In Mexico's Seething Drug Wars, New Alarm About Violence Moving North

With the body count mounting sharply, Washington is worried that more bloodshed will cross the border.

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A stone's throw from El Paso, Texas, a war is raging. There are almost daily running gun battles, kidnappings, robberies, and a frightening death toll. The northern Mexican town of Ciudad Juárez has gotten so overrun by drug-related violence that Mexico deployed an additional 5,000 soldiers this month, joining thousands of others already on patrol. Normally, fighting crime would be the purview of the local police, but in Juárez, drug traffickers threatened to execute cops last month—one every two days—until the chief of police resigned. After five executions in a week, he quit and hasn't been replaced.

The surge in carnage between the drug-trafficking cartels and the government has become a national malignancy. Last year, Mexico's drug wars claimed more than 6,200 lives, from policemen to traffickers to innocent civilians. In just the first two months of this year, the toll has already topped 1,000. The ferocity and duration have shocked senior U.S. government officials, who are watching some of the violence spill over the border into cities like San Diego, El Paso, and Phoenix. In fact, things have gotten so dire that warnings about the continued viability of the Mexican government itself are popping up all over Washington, from spooks at the CIA to federal agents tracking drugs and guns to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. Suddenly, the Obama administration is finding that one of its most pressing foreign policy challenges is coming not from a far-off foreign fight but from a neighboring nation sinking deeper into chaos. Even worse, the narcotics insurgency is fueled by guns smuggled in from the United States and funded by U.S. consumers who spend $25 billion to $35 billion a year on methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana brought in from Mexico.

The current crisis was triggered, in part, by perhaps the most concerted offensive ever by the Mexican government against the drug cartels, spearheaded by a deployment of 45,000 soldiers. Where past campaigns focused more on policing and tended to target individual drug cartels, Mexico is now trying a more comprehensive approach to go after the full range of traffickers. The new tactics are pitting the cartels against one another and the government simultaneously. "For years, we told the Mexicans to stop the drugs, so President [Felipe] Calderón finally sent in the military, and the violence skyrocketed. We didn't expect that, and we probably should have," says Billy Hoover, an assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives who oversees efforts against weapons trafficking.

For-profit kidnappings are at record levels, journalists are being killed, and foreign investment capital and tourism dollars are evaporating. "It has shifted from a law enforcement problem to a national security imperative for them," says Tony Placido, the chief of intelligence at the Drug Enforcement Administration. The escalation of violence against the government, a recent military study from the U.S. Joint Forces Command dryly noted, "reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States."

Indeed, it's difficult to overstate the level of turmoil. Schools like the University of Arizona and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee are strongly urging their students not to head south for spring break. The usually reserved State Department recently issued a series of blunt warnings to travelers, saying that northern Mexico's gun battles are "the equivalent of military small-unit combat." The weapons being used by the cartels aren't much different from those used in war, either. The traffickers, who intercept cellphone and radio traffic, arm their soldiers with grenade launchers, night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, body armor, and machine guns.

In Tijuana—which has gotten so bad that it has been declared off limits to U.S. marines on leave—drug gangs hijack police radio frequencies to threaten local cops before following through in deadly fashion. Last year, the cartels killed more than 500 police officers. Decapitation has become a frequent terrorist tactic. In one well-publicized incident, the heads of two officers were gruesomely skewered on a fence outside a station as a statement from the cartels. Three Mexican police chiefs asked Washington for asylum last year and now are believed to be in the United States.