Opinion: Mexico's staggering drug wars

If you haven’t been following the war on our border with Mexico, now is the time to wake up and smell the gunpowder.

Here’s what this weekend was like in Juarez, the sprawling, once relatively prosperous industrial city just across from El Paso, Texas.

A convoy of  Mexican Army trucks and armored Humvees rolled into the city on Saturday morning carrying 2,000 soldiers. Twelve hundred more troops arrived on Sunday, rushed to Juarez in a Hercules cargo planes and other military air transports. In an emergency meeting in Juarez with local authorities at midweek, President Felipe Calderon made the decision to send the expanded firepower, already being called a “surge.” Soon the force will total 8,000, including paramilitary federal police.

Local police have long been outgunned and outsmarted. Those who aren’t on the payroll of the drug gangs are now their targets. Friday was typical. An squad of drug gang enforcers ran down a pickup carrying two local police officers who were on patrol in a valley east of Juarez. They fired 177 rounds into the officers’ flimsy vehicle, killing them both.

I did say war. We’re beyond euphemisms like “drug violence”, and even the now almost ironic phrase, “war on drugs.” Last year there were 6,200 killings in this real war, 1,600 of them in Juarez. This year is already much more bloody. Texas governor Rick Perry said the Mexican violence is the most serious problem facing his state. He has pledged to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops in El Paso as a counterpart to the Mexican buildup across the border.

Make no mistake. Drug trafficking has long been a way of life and livelihood in Mexico. The marijuana trade flourished in western Sinaloa province relatively undisturbed until the early 1970s. Cocaine began to flow from the factories of the Colombian cartels in the 1980s, and Mexico’s porous thousand mile plus land border soon became the smuggling route of choice, even as U.S. drug fighters focused on capturing the ships and small planes heading for Miami and New Orleans from Panama and a dozen other venues in Central America. (I documented the flow of drugs coming through Panama, in my book about General Manuel Noriega — "Our Man in Panama." The drugs were a trickle, viewed from today’s hindsight, but led to the invasion of Panama in 1989, still the largest military action by the United States in Latin America since to World War II. )

The Sinaloa traffickers fanned out along the border to take advantage of the far richer profits from cocaine, and formed cartels of their own. At first the fighting was internal. The estimated $10 billion per year at stake in the Mexican drug business is serious money to fight over. The ex-Sinaloa gangs fought among themselves, for control of Tijuana, Guadalajara and Juarez, and to beat back the encroachments from the eastern cartel, known as the Zetas, who controlled access to the U.S. through the Gulf of Mexico and the Texas cities of Laredo and Brownsville.

Previous Mexican governments made no more than half-hearted efforts to interfere with either the trafficking or the internecine carnage. That changed two years ago when President Felipe Calderon took office. He took a stick to the hornet’s nest, purging corrupt police officers and mobilizing a force of 40,000 soldiers to try — still unsuccessfully — to regain control of the border area.

The drug cartels have struck back with firepower, ferocity and terror tactics that are unprecedented anywhere in Latin America, even in Colombia of the 1980s. For the first time, the battle is predominantly military, with police and political forces on the sidelines.

Calderon’s campaign has been well received by official Washington, which may explain the curiously bland reaction to the escalation of the past few weeks. "The increase in violence may be due to the success of President Calderon's aggressive anti-crime campaign,” declared a report on international narcotics control sponsored by the State Department.

But Calderon has batted aside the flattery and directed what can only be described as seething anger at the United States, whose limitless appetite for illegal drugs is the source of the problem. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, he pointed to another conclusion of the same report: that 95 percent of the killings related to the drug wars were committed with weapons obtained in the United States, many of them military assault weapons legally purchased from gun stores taking advantage of Texas and Arizona’s toothless gun sale regulations. (A New York Times investigation of the north-to-south gun trafficking reported there are 6,600 gun dealerships ranged along the border, many of them operating out of private homes, to sell to cash-flush Mexican gangsters. )

"I'm fighting corruption among Mexican authorities and risking everything to clean house, but I think a good cleaning is in order on the other side of the border," Calderon said.

That Calderon will prevail is far from a forgone conclusion. Among the pessimists are the top intelligence analysts at the Pentagon. They issued a report in early December drawing parallels between Mexico and — alarmingly — Pakistan.

The report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command predicted that the military offensive by the cartel’s armies could bring about “a rapid and sudden collapse" in Mexico. Such a “failed state” scenario would be a military challenge to the United States. It concluded: "Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.”

If the drug traffickers were Marxist guerrillas, what is going on in Mexico would already rank in body count above many of the political “revolutions” in Latin America. More than Cuba; comparable to Nicaragua.

The question is: Can the U.S. do anything to stop Mexico's drug war, or to affect its outcome, even if it musters the will to try?

Other recent GlobalPost dispatches from Mexico:

Mexico a failing state?

The danger of singing about drugs

To live or die in Mexico