Monday, November 21, 2011

Mexican drug war rages as U.S. focuses on Afghanistan

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, gestures during a meeting with victims of violence in Mexico City, Thursday June 23, 2011. Calderon says he doesn't regret his strategy to fight organized crime, despite calls to end a confrontation that has killed at least 35,000 during his administration. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, gestures during a meeting with victims of violence in Mexico City, Thursday June 23, 2011. Calderon says he doesn't regret his strategy to fight organized crime, despite calls to end a confrontation that has killed at least 35,000 during his administration. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
 
 
While America's national security officials have been focused on Afghanistan and Iraq for the past decade, violence has exploded in Mexico, and the U.S. has failed to develop an effective strategy for helping stabilize that country, officials say. 

"It's the elephant in the room that nobody is talking about," said one senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named. "Our neighbor to the south is being ripped apart at the seams. We need a strategy with Mexico that is sustainable. A national security vacuum has formed that endangers our homeland."

President Felipe Calderon's policy to use the Mexican military to wage war against the drug czars has led to violent deaths for nearly 50,000 people in the past five years -- including police, soldiers, cartel members and innocent victims.

Beheadings, mutilations and assassinations of senior Mexican officials have destabilized Mexico, according to U.S. officials who work on the southern border. The drug routes created by the cartels -- tunnels, porous border terrain and waterway passages -- pose serious national security risks to the U.S., officials said.

The attention given to Mexico during the Bush and Obama administrations has been dwarfed by Iraq and Afghanistan as well as uprisings in the Middle-East. But Mexico appears to be entering a critical moment.
Calderon's presidency comes to an end next year. Former Mexico City Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who narrowly lost his last bid for presidency under the Democratic Revolutionary Party, announced last week that he will run for office again. One of Obrador's campaign promises is to re-evaluate Calderon's drug war. 

But Calderon remains committed to his approach, and claims it is working. He is pushing the Mexican congress to approve initiatives that will rebuild the nation's local police forces, which have been mired in corruption.

Whoever wins next year's election will be confronted with the drug cartel crisis and may be forced to come up with a new approach, American experts said.

"We need to have a continued sense of urgency in regards to Mexico," said Ray Walser, senior policy analyst focusing on Mexico and Latin America for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. 

Walser, who worked with the State Department from 1980 until 2007, said, "You need a stronger and more stable environment in Mexico. It has lacked media attention because frankly, it's not a priority. We are not focused on the Western Hemisphere and the threats that lie there. We've pretty much ignored Latin America, Central America, the major security crisis in Mexico."

The U.S. has delivered more than $1.6 billion dollars in assistance to Mexico since 2007. 

American military trainers have been working with Mexican Marines. And a number of American security contractors and CIA operators have been sent to Mexico this year to aide the struggling Mexican government with the crisis, U.S. officials said.

"It's going to take a concerted effort to ensure our neighbor and friend doesn't lose its footing on the drug war," the US official said. "It's critical for our own national security to aide them."

For decades the cartels operated with impunity, establishing routes to move narcotics and contraband across the U.S. border. Organized drug gangs set up sea routes to Africa, to give them a base for moving their shipments to Europe.

American intelligence officials worry that the Mexican cartels will establish common cause with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, al Shabab, Hamas and Hezbollah, funding them in return for protection of drug routes.

"This is not just about drugs," said a U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's the drug corridor system which makes it a national security threat for us. These routes enable not only drug trafficking but human trafficking. If 90 percent of what the cartels try to get in makes it through, we'd have to be kidding ourselves to think that others aren't using these same routes to threaten our country."

Walser said during the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign Mexico's crisis could emerge as a critical issue.
"We are going to need to ask ourselves some serious questions, like, what if Mexico goes into a tail-spin?" he said. "We have to prepare more robustly for contingencies. As of now, Mexico is not a failed state (but there is) the need for constant vigilance."

Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at scarter@washingtonexaminer.com.

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