Obama's overtures seek to help a spiraling Mexico

Mexico's drug wars are spilling over into the US, forcing Obama's administration to refocus attention on the border.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Two deputies stood guard outside an apartment where five men were found dead near Birmingham, Ala. The men had apparently been tortured with electric shocks before being killed in a murder-for-hire orchestrated by a Mexican drug organization over a drug debt of about $400,000.
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The Obama administration is extending sympathy and a helping hand to Mexico – something originally expected of the Bush administration but never fully delivered – as concerns mount about the spillover of violence into the United States from its neighbor's brutal drug wars.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano – a former governor of the border state of Arizona – is promising stepped-up coordination with Mexico to stop the southward flow of assault rifles, many of which are imported into the US and then smuggled into Mexico for drug gangs. Calling Mexican drug cartels "a threat to US national security," Attorney General Eric Holder also announced plans last week to enforce a long-ignored ban on the importing of assault rifles.

Likewise, Capitol Hill approved $10 million in President Barack Obama's stimulus package toward a nationwide crackdown on gun-trafficking networks.

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Even the "military to military" cooperation" once shunned by Mexico is growing as Mexico steps up the extradition of traffickers wanted in the US, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said. This coordination can help in narco hot spots like Sinaloa State and at strategic trade points on the border, he added.

"For the first time in many years ... the American government is starting to show more commitment," said Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who launched a war with the cartels that in two years has led to 10,000 deaths.

Evidence that Mexico's drug wars are now affecting the US is growing:

•Kidnappings are a growing problem in Phoenix, local and federal law enforcement officials report, as rival Mexican traffickers fight over smuggling routes and safe houses on the Arizona side of the border.

•A drug gang wreaking havoc on Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, announced publicly it would have no qualms about pursuing the city's mayor across the border to El Paso, Texas, where the mayor moved his family for safety.

•The Justice Department last week announced the arrests of 52 additional people in a two-year operation from California to Maryland that has netted more than 700 suspects linked to the Sinaloa drug cartel.

•Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations have a presence in at least 230 US cities and "constitute the largest threat to the US" in terms of crime and illegal narcotics distribution of all such organizations, according to the Department of Justice's National Drug Threat Assessment 2009.

"There's no question the consistency and intensity of violence on the Mexican side of the border has led to an increase in violence on our side," says Roderick Ai Camp, an expert in Mexico's military at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

Nothing in the US yet nears the level of violence in Mexico, he says. Ciudad Juárez had more than 1,600 murders last year, while its border twin, El Paso, counted 16. Moreover, the cartels' gruesome methods, such as beheading victims, have yet to emerge north of the border.

But the rise in kidnappings in Phoenix is a "particularly scary" hint of what could yet strike the US, says Mr. Camp.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, plans to hold a hearing later this month in Washington and one next month in Arizona on the growing threat from Mexico's drug mafia.

Still, most Mexico experts say talk in the US of a coming "collapse" in Mexico – and suggestions that the US may soon awake to a "failed state" on its southern border as the drug cartels gain strength – are more hysteria than reality.

A recent Pentagon report comparing Mexico to Pakistan is "overblown," says George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

"People are right now on the Metro in Mexico City going to work, the Army is completely loyal and under the government's command – life for most Mexicans goes on," he says.

What he does see are "failed enclaves" like Ciudad Juárez or perhaps the state of Guerrero, where residents have awakened to find the bodies of beheaded police or soldiers in town squares.

But "in the long run," Mexico poses a larger security threat to the US than Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, suggests Mr. Grayson, who has just published "Mexico's Struggle with Drugs and Thugs" through the Foreign Policy Association in New York.

If a stalemate develops – the cartels surviving but not infiltrating the government – the uncertainty could lead to massive migrations to the US, particularly if there are no economic reforms and Mexico's oil well runs dry.

"It's not going to be a big bang," he says, "but people are going to conclude life is intolerable, and the US will be their major alternative."

Some experts denigrate the notion that a restriction on US gun sales can somehow alleviate Mexico's drug war. Focusing on the flow of guns south is a "bogus solution," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

Their vast resources would allow them to get whatever arms they desire, he says. They "make their fortunes operating in a black market involving another product," he notes.

Where America's responsibility really lies is in the acknowledgment that US drug consumption is driving Mexico's war. One of the premises of the Merida Initiative, a long-term, multibillion-dollar plan conceived under President George W. Bush to aid Mexico, is recognition of America's role in Mexico's battle.

But little is likely to change in that war until the US does something to address an illicit market that pays the drug cartels up to $25 billion a year, experts say.

"Cooperation with Mexico on guns and intelligence and taking down smuggling routes is all fine," says Camp of Claremont McKenna. "But we are the only party that can significantly alter the picture by addressing the consumption end of the equation, and we are not doing that."

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