Mexican Drug Cartels Threaten American National Security

If we're not careful we could face a narco-state on our southern border.

Mort Zuckerman
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The American media have finally caught up to the mounting danger of the violent internal struggle in our southern neighbor, Mexico. Heavily armed narco-criminal cartels financed by billions of dollars of drug money have engaged in murders, kidnappings, and assassinations, terrifying the Mexican population. These gangs have brought chaos to a number of cities and states along our border and destroyed trust in law enforcement there.

Mexican academic Edgardo Buscaglia estimates that there are some 200 counties in Mexico, roughly 8 percent of the total, where drug gangs wield more influence than the authorities. They are concentrated in the northern areas adjacent to the United States. The cartels are better armed than the police—and even the military—with arms and weapons purchased in the United States. They are able to field as many as 10,000-plus gunmen in regions where police don't earn enough to resist being corrupted or to live with the constant danger of being killed.

This is a mortal threat to the rule of law in large areas of Mexico, raising the risk that the country may become a failed state. Or, as retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former U.S. drug czar, suggested, Mexico "might well become a narco state within a decade."

This is no small matter for the United States. Should Mexico fail to restore control, millions of refugees could join their other economically motivated countrymen in trying to cross the U.S. border. There are already a million legal border crossings every day along our mostly unfenced and unmarked 2,000-mile frontier, which, alas, lends itself to as many as a million illegal border crossings a year. Mexico is also a substantial business partner. As just one example of the trade ties, Mexico provides one third of our imported oil.

The only good news is that Mexico's leaders—President Felipe Calderón, the attorney general, and the head of the federal police—are facing up to the threat. Given the unreliability of the civilian law enforcement agencies and the police, the president has bravely deployed the armed forces in violence-plagued cities in the north.

America must support these efforts. Because it has long been stable and friendly, we have paid slight attention to Mexico's strategic significance. But we cannot afford to let Mexico become a failed state. We must support its efforts in ways that are acceptable to the Mexican political structure and take into account Mexican national sensitivities about its sovereignty.

The Bush administration began with the U.S.-Mérida initiative that is funding about $400 million annually for special weapons and technology, such as satellite surveillance, to monitor the drug routes into our country. We must accept a double responsibility here. We are the source of the drug cartels' guns—some 2,000 daily make their way across our border into Mexico daily—and we also are the source of their revenue from those here who buy drugs.

This is not just a Mexican matter. The drug gangs are described by the Justice Department as "the biggest organized crime threat to the U.S." Crimes connected to these cartels are spreading across the Southwest, especially in Phoenix, where most of murders and kidnappings are believed to be linked to the drug trade. The cartels are also increasing their relationship with prison and street gangs in the United States to facilitate drug trafficking, according to a congressional report. This cooperation enables the traffickers to excavate cross-border tunnels and install ramp-assisted smuggling roads over the border fence between the countries, in order to get their cargoes into the United States.

Mexico's efforts to wage a more effective war against these cartels is inhibited by the vast amounts of money the drug lords are able to pay politicians who protect them, private judges who will not convict them, and unregulated financial institutions that make big profits laundering the money.

This will be a long-term struggle. The problem of rooting out the domestic corruption that supports the cartels in Mexico is too large to be solved anytime soon. Mexico has begun the long struggle to develop an independent judiciary and a powerful and incorruptible police force to cope with the well-financed, burgeoning cartels. America cannot afford to take the risk of a continued deterioration in the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Mexican government.