US officials said this week in El Paso that the Merida Initiative to help Mexico strengthen its security forces and judicial system in their ongoing battle with criminal drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- will shift its focus to Mexico's border states. Other officials defended the "Fast and Furious" Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) gun-running scheme that resulted in weapons from the US being transferred to cartel members.
Somewhere around 40,000 people -- there are no official figures -- have been killed in the violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon deployed tens of thousands of troops and federal police in December 2006 to confront the increasingly brazen cartels head on. Despite the killing or arrest of dozens of high-profile cartel leaders, the flow of drugs north and guns and cash south has continued largely unabated.
The Merida Initiative, unveiled in 2008, allocated $1.5 billion in US aid to fight the drug traffic. Some of that money was destined for Central America, where Mexican cartels are increasingly encroaching, but the bulk of it is going to Mexico. Much of the Mexico funding has gone to the military and different law enforcement agencies, but given that both the military and the Mexican police are deeply compromised by cartel corruption, it is questionable whether throwing more money at them will accomplish much.
Now, said US Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs assistant secretary William Brownfield in remarks reported by the El Paso Times, the emphasis will shift to Mexico's border states and their state and local police forces. That would be the best way advancing the goals of the initiative's four pillar strategy of disrupting the ability of the cartels to operate, enhancing Mexico's capacity to sustain the rule of law, creating a modern border infrastructure, and building resilient communities, he said.
Dallas ATF special agent in charge Robert Champion traced today's horrifying levels of violence not to Calderon's deployment of the troops at the end of 2006, but to conflicts that broke out when the Zetas, former Mexican special forces soldiers turned enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, turned on the Gulf Cartel.
"That's the genesis of where the violence began," said Champion.
Since then, Champion said, gun running has evolved from being a solely a border issue to being an issue as far north of the border as Indianapolis, St. Paul, and Atlanta.
"We now have organized arms trafficking rings," he said, adding that some of them use teenagers to smuggle weapons with the serial numbers erased.
Noting that the number of high powered rifles being smuggled into Mexico has increased dramatically in recent years, Champion felt compelled to defend ATF's Operation Fast and Furious, which has excited tremendous anger in Congress after it was found that guns smuggled in the operation ended up being used to kill a US Border Patrol agent and in at least two other killings in the US, as well as countless murders in Mexico. The operation was designed to track the weapons, which would lead to the cartels, but ATF lost track of many of them, effectively acting as an arms supplier for the cartels.
"We (ATF) were criticized because we only focused our efforts on attacking the suppliers of these weapons and when we wanted to expand our efforts and attack the criminal organizations, it worked out badly," Champion said by way of explanation.
Despite the determined optimism of US officials, others at the conference warned that the situation was deteriorating. Mexico is unable to retain effective control of parts of its national territory, they said.
The situation in Mexico "is starting to look like a civil war," said UTEP political science Professor Charles Boehmer. "Juarez is one of the hottest battlegrounds," he added.
Nearly 9,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Ciudad Juarez in the past two and a half years.
Mexicans are dying to supply the insatiable appetite for drugs north of the border, said Mexican officials. The easy availability of firearms isn't helping either, they said.
"That is what has brought about the violence -- the fight for control of US drug distribution," said Alejandro Poire, technical secretary to the Mexican National Security Council. "It's an unprecedented business opportunity for cartels in Mexico." The availability of weapons from the US has created a cartel "arms race," he added.
The conference featured lots of happy talk about how to win the Mexican drug war, but largely ignored the most radical option for doing so: legalizing the drug supply and sucking out the oxygen on which the cartels rely. That would not mortally wound the cartels, which are now morphing into all-around criminal enterprises, but it would cut off their main source of income. Maybe next year.