Mexico's Narco-Civil War: Porous and Perilous - The U.S./Mexican Border Situation

The spillover into the United States of Mexico’s drug-cartel wars is straining law-enforcement resources on both sides of the border.  Mexico is rapidly becoming one of the most violent countries on earth, and its federal and local law-enforcement agencies have been unable to stem the still escalating surge of violence.  Meanwhile, the governors of U.S. border states (Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas) are calling for federal assistance in the form of additional U.S. Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops.  

Adding more fuel to the fire is the recently released 2009 U.S. National Drug Assessment Report, which describes the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations as the greatest organized crime threat facing the United States itself. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder even characterized the border violence as a national-security threat.  However, not all Obama administration officials agree with that assessment. NSC (National Security Council) spokesman Mike Hammer, for example, recently told reporters that the ongoing violence “is a concern, but not a national-security threat to the United States.”  

Yesterday (Tuesday, 24 March) may have marked a major turning point in the situation. President Obama authorized numerous sweeping measures designed to stop the violence from further migration northward and to assist Mexico in handling the epidemic of violence south of the border.  U.S. aid to Mexico this year will include $700 million in so-called “Merida Initiative” funding to bolster Mexico’s law-enforcement and judicial capabilities. The U.S. Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury Departments all are committing major additional resources to the southwest border.  The Justice Department will be using more of its own funds and personnel to increase the interdiction and prosecution of cartel activities in the United States through better focused criminal intelligence analysis and better coordinated investigations.

A Major Increase in DHS Involvement

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is assigning more than 350 officers and agents to southwest border interdiction and intelligence activities, according to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor. In announcing the increased DHS involvement, Napolitano said that the department’s actions will be guided “by two very clear objectives:  First, we are going to do everything we can to prevent the violence in Mexico from spilling over across the border.  And second, we will do all in our power to help [Mexican] President [Felipe] Calderón crack down on these drug cartels in Mexico.” 

In Mexico itself, the powerful drug cartels have for some time been openly challenging the Mexican police with overwhelming force and terrorist-style intimidation tactics. Several Mexican law-enforcement officials have been assassinated in broad daylight. Last month, the newly appointed drug-enforcement chief for Cancun, retired General Mauro Enrique Tello, was kidnapped, brutally tortured, and murdered, along with his driver and aide.  Their bodies were found in a stolen government-owned truck parked on the outskirts of Cancun.  

The manner in which the three men were brutally tortured and murdered was obviously meant as a message of warning to the democratic government in Mexico. Tello’s hands, wrists, and knees were broken, and his body showed evidence of having been burned before he was shot – eleven times.  Three months earlier, in November 2008, the state police chief for Sonora was ambushed while entering a hotel in Nogales, a mere two miles south of the U.S./Mexican border.  Chief Juan Manuel Pavon and three detectives were attacked by a number of gunmen armed with small arms and grenades.  The ambush was apparently directed at Pavon in retaliation for recent concentrated and effective police operations against the cartels.  A week prior to the attack, not incidentally, Pavon was a guest of honor in Tucson, Arizona, where he was recognized by the U.S. Marshals Service for his leadership in joint U.S./Mexican fugitive operations.

Mexico’s narco-terrorism violence is a major problem on both sides of the border.  With record homicides reported in Mexico, all four U.S. Border States (and several neighboring states beyond), have been struggling for some time to manage the still increasing surge of violence.  Phoenix, which has seen over 500 kidnappings since 2007, now ranks as the kidnapping capital of the United States itself. Meanwhile, a number of U.S. teenagers, some of them as young as 13 years old, have been recruited by Mexican drug cartels and assigned to “enforcer-killer teams.” Acting on orders from their cartel handlers, these teenagers already have committed a number of targeted murders in the United States.

The Bloody Hands of U.S. Arms Dealers

The criminal activities are not strictly one way, though. Most of the firearms used by the Mexican drug cartels, for example, are obtained through “straw purchases” from legally operated U.S. gun shops.  In one arrest of an arms smuggler, the investigation identified at least nine U.S. residents who were purchasing firearms to supply the Mexican drug cartels. Moreover, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF&E), more than 7,000 firearms seized in Mexico last year have been traced back to the United States. In addition, the United States has been the principal source of cash sustaining the Mexican drug-cartel operations.  

