US Army Chief Gen George Casey inspects Mexican Special Forces. (Pic: US Army)
Over the past half decade Mexico has been the scene of some of the world’s most grotesque violence—car bombs, beheadings, mass executions, unlucky souls dipped in chemical baths or lit on fire—in a multifront war that pits the government against powerful drug cartels, the cartels against one another, and both against innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
The result of this violence has been the murder of 30,000 Mexican civilians since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels after his election in 2006. Calderon sent 50,000 troops into the streets to try and take back some of the ungoverned spaces carved out by outfits like the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel and others who reap the benefits of an estimated $19 to $29 billion in yearly drug and smuggling profits, but the results have been anything but conclusive.
It is important to note however, that Calderón’s policies didn’t create this spasm of violence, they simply helped inflame an already volatile situation brought about by myriad social and political changes that feed the growth and the bloodlust of the cartels.
But what has caused the recent orgy of violence? Paradoxically, according to a study by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute (PDF), it was the successful crackdown on the gangs by the Mexican government: “Each successive disruption of drug trafficking networks has intensified conflict and competition among organized crime groups, thereby contributing to unprecedented, high intensity violence.” As a result of the growing strength and power of the cartels, and the poor training, equipping and support for local police, large swaths of northern Mexico have become ungoverned spaces, resulting in the killing fields of Ciudad Juárez, a city of 1.5 million just across the border from El Paso, Tx., which saw 2,700 murders in 2009, and which is on pace to top 3,000 for 2010.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently sparked controversy when she said that the Mexican cartels are “in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency.” Mexican officials bristled, and president Obama quickly walked back the remarks, saying that the cartels are not a threat to the Mexican state. And he’s right. As a state, Mexico is in no danger of falling, nor would the cartels want it to. But Clinton’s remarks set off debate over criminal insurgency and gang violence, and how law enforcement should define its terms.
“Crime, terrorism and insurgency are blending together,” says Robert Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army Col. and Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “The impact of that, at least in this hemisphere and I believe around the world, is a challenge to civil society in that these three things have blended together challenge civil authority, and challenge civil law, and life.”
Killebrew, who is also the author of a CNAS report released this fall, Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security, adds that further militarization of the problem isn’t the answer, but that the United States can lend a hand to its southern neighbors by providing security assistance, mostly in the form of law enforcement and justice sector training. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), he says, is playing a critical role in this regard. “The DEA is becoming our global paramilitary police force—they’re working closely with the police forces in many countries. They are on the edge of doing counterinsurgency work because insurgency and crime are blending together, and dollar for dollar they’re probably doing more to help us beat this than any other agency.”