Attacks on Americans in Mexico Signal New Stage in Drug War on Southern Border

Monday, 15 Mar 2010 08:06 PM

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The apparent targeted killings Sunday of three people in Mexico connected to the U.S. consulate dramatically raises the stakes in an escalating drug war on America’s southern border that some experts say has far eclipsed the levels of violence in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ciudad Juarez, where the three were murdered last weekend, has come to be known as “the deadliest city in the world” because of its record 2,500 murders last year in a metropolitan area of only 1.5 million people.

But the attacks on employees working for the U.S. government take the violence there to a new level. Until now, killings have generally been between rival cartels or have targeted the Mexican government. U.S. cooperation in Mexico’s fight against drug cartels has made U.S. government employees targets of the traffickers, some experts now say.

“This changes the game,” Christopher Sabatini, a senior policy director of the Council of the Americas, told Bloomberg news service. The council represents companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. doing business in the region. “Now that U.S. citizens, clearly U.S. government officials, have been targeted, there’s going to be less confidence that the Mexican authorities can do it themselves.”

Unlike many drug shootings in the U.S., the violence in Juarez and other points of the U.S.-Mexican border routinely includes innocents – including many children – on a scale unimaginable in America. Juarez was already reeling from the murders of 15 teenagers at a youth party in January. In the tourist haven of Acapulco, meanwhile, at least 15 people were killed over the weekend.

The murders of the consulate workers has once again put Mexico’s drug in U.S. headlines, but the Obama administration and the U.S. military has known now for months that the situation has deteriorated to the point that America could be facing something unthinkable: a major war with non-state narco-terrorists on its southern border. Drug cartels now hold such sway in northern Mexico that they can routinely murder politicians, police and even journalists in broad daylight, striking at their homes, children’s schools, churches and even family weddings.

Mexico has been engulfed by drug-related violence over the past few years, caused partly by a breakdown in old alliances between groups that erupted into open competition for lucrative smuggling routes to serve the world's largest drug-consuming nation, the United States. There are no safe zones left on the border.

Consider:

  • A report last year by the U.S. Joint Forces Command warned that Mexico, like Pakistan, is in danger of near-term collapse. “An unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States,” the report concluded.
  • At least 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States now transits through Mexico, and the country is also the major producer and supplier to the U.S. market of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana.
  • The Mexican cartels currently at war over key transshipment points like Juarez control the drug trade in at least 230 U.S. cities – a significant threat that could bring any war right into the American heartland, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
  • Backed by the United States, the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon has devoted billions of dollars fighting the drug cartels while deploying some 45,000 soldiers and thousands of policemen in cities and towns all along the border.
  • To date, U.S. taxpayers have spent some $1.15 billion on Mexico’s drug war through a plan known as the Merida Initiative. The plan is an attempt to coordinate law enforcement and counter-terror efforts between the two countries to fight the drug war.
  • Violence is on the rise at another key point of the U.S.-Mexico border—the city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas. Officials say the drug war there is entering a dangerous new phase, in which two formerly aligned drug gangs have fallen into open warfare.
President Felipe Calderón's strategy of using the military in place of police to deal with the country's powerful drug lords has largely failed. In Juarez, Calderon has sent some 7,000 soldiers as well as 2,000 federal police to patrol the city but violence has escalated.

The mass killings stem from a war between the long-established Gulf Cartel and its former enforcers, a group called Los Zetas, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Zetas broke off and formed their own trafficking business against their former patrons.

“Both Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel are trying to push each other out," Alberto Islas, a private security analyst in Mexico, told the Journal.

As the conflict grows in Reynosa, human-rights groups say it also features another element common to the Mexican drug war: the intimidation of local media outlets. Journalists have been killed and newsrooms routinely attacked by gunmen. The fear is so immense that private citizens have now taken to documenting shootings anonymously on YouTube and other social media because of the dearth of reliable information.

"It's an incredible level of fear," Carlos Lauria, the senior Americas coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the Journal. "It's not only drug coverage that gets stifled, but any coverage of organized crime."

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