Under the Justice Department’s Mexican Cartel Strategy, the BATF&E is increasing the number of agents assigned to the department’s Gunrunner Impact Teams (GRITs), which are responsible for intelligence-led regulatory and investigative activities designed to stem the illegal purchase (in the United States) and smuggling (into Mexico) of firearms.  In addition, the FBI is increasing the number of special agents and intelligence analysts working out of Phoenix and other southwest border cities to focus on kidnappings, extortion, and public corruption related to the cross-border violence.

South of the border, meanwhile, the Mexican military has responded to the increased violence and pervasive corruption of Mexican police officers and local military troops by stationing over 40,000 troops throughout Mexico’s northern states.  The United States has dramatically increased and improved the activities of coordinated border task force actions involving federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies.  Also, in recent testimony before Congress, DHS officials reported significant increases in the staffing and enforcement efforts of the Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BESTs), which are assigned to the multi-agency coordination effort targeting the drug cartels’ human and weapons smuggling as well as border infiltrations.  

BEST Times Two; COPS & Dollars Also Help

DHS now operates 12 BEST task forces – which, under the sweeping initiatives just announced, will be doubled in size this year (the largest one-year increase in the program’s history).  However, and despite these new DHS efforts, Governors Jan Brewer of Arizona and Rick Perry of Texas have asked the Obama administration also to authorize increases in National Guard support for operations such as those already assigned to the U.S. Joint Counter Narco-terrorism Task Force.  

State governors already have the authority to activate National Guard troops on their own, but a federal activation is needed to make the states eligible for federal funding support.  Governor Perry is on record, moreover, as considering border security, especially during periods of heightened threat, as primarily a federal issue requiring federally funded solutions.  It seems certain, though, that any federal decision to call up the National Guard for border-interdiction operations would emphasize that their duties would be limited to such operations as aerial surveillance, intelligence analysis, logistical assistance, and other support activities.

The sweeping initiatives approved by President Obama and announced yesterday stopped short of committing additional National Guard troops for border interdiction and other operational duties. However, the president still has the option of authorizing additional, and more direct, National Guard support if the new measures fail to achieve a marked decrease in violence on both sides of the border.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense continues working on contingency plans for deploying U.S. military forces to assist in implementing the DHS Southwest Border Violence Operations Plan (SWB-V OPLAN) and Department of Justice’s Mexican Cartel Strategy.  In addition, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Mexico City and Monterrey on a fact-finding mission this week, and both Secretary Napolitano and Attorney General Holder are scheduled to attend a conference in Mexico next week to discuss, among other issues, a number of new joint border counter-smuggling initiatives.  

State, local, and tribal law-enforcement relief also is on the way in the form of up to $59 million in a carryover of Operation Stonegarden funds as well as availability funding support from the $3 billion COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant program. Responding to the funding increases and other forward-looking changes, Yuma County (Arizona) Sheriff Ralph Ogden commented that “The [Obama] administration is realizing how important the border is.”

President Calderón, whose political survival is at stake, also is realizing some progress, thanks at least in part to assigning 7,500 soldiers and 2,500 federal police to strengthen anti-cartel operations in Ciudad Juaréz earlier this month.  The Mexican government has already reported a 70 percent decline in homicides in Ciudad Juaréz, which is just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas.

Finally, after nearly two years of steadily increasing violence among Mexican drug cartels – violence that has bloodily spilled over into the United States – there is national attention being brought to this issue.  Mexican drug-cartel violence in the United States, coupled with the potential destabilization of the Mexico government, is in many respects the Obama administration’s first major test in the interlocked fields of U.S. domestic security and western hemisphere diplomacy. Precisely when the current violence will be ended is still not certain, but one important truth seems abundantly clear: Only through unprecedented bilateral cooperation between Mexico and the United States can true and lasting border security between the two nations be achieved.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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