Mexican drug trafficking cartels have long fought bloody battles amongst themselves, each trying to assert dominance in the never-ending struggle for turf and coveted drug-trafficking routes. The bloodbath has been spilling into the streets of Mexican border cities and towns in increasing frequency since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and launched an offensive against drug traffickers, deploying some 10,000 Mexican soldiers. The death toll to date in Mexico as a result of the drug wars is nearly 19,000.
With Spring Break, Mexican officials had hoped tourism would rebound, vital to the rebuilding of the Mexican economy. Those hopes were dashed with the recent killings in Acapulco – where thousands of U.S. students have converged in the annual springtime ritual of partying. Some 24 people were killed in and around Acapulco March 13. In Ciudad Juarez, the dead included two Americans, a U.S. consulate employee and her husband and a third person, the husband of another U.S. consulate employee.
A travel alert, issued by the U.S. State Department March 13, 2010, warns U.S. citizens of the serious dangers and risks involved in travel to Mexico. The U.S. Embassy advises citizens to delay unnecessary travel to parts of Michoacán, Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua, and for U.S. residents in and around those areas to exercise extreme caution.
The alert advises that Mexican drug cartels are engaged in violent conflict – among themselves and with Mexican border security – for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican military troops have been deployed throughout the country to combat the violence. The alert reports that large firefights have erupted across Mexico, but occur mostly in northern Mexico, including Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Chihuahua City, Nogales, Matamoros, Reynosa, and Monterrey. Travel restrictions in the states of Coahuila, Chihuahua and Durango have been implemented as a result of recent assaults, kidnappings and murders in those three states.
Travelers on the highways between Monterrey and other parts of Mexico to the U.S. have been targeted for robbery and violence and often have been caught in the gunfire between drug traffickers and Mexican law enforcement.
The situation is of particular concern in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 2,600 people were killed in 2009. The recent upsurge in violence has prompted the State Department to advise all non-essential travel be curtailed to the Guadalupe Bravo area east of Ciudad Juarez and the northwest corner of Chihuahua State including the city of Nuevo Casas Grandes and surrounding communities. These areas are often reached through the Columbus, New Mexico and Fort Hancock and Fabens, Texas points-of-entry – and U.S. citizens have been the victims of drug-related violence in these areas.
The travel alert cautions that the situation in northern Mexico remains fluid, and urges Americans to be alert to safety and security concerns when visiting the border region.
Mexican Drug Cartels
A decade ago there were four major drug cartels in Mexico. Today, according to Mexican officials, there are at least seven. The two most powerful are the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels. The Gulf cartel controls one-third of the narcotics shipments to the United States.
The Sinaloa cartel is based in the drug-rich Pacific state of the same name. Its leader is the billionaire Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who has been on the lam and rarely seen since his escape from a maximum security prison in 2001.
Others include the Zetas, La Familia, Beltran Leyva and two others. The Zetas is a gang composed of Mexican Special Forces soldiers originally hired by the Gulf cartel as muscle in the 1990s. Today, the Zetas are a separate cartel.
A duopoly, known as The Company, was formed by the Gulf cartel and the Zetas. During the past few years, The Company controlled drug trafficking along hundreds of miles of terrain at the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border. The powerful duopoly moved tons of marijuana and cocaine through the border city regions, each managed by a different boss.
The Pacific states of Guerrero and neighboring Michoacán are under the control of the powerful La Familia cartel.
Many Cities Not Safe
A 200 mile stretch of border has become total chaos after the recent weakening of the rivals’ alliance. In Reynosa, a border city and others along the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border, bodies are piling up. Several journalists are missing or dead and the streets are deserted after dark.
The Mexican Army 8th Division has had a presence along the border cities since 2007. Recently, they have found evidence of drug gangs escalating violence along this stretch of the border.
From the Mexican border cities stretching from Matamoros near the Gulf to Nuevo Laredo, gunfire occurs daily. At least 49 people have been killed in less than six weeks. Drug rivals set up vehicle checkpoints – searching for their rivals.
The Pacific coast city of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas, have long been wracked by gang warfare between rival cartels. But others were relatively calm under the duopoly of The Company.
In the midst of the recent explosion of drug-related violence, the Gulf, Sinaloa and La Familia cartels have apparently united against the Zetas. This rift among the cartels has intensified violence along the border as rivals fight for turf control and drug trafficking routes.
Violence against journalists has led them to censor themselves – for fear of reprisals from drug cartels. This leaves the people to sort out the facts from the maelstrom of rumors. Citizens have resorted to tweeting each other to warn of the latest gunfire and what streets to steer clear of. Even Reynosa officials have set up a feed on Twitter.
Other news reports tell of gang cartel hit men, based over the border from Texas, paying reporters $500 a month and showering them with prostitutes and liquor to quash all reports of turf war and killings. This news blackout has resulted in little media coverage of the carnage in the area over the last month, despite more than 100 deaths.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says cartel attacks have made Mexico one of the most dangerous countries for media. At least 24 journalists have been killed since 2006, according to CPJ.
What’s happened is that people in and around Reynosa are staying in their homes at night. And city officials lament the fact that Americans aren’t crossing the border to shop in Reynosa anymore.
In Mexico – Criticism over Supposed Favoritism of Sinaloa Cartel
Despite Mexican President Calderon’s declarations to end the bloody drug cartel-related violence, critics contend that the government’s efforts are directed toward all other cartels, leaving the Sinaloa cartel pretty much alone. Some critics intimated Calderon wanted Sinaloa to emerge the winner in the drug cartel battles because they would be easier to negotiate a truce with. But Calderon has repeatedly said he would never negotiate with drug traffickers.
