At Large

Civil War By Any Other Name

The bloodletting south of the U.S. border is much more than just another battle among rival drug traffickers.

By 2.5.10

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There it is in plain sight -- a full-scale civil war in Mexico that continues to be downplayed by Washington as just another battle among rival drug traffickers. Treated by the State Department and Homeland Security as simply a domestic criminal problem across the border, this no-holds-barred insurgency threatens the existence of all phases of legal governance in a large portion of the United States' southern neighbor.

The importance of stability in Mexico for the U.S. easily can be seen in the crucial fact that Mexico is the source of close to one million barrels per day of oil imported into the United States -- third only behind Canada and Saudi Arabia.

There is no higher level of terrorism worldwide than that which exists today in Mexico. A conscious effort is in process by the drug cartels to take over the physical areas of northern and portions of central Mexico, replacing existing governmental forms with their own deadly justice. This organized criminal contest now has grown to constitute a form of civil war that isn't much different in effect from what is taking place in the Caucasus, Congo, southern Philippines or even Afghanistan.

How many people have to be killed before the White House will accept the fact that a full scale insurgency exists within this strategically vital country to the south of the U.S. In 2009, the Associated Press estimated drug battle deaths added up to more than 6,500. Just in the key manufacturing city of Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, local officials have reported that approximately 2,600 people died last year in the fighting. In the past three years Mexican official figures conservatively set deaths occurring in this conflict on all sides as nearing 15,000.

What began as turf wars among the six major drug cartels has escalated into a major conflict between governmental forces (police and military) and the several equally well-armed organizations of the narcotics monopolies. And here is where further complications are added, for it repeatedly has been reported that uniformed soldiers have been active as drug cartel enforcers. Other press reports indicate battles between the local police and soldiers for control of given smuggling routes. The stories of cartel, police and military interaction run the gamut from business-like to bizarre.

Law enforcement sources in the four American border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California are unanimous in their intelligence concerning the character of the war itself. All agree that the brutality of the fighting where few are left wounded is matched by the bestiality of the drug cartels' methods of interrogation and revenge. Beheadings and body mutilation are now the norm. When a federal police officer was exposed by name after he was killed during a raid, his entire family -- wife, children, and parents -- was assassinated as a lesson to other federales.

President Felipe Calderon has decided that the local police forces cannot be trusted and that their collaboration with the drug cartels can be stopped only by their removal. His announced aim is to replace all the local police with state police, who are presumably less vulnerable to cartel blandishments and coercion. This means creating 32 major police instruments (31 states and Mexico City) to carry on the current jurisdiction of 2,022 municipal entities and their 160,907 town and city cops.

The physical and legal challenge of this strategy requires a congressional mandate and subsequent hiring and training program of enormous size. It is planned, however, that the better educated of the metro forces will be converted into state police. As 68% of Mexico's municipal police force has only a ninth grade education (according to the Mexican Office of Public Safety), this will be quite a job indeed.

Calderon's objective is eventually to remove the Mexican Army from its internal policing role, which now reportedly occupies 45,000 soldiers out of a total army force structure of 230,000. The problem with such a plan is that the current security cooperation agreement between the United States and Mexico that includes funding of $1.4 billion over several years is heavily oriented to having the Mexican military assume a continuing role in combating drug trafficking.

A new and expensive assistance mechanism between the two countries will have to be created to provide the financial and technical aid the central government in Mexico City needs. Meanwhile, in addition to the 450,000 people estimated by official American sources to be employed directly by the drug cartels in cultivation, processing, and smuggling, there may be multiples of that number indirectly involved. The entire illegal business revenue has been reckoned in the region of $25 billion.

As long as this self-funding mechanism continues, so will Mexico's countrywide war against itself. How long will the United States accept the dangers of having a criminally contested state on its border? 

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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.