Obama's Other War: Fighting Mexico's Drug Lords

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Tomas Bravo / Reuters

A police officer stands guard during an operation at a nightclub in Juárez, Mexico's bloodiest drug-war city, across the border from El Paso, Texas

The convenient and long-standing tradition south of the border is for Mexico to blame its problems on the U.S. It can often be justified when the matter is the drug-trafficking violence now terrorizing much of Mexico, which is powered in large part by the insatiable gringo demand for drugs, the relentless flow of high-powered weapons from the U.S. and the just-as-chronic laundering of drug cash north of the border. As Washington hyperventilates over the threat of Mexico's narco-carnage spilling into the U.S., it can't ignore America's role in its neighbor's trafficking tragedy.

At the same time, Mexican officialdom has always used American myopia as an excuse to blow off its own epic failings. The most glaring, of course, is Mexico's police corruption and lack of rule of law, which has given the drug cartels free rein and too often turned Mexican law enforcement into narco-collaborators. Perhaps the only way to shame Mexican politicians into owning up to that national sin — and finally doing something about it — is for the U.S. to confront its own shortcomings. (See pictures of Mexico's narco-carnage.)

Washington will have at least started that process when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Mexico today for a two-day visit. In response to growing fears both in Washington and along the border that Mexican drug violence is spilling over to U.S. soil — Attorney General Eric Holder recently called the cartels a "national security threat" — the Obama Administration on Tuesday unveiled a border-security plan that will put more than 500 federal agents in border states. More significantly, the plan calls for stronger measures to reduce U.S. narco-demand, cut off weapons-smuggling into Mexico and lasso more of the billions of dollars heading to the drug cartels. "This is a supply issue and it's a demand issue," said Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona governor. Clinton's seemingly surprised Mexican counterpart, Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa, conceded the plan was "consistent with our bilateral relation in fighting organized crime." (Vote on Clinton in the TIME 100 poll.)

That should grease the skids for President Obama's visit to Mexico on April 16, after which he will attend the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Only time will tell if the U.S. gesture can prod Mexico to take its police-reform obligations more seriously. (See pictures of crime-fighting in Mexico City.)

But along the border at least, the plan is being largely applauded by law-enforcement officials who feel their region was neglected during both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. "This was a long time coming," says Richard Wiles, the Democratic sheriff of El Paso County, Texas, which sits across the Rio Grande from Juárez, Mexico — a city that has seen almost 2,000 drug-related murders since the start of 2008, with many of the victims being police officers, not to mention the epidemic of kidnappings and extortion. (Nationwide, Mexico had almost 7,000 narco-killings during that time.) Says Wiles: "It's a shame that it took so many killings in our sister city to give these issues the national attention they're getting now."

Border sheriffs like Wiles (who says it's no coincidence the plan was crafted in part by Napolitano, a former border governor) are particularly gratified to see Washington sending 100 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents to help intercept the deluge of assault rifles, automatic pistols and grenades moving south. Until now, the El Paso sector had only seven ATF agents. The Obama plan will also place more federal antidrug and immigration and customs agents along the 2,000-mile-long frontier. Those cops, moreover, will be equipped with new X-ray technologies to detect contraband cash as well as guns.

The plan's goal is to dampen U.S. demand for illicit drugs by beefing up programs like drug courts that waive sentences in exchange for mandatory rehab. In addition, it doubles the number of joint local, state and federal border-enforcement security teams and ratchets up intelligence resources to track Mexico's increasingly chaotic mix of drug organizations, at least three of which are fighting for control of Juárez. "Adding resources to fight the weapons flow, the bulk currency shipments, and strengthen intelligence are all welcome moves," says John Bailey, an expert on Mexican drug-trafficking at Georgetown University. "The question is whether the Americans are now putting some kind of long-term policy in place," which was often missing from previous Administrations.

Although the cartel violence has largely left U.S. border towns like El Paso untouched — mainly, say analysts, because the Mexican narcos don't want to provoke Washington into even more severe crackdowns on their lucrative trafficking corridors there — local police say it has begun to leapfrog the border into Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona and even Atlanta. That has set off political alarm bells in Washington, where earlier this year the Pentagon issued a hyperbolic report that called Mexico a "failed state" along with the likes of Pakistan. Nevertheless, says Bailey, "the general feeling is that the Vandals are at the gate, and we've got to repress them. It's reached a level of moral panic, and it's an issue where the Republicans feel they can hold the Democrats' feet to the fire."

Indeed, many Republicans, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, think the Obama plan should go further. Perry wants to add 1,000 National Guard soldiers to patrol his state's border, and he said on Tuesday that even more border-patrol agents should be sent as well. The White House, however, seems cool to the idea of militarizing the border, especially since potential gringo military intervention is one of the key concerns Mexicans have about the Merida Initiative, a bilateral antidrug plan that began last year and is supposed to funnel almost $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Mexico over three years.

The Merida project was designed to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón's two-year-old offensive against the cartels, which has had to rely on the Mexican military, given the corruption and incompetence of most Mexican police forces. Seven thousand troops now patrol Juárez. The Merida Initiative does steer resources to Mexico's fledgling police- and judicial-reform efforts, including sorely needed police retraining, but critics say it should do more in that area, since professionalized cops are the long-term solution to the crisis. Then again, that responsibility is Mexico City's, not Washington's. Clinton and Obama can now go south of the border and say the gringos have at least begun to do their part.