By Megan Breckenridge, Staff Writer
SULLO & SULLO, LLP
HOUSTON—Although Mexico has long been a source of production and transit for illegal drugs, the country now finds itself embattled with powerful and well-financed drug cartels. An upsurge in drug-related violence can be traced to the end of 2006 when President Felipe Calderón launched an aggressive assault on drug trafficking organizations by deploying tens of thousands of federal police and soldiers to reign them in. But his initiative has been largely unsuccessful to date, and there is a rising chorus of voices on both sides of the border questioning the cost and fallout of the attack on the cartels.
Given its geographic location, Mexico has been used as a staging and transshipment point for narcotics, illegal immigrants and other contraband destined for U.S. markets from Mexico, South America and elsewhere for decades. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia’s Pablo Escobar was the main exporter of cocaine and dealt with organized criminal networks all over the world. When enforcement efforts intensified in South Florida and the Caribbean, the Colombian organizations formed partnerships with Mexico-based traffickers to transport cocaine through Mexico into the United States.
These new allegiances flourished, since Mexico had long been a major source of heroin and cannabis and possessed an infrastructure that stood ready to serve the Colombia-based traffickers. At first, the Mexican gangs were paid in cash for their transport services, but in the late 1980s, a settlement was reached wherein they would be compensated in product. Payment was usually 35 to 50 percent of each cocaine shipment, which meant that organizations from Mexico became involved in distribution as well as transportation, and quickly morphed into formidable traffickers in their own right.
With the demise of Colombia’s Cali and Medellín cartels in the 1990s, Mexican gangs stepped up to dominate the wholesale illicit drug market in the United States. Arrests and deaths of key leaders in recent years have led to increasing violence as rival cartels fight for control of the trafficking routes into the U.S. Amid this continuous power struggle, gang leaders often attempt to use law enforcement to their benefit, either by bribing Mexican officials to take certain action against an opponent, or by leaking intelligence about a rival’s operations to the Mexican government or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). There is also mounting evidence of corruption amid border security and law enforcement officers, with suspicions being raised about agencies on both sides of the border.
To many Mexicans, the rising count of gruesome drug-related murders is evidence that the government’s strategy to combat the cartels has failed. Current estimates put the death toll at close to 23,000 since Calderón took office in December 2006, with numbers increasing exponentially each year. The government insists that the majority of those killed in Mexico’s drug violence were involved in the narcotics trade. But a growing number of bystanders are dying in the crossfire, and Americans are among them.
Tania Lozoya, 15, of El Paso, Texas, was killed by a stray bullet at her Aunt’s house across the border in Ciudad Juárez in May 2009, after gunfire broke out when two men chased another man into the backyard of the residence. In December, a California assistant school principal, Augustin Salcedo, was killed after he was abducted from a restaurant along with five other men while he and his wife were visiting her hometown of Gomex Palacio, in the northern state of Durango. The motive for the mass abduction is still unknown.
Other Americans appear to have been specifically targeted.
U.S. anti-kidnapping expert Felix Batista was abducted by gunmen in December 2008 in the northern city of Saltillo, where he had gone to advise local businessmen on how to avoid becoming victims of the country’s wave of kidnappings. He has not been found. And on March 13, 2010, gunmen believed to be linked to drug traffickers shot a pregnant American consulate worker and her husband to death in Ciudad Juárez. The same gunmen also killed the husband of another consular employee and wounded their two young children.
Americans, from border state governors to military analysts in Washington, have begun to question whether the mounting violence presents a threat to their own national security and, to the outrage of many Mexicans, whether the country will crumble under the strain of the war.
The Obama Administration released a critical report, called the 2010 National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment by the National Drug Intelligence Center of the Justice Department, that portrays drug cartels as easily able to circumvent the Mexican government’s restrictions on the importing of chemicals used to manufacture meth, which has reached its highest purity and lowest price in the United States since 2005. Closer to home, the report also points to increased cooperation between Mexican drug trafficking organizations and U.S.-based street and prison gangs to distribute illegal substances. In many areas, American gangs have used their alliances with Mexican cartels to facilitate an expansion of their midlevel and retail drug operations into more rural and suburban areas.
Responding to a growing sense that Mexico’s military-led fight against drug traffickers is not gaining ground, the U.S. and Mexico set their joint counternarcotics strategy on a new course in March 2010 by refocusing their efforts on strengthening civilian law enforcement institutions and rebuilding communities crippled by poverty and crime.
Under the new $331 million plan, American and Mexican agencies will work together to refocus border enforcement efforts away from building a better wall to creating systems that would allow goods and people to be screened before they reach crossing points. The plan also provides support for Mexican programs intended to strengthen communities where socioeconomic hardships force many young people into crime.
Even with these new initiatives under way, the drug-related violence in Mexico shows no signs of dissipating. The U.S State Department has warned against nonessential travel along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the violent cities of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, and allowed consulate employees to evacuate their families for the foreseeable future. As even Calderón has conceded, “It’s a war.”