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Analysis: Consulate killings could pull US deeper into Mexico's drug war

How will the United States respond to an attack on its citizens?

A demonstrator protests the arrival of Mexican President Felipe Calderon holding a sign reading "More green areas, less greens in the area," referring to soldiers, in Ciudad Juarez, February 17, 2010. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Ciudad Juarez is no stranger to bloodshed. The shootout-plagued city, located just across the border from El Paso, Texas has already seen nearly 500 murders this year from drug-related violence. Many Juarenses have stopped asking “why” and simply started wondering when the violence will end.

But the recent killings of three people tied to the U.S. consulate — including a pregnant consulate employee and her husband — have raised a new question here in Mexico: How will the United States respond to an attack on its citizens?

“There have been thousands of deaths along the border, but this is the first time we’ve seen U.S. citizens killed” under President Felipe Calderon’s administration, said Shannon O’Neil, an expert on Mexico with the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The question is what does the U.S. do now?” she said. “Does the U.S. double down on a strictly military strategy, or do they start thinking more broadly in terms of the aid and assistance they provide to Mexico?”

The Obama administration’s immediate response has been reserved but angry. A White House statement released Sunday described the president as “deeply saddened and outraged by the news of the brutal murders” and committed to working with Calderon to break the power of the drug cartels.

Calderon arrived in Juarez Tuesday, his third visit in the six weeks since a Jan. 31 attack by drug traffickers on a high school birthday party left 16 teenagers dead. Like the student massacre, this weekend’s killings lack a clear motive.

Lesley Enriquez, an American citizen and an employee at the U.S. consulate in Juarez, was gunned down by unknown assailants after leaving a party on Saturday afternoon. Her husband, Arthur Redelfs, a U.S. citizen and an officer at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, was also killed in the attack. Enriquez was expecting their second child.

Nearly simultaneously, another group of gunmen chased down and killed Jorge Salcido, the Mexican husband of another consulate employee who had also been at the party. Salcido’s two children, ages 4 and 7, were wounded in the attack.

The brazen, daylight strikes have baffled both American and Mexican officials. Virginia Staab, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said her office was not yet sure if the victims were targeted because of their links to the consulate. FBI officials have said the gunmen might have gone to the wrong party, mistaking the three victims for rival cartel members.

But Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes told CNN otherwise.

"We know that the U.S. citizens were targeted," he said Sunday. "We know they were chasing them. We know they wanted to kill them." Reyes said the killings were likely carried out by a local gang known as Los Aztecas, which is allied with the Juarez Cartel.

Security experts agree that while violence in Mexico has soared since Calderon began his crackdown on the cartels in early 2007 — claiming more than 15,000 lives — drug traffickers have largely avoided killing Americans. 

“They haven’t wanted to bring the wrath of Washington down on them,” said George Grayson, an expert on Mexico’s drug cartels at the College of William & Mary. Grayson doubts the killings were intended to send a message to the U.S.

“If they were trying to make a political point … they would have gone after higher level officials,” he said.

The attacks have nonetheless drawn the attention of the Obama administration. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have expressed anger over the killings, and the American ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, accompanied Calderon to Juarez on Tuesday, where they were met with fierce protests.

But it’s unclear what long-term response Obama will take to the shootings. Staab, the State Department spokeswoman, said that the incident only underlined the importance of cooperative efforts between the two countries, namely the $1.3 billion Merida Initiative signed by George W. Bush to help Mexico combat its drug cartels. The U.S. retains full faith in Calderon, she said.

The attacks could, however, spur Washington to pressure the Mexican president to change strategies. Over the past year, the Obama administration has already tried to link Merida funding to progress on issues such as human rights and improving Mexico’s notoriously shoddy judicial system.

“We are looking to engage with Mexico to further their progress on institutionalizing Mexican capacity to sustain the rule of law and respect for human rights, build stronger institutions, promote full civil society participation, transform its borders and provide intense technical training,” Staab said.

That would be a tall order. If anything, the drug war has further debilitated the country’s institutions. Mexico’s judicial system, for starters, is even worse shape than its sputtering economy. The Washington Post recently reported that of the 2,670 homicides recorded in Juarez last year, prosecutors have filed just 37 murder cases, only a handful of which are likely to result in convictions. The New York Times reports the Obama administration will soon announce more than $300 million for joint intelligence units that concentrate on money laundering as well as for training judges, prosecutors and police.

Yet an American shift toward institution building might have to wait on Mexico: Calderon has come under harsh criticism for his militarized approach in Juarez, where 10,000 soldiers currently patrol the streets. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano repeated as much on Tuesday, saying the Mexican army “hasn’t helped anything.”

Critics argue that the president has yet to present a plan that addresses Juarez’s soaring drug addiction and high unemployment. Poverty and lack of job prospects push youths toward the cartels, whose ranks now swell with teenage assassins. The title of an editorial in Tuesday’s El Diario de Juarez newspaper bluntly reads: “Nothing has changed.”

Meanwhile, Calderon used a speech in Juarez Tuesday to call on the U.S. to do its fair share in the fight against drug cartels, raising the specter of deeper American involvement in a conflict that has already lost support in Mexico. He argued that organized crime sprang from conditions on both sides of the border, and that Mexico and the U.S. had a “shared responsibility” to fight drug trafficking.

Whether or not Calderon changes course in Juarez, the United States’ options may be limited. In the past few days, politicians from all of Mexico’s major parties have criticized the very presence of FBI agents in Juarez, making large-scale police cooperation unlikely.

At the very least, this weekend’s shootings have reminded the Obama administration of the importance of its ties to Mexico, a country the president did not mention in his State of the Union Address.

“I do think that we’re going to see some change, at least in some political circles where there will be a realization that Mexican security and stability is incredibly important for the U.S.’s security and stability,” said Shannon O’Neil.

“People are starting to realize how intertwined our two countries are.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/mexico/100317/consulate-killings