In a story reported by the Los Angeles Times in February 2010, President Calderon finally responded to the allegations, which had been circulating for months. He said the accusations were totally unfounded and that the Mexican government is “attacking without discrimination all criminal groups in Mexico.” He then listed the names of some Sinaloa cartel members who have been captured or killed, including El Teo (Teodoro Garcia Simental, who reportedly melted his victims in vats of lye), captured in January, and Vicente Zambada (son of a top Sinaloa cartel leader), who was extradited to the U.S. in early March.
In the U.S. – Southwest High-Tech Border Security Fence Problems
The combined physical and electronic security fence was supposed to be the capstone in a 2,000-mile Southwest border fence designed to keep our borders safe. It was a great idea, but so far it isn’t working. That’s the assessment of many, including officials of Homeland Security, the department which authorized the ambitious project with Boeing in 2005. Technology has cost about $20 million thus far, and Homeland Security officials and contractor Boeing remain hopeful that a much-improved high-tech system will evolve.
Key questions are whether the system, originally expected to be completed in 2011, will ever be completed at all, and, if it is, will it work? Some officials say it may not be ready for another seven years, if ever. At present, the system languishes in the testing phase in two remote spots in Arizona on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The components of the high-tech system include sensor towers, communications relay system and unattended ground sensors. But there have been serious system failures and repeated delays. The state-of-the-art system has been bogged down with radar clutter, blurred imagery on computer screens, and satellite time lapses that allow drug smugglers and undocumented workers to slip past U.S. law enforcement officers.
The goal remains just that, a goal. Border security must be implemented, and it will necessitate the use of technology. At issue now is whether this high-tech security fence will be able to protect the entire border and, if not, what will?
U.S. Supports Mexican Government Efforts to Combat Drug Cartel Violence
With the situation so volatile, U.S. officials, including Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, say the U.S. needs to continue to support Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s efforts to fight the drug violence. Already, the U.S. has spent $1 billion in Project Merida to provide intelligence, surveillance and equipment to Mexico. The support does not include troops. Mexico does need our help, but they don’t want our troops. And President Barack Obama has said that we do not want to militarize our borders.
With so much drug-related violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, many in this country worry about spillover effects and other problems. In Texas, for example, wealthy Mexican families have come to the U.S. to escape the violence. But Senator Cornyn doesn’t think there’s any threat of the drug traffickers – who are battling for supremacy in Mexico – moving the violence into the U.S. They know that the U.S. would respond with all its might to quell such an invasion of our land and threat to our citizens, according to Cornyn.
Still, asserts Cornyn, it is vital that the U.S. support President Calderon against the drug cartels. The trade in human trafficking, weapons and drugs must be quashed. This is not an easy task. The drug lords are a powerful and destabilizing force in Mexico and they have more than 100,000 foot soldiers. But Cornyn and other U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that Mexico is not a failed state. Most of the violence is directed at the drug traffickers and law enforcement officials engaged in battle with them.
Drugs, Weapons and Money – the Battle Continues
Fueled by the demand for drugs in the U.S., the illegal narcotics industry is booming. According to the Portal for North America (http://portalfornorthamerica.org/spotlight/2010/02/mexico-attempts-stem-flow-illicit-weapons-us-0), for every shipment of drugs into the U.S., a return shipment is made of weapons and cash. Mexican officials report that 90 percent of the firearms seized in drug raids – including assault weapons – originate in the United States. Once the weapons reach Mexico, they promote the further militarization of the drug cartels.
Marijuana, cocaine, black tar and brown heroin – all make their way along the well-established routes on the U.S.-Mexican border and into the U.S., protected by various drug trafficking organizations. With billions at stake, it’s much more than bragging rights. The violence and the battle continue with not so much as a slight hiatus. In some border cities, gunfire is heard non-stop. Ciudad Juarez has about one killing an hour and the situation is the same in many other border cities.
The U.S. Department of Justice, in the 2009 National Drug Threat Summary, warns that Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States and calls their influence over domestic drug trafficking “unrivaled.” Mexican and Columbian DTOs generate, remove and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually.
One of the emerging trends is the influx of Mexican black tar heroin into lucrative markets in the northeast U.S., formerly the stronghold of Columbian white powder heroin. There, black tar heroin has gained market share and Mexican DTOs have been able to extend distribution farther into the markets because of stepped-up production in Mexico and reduced Columbian production. The Mexican DTOs seem determined to push even further into new markets, establishing more regional distribution centers.
And so, the battle continues. As long as there is a demand in the U.S. for the various drugs supplied by the Mexican DTOs, the drugs-weapons-money cycle will go on. Eradication of the poppy fields in Mexico may help stem the tide of the black tar heroin trade, but that would require serious cooperative effort among various entities – all of whom would come square into the sights of the 100,000+ cartel foot soldiers intent on stopping them.
Beefed up border security – electronic fence or otherwise – is also necessary. So is a continuing and cooperative effort between U.S. and Mexican government officials, law enforcement, and others in devising and implementing an effective strategy to stop the violence. After the recent drug cartel-related bloodbath, Mexican troops now total 45,000 as Mexican President Calderon vowed to do whatever is necessary to stem the carnage and decimate the cartels.
The border wars have been going on for years, but have only intensified since 2006. Although both U.S. and Mexican government officials say that the victims are mostly drug trafficking criminals and the law enforcement officials engaged in battle with them, there is spillover to innocent citizens. Assaults, kidnappings, torture, beheadings and murders are happening to an ever-increasing number of people – not all of whom belong to either drug cartels or law enforcement. Some of these victims are American citizens. The time has come to mount a concerted effort to stop the bloody battle on the border over drugs and money. Without such an effort, the trail of damaged and destroyed lives in its wake in both countries is too much to contemplate or accept.
Can the border wars be stopped? Will they be? Only time will tell.
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