands.
The United States relative inaction on this issue compared to its high level involvement in the crisis in Central and South Asia makes little sense. The closer and much more present danger must be dealt with today, or future administrations may be forced to take unpalatable actions to preserve national integrity and order.