At Large

Enter the Gringo

U.S. military intervention may slow the violence along the southwest border, but it won't change the fundamentals of the drug trade.

By 4.16.10

Gang warfare has become so intense in northern Mexico that calls for U.S. military intervention are not only heard among the American residents of the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, but now there are press reports that even the drug cartels would welcome such action. Unrestrained mayhem apparently hasn't been good for "business."

On past occasions it was the Mexican Army that became the umpire when the battling had grown out of control. Unfortunately the Mexican military in the border areas of the north finds it difficult to combat these warring cartel factions. Many reasons are given, but none seem convincing.

The attacks on two U.S. consular employees and their families in Ciudad Juarez in March and the bomb tossed over the wall of the American consulate April 10 in Nuevo Laredo once again have brought forth a demand for American peacekeeping intervention within Mexico itself. This is in addition to the now highly politicized demand for National Guard troops to be assigned to border protection against illegal drug and human smuggling.

This is hardly a new issue. The U.S. has been involved in cross border military and law enforcement activities ever since the border was settled with the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 that finally established the American border of what would become Arizona and New Mexico. The border was wide open in 1886 when Lt. Charles Gatewood talked Geronimo into returning to the U.S. from Mexico to surrender to General Nelson Miles.

In 1916 U.S. forces under Brigadier General Pershing invaded Mexico (accompanied by the dashing Lt. George Patton) in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the marauding Pancho Villa. During Prohibition the desert roads were highways for liquor smuggling. Since then the border areas have been the site of a long list of cross border criminal operations.

U.S. military and law enforcement intervention once again in northern Mexico is based on the obvious need for a powerful yet neutral blocking force; it seems to many the only realistic solution. Separating the battling drug cartels and establishing order among the gangsters seems beyond the capability of the Mexican government.

At least that is the view becoming increasingly accepted among ranchers and small businesses on both sides of the border. The killing of long-time rancher Rob Krentz has brought a furious reaction among the residents of the Arizona border areas, and fear of similar incidents now has reached new heights from Texas to southern California.

One would think that with the mutuality of interest that is supposed to exist between the United States and Mexican governments regarding control of the drug trade there would be little difficulty in pursuing effective joint operations. Unfortunately this is far from reality. Mexican prosecutors have been hesitant to pursue cases against the various cartel networks, according to IMF reporting in 2009.

One of Mexico’s best-known crime syndicates is run by the Zambada family. They own everything from liquor stores to real estate firms to a major childcare center in Culiacan that receives funding from the federal social security agency. The Zambada operation was characterized by the former DEA director Karen P. Tandy as "not legitimate business but illegal cash cows that fuel the drug trade, violence and corruption."

The Arizona Republic reported this information in an article this week by Chris Hawley from its Mexico City bureau. The article notes that "many businesses across Mexico are still operating despite being on the U.S. blacklist. They range from a dairy to an electronics store, a gymnasium and a mining company."

The article charges the well-known Collins Pharmaceutical Products, Ltd. as having diverted "meth" ingredients to the drug traffickers, Amecuza Contreras. Large and small firms are incorporated in the illegal traffic of drugs and humans. This certainly is not a target that can be destroyed solely through reliance on military intervention.

The problem that exists for the U.S. and Mexico is more complex than controlling warring drug gangs. Economically the illicit commerce in narcotics, humans, pharmaceuticals and guns, among other things, is a major factor for all of Mexico and not just the northern border regions.

Speculative real estate investment throughout Mexico and the southwest U.S. is heavily financed by drug money seeking laundering. The billions of dollars earned from drug sales acts as a covert current account reserve for the Mexican GDP. Most of the cash is laundered and transferred offshore, but large portions then return to Mexico providing investment capital for manufacturing, construction, and retail development. At this stage Mexico's economy is closely tied to the income from its illicit drug trade.

Increased military presence on and across the border might quiet the murderous conflicts and inhibit smuggling. The drug cartels, however, would greet such action as merely establishing an even playing field for their conglomeration of activities. A broad establishment of law enforcement, social, economic and, yes, perhaps American military action will be necessary even to begin to impede this illegal exploitation of the U.S./Mexican border region.

The simplistic argument for solely a military response just won’t work. Even hard-charging young Georgie Patton would have agreed with that.